karen shea, captain's log

race, living abroad

Tue, Apr 06 2021


I grew up in Oregon in what might be described as a bedroom community just outside of Portland. When I first left at eighteen for college on the east coast, I discovered a form of nostalgia for home that paradoxically made me feel like I belonged somewhere through the feeling of displacement. For a while that nostalgia was embodied in a long distance relationship, and all of it - the relationship, friends I'd left behind, the rain, fog, and trees, the laid back west coast way of life - was a part of who I was, or more precisely, longing for the place was a part of who I was.

Recently, a friend who still lives in Portland sent me his address so I could mail him some books, and after looking up the address out of curiosity, I found myself panning around google maps: Powell, Division, Burnside, Belmont... Surprisingly, I still recognized the names of the Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants up and down 82nd ave that my family would visit on the weekends between church and Chinese school. Phở Húng, 黃上皇, 金海 - I expected that familiar twinge of nostalgia. But I didn't feel anything. Like when it's late in the evening, but you're still not hungry.

Social upheaval from the past year was the buoying wave that pushed me onto the shores of my own consciousness of race. For many people race remains an acknowledged but nevertheless theoretical concept, and so it was for me until I really let myself look and listen to the voices of the protests in Ferguson and around the country. I did what I always do when I want to understand, I read. And while doing that reading, I was also thinking and talking and scrolling through the endless stream of other people's thoughts, and then my picture of the world started to color in with all the ways race affects us, knowingly or unknowingly. As I learned to recognize the shape of white supremacy and how it crushes the Black body, I sometimes found myself thinking, hey that sounds familiar. I couldn't be sympathetic to the cause without also being sympathetic to myself. The hurt was a hurt I recognized but didn't know the name for. After all this reading and thinking and talking the scales dropped from my eyes and when I looked at what I caught in my hands I found a small glass lens. What a funny tool! What a way to see the world. Old things felt new.

I revisited a lot of memories where I could now see the psychological effects of being a solo and visible minority. One was an early memory: I was five or six at another little girl's house, and we were jumping on the big trampoline in her backyard. She fell. I stopped and waited to see what she would do. Were we going to laugh? She laughed at everything. My thinking went: when I got hurt while playing, she usually just laughed it off, which I didn't think I liked, but I had learned to just laugh, too. I had no interest in the social ramifications of being a crybaby; I probably sensed there were enough social ramifications to deal with as it were. So, I expected us to laugh, but somehow I wasn't certain, hence the waiting. She ran into the house crying, and I took note of when pain mattered and when it didn't.

Watching myself watch for what to do...at that age, I was wholly without resentment, just learning. I didn't know that you could learn to defer to whiteness so early, but I've always thought of myself as a fast learner. Learning fast means you adapt quickly, and adapting quickly means you survive. And now all I could see when I looked back at most memories with these lens was myself surviving, piece by piece, how to adapt in a place that I had deluded myself into thinking I belonged to. I used to tell myself that I would return to Oregon some day, like the Pacific salmon we learned about in school. They migrate to the faraway ocean and then swim back to their freshwater streams, to spawn and die. It occurred to me recently that maybe I feel comfortable in Berlin because it shares a lot in common with Portland: a culture derived from what used to be a subculture, not lacking in rain or dark winters, overwhelmingly white, and outwardly progressive. The survival tactics I grew up serve me well here, too. Germany may be a foreign country, but the way I see it, I was born in a foreign country, too.

It's hard to feel nostalgic for a time of learning how to internalize ridicule, how to redirect my resentments, how to make loneliness feel like the natural state of things. But it's freeing as well to realize that a sense of belonging can only be defined to some extent by geographic location; the rest has to come from our own acceptance of ourselves.