AA across borders: My Imperialist Orientalist Frenemy
When I was growing up, I had a frenemy in middle school. We shared the same name, which, coincidentally, was our middle names. An adult once said to me that girls with the same name would never get along, it was an issue of domination and wanting to be unique. We’ll call this girl KGK.
KGK and I got along fabulously at first, but there was always weird tension. In one of the first few weeks that I joined the school, in P.E., she told the gym teachers she couldn’t do the trust falls with me because she was scared I would drop her. Unfortunately for both of us, we had the same friend group, so we were subjected to sleepovers and bus rides to soccer games with each other. Eventually it got so bad that we attended the same summer camp as each other without realizing until we were there. She had her first kiss with a boy I had a crush on, everyone invited me to the school year bat mitzfahs because I was inadvertently a part of their crowd, whether or not they wanted me to be.
And they did not. In high school, I left for boarding school, but KGK was still at the alma mater where we had met (She would go off to another boarding school a year after I did. One time we went to brunch wearing the same turquoise rugby shirt. She was my very own personal oriental imperialist copy cat.) I had called one of our so-called camp friends last weekend because I was in town for a sleepover. He recanted the story to her over AOL Instant Messenger, unaware that I was reading over her shoulder. As he went into detail over how annoying I was, KGK eventually shut the lap top and began to console me. I remember, we were sitting on my kitchen floor, and I wanted to know, dejectedly, what was wrong with me. She told me that I would be so much more popular if I were white. That I was awesome but people would accept me better if I were me, but also, white.
I write about this story because the Indo-Chic reading* brought me flashbacks of KGK. Here was a girl who diagnosed my social issues with a prescription for racial supremacy. But she was also the girl who’s family bought into Asian Cool wholeheartedly. When we were in the sixth grade, I remember she told us all about her trip to India, which she went on because her parents were doctors (!!). We heard stories of the many vaccinating shots she had to get prior to the trip, and how she had fainted in the middle of those sessions. We heard of all the food she ate with her hands, and how at one point she or her younger brother either threw up or spit some of it into what turned out to be an ancient ceremonial vase. The hosts pointed it out afterwards, not knowing that their heirloom had been violated by young white American tweens. (If I had been white and obnoxious, I would have been KGK)
The mentions of North Hampton and it’s consumption of Indo-chic literally made me laugh out loud, because my town has an outpost of Ten Thousand Villages. I will admit that one year, my family bought bindis as party favors for my birthday goody bags.
Which brings me back to the culmination of my feud with KGK and her awkward love/hate-ship with Orientalism (including, of course, her internalized self-hatred masked outwardly by her disdain for my asianness despite our similar personalities).
Among the many many many things we competed over were birthday parties. My birthday is in the May, and KGK’s is in the Summer. But, of course, parties for those born during holidays often fall during the school year, because otherwise no one can attend. Sucks to suck. Anyway, I was kind of like, known, for having kick ass birthdays until a girl got injured during a massive sleepover. Not that year. KGK had an awesome spa day planned at the newest, hippest salon on Newbury Street. (Like, really. This sounds like The Clique except that it was real life, and I am embarrassed to be associated with it in retrospect but I’m almost done so I will continue.) Anyway, this was the summer before I went off to a new school, and so it was a goodbye party for our group of friends, at least temporarily. It was also the last time that KGK and I officially consorted with each other. One of the funtivities of the birthday party was a hired henna artist. If you recall, this was the girl who had become spiritually connected to India when she ralphed in a vase a few years earlier–her henna situation took waaaay longer than the rest of ours. Well, one of the sassier party attendees and I decided to get the Chinese symbol for “old man” tattooed on our left hip bone. Perhaps we were subconsciously rebelling against the commodification of Indo-Chic. More likely I was just being a sassy brat. But for SOME reason, I ex-communicated after that stunt, even though my white partner-in-crime was not. (Until we found out we were going to be summer camp buddies that August!!! UGH!!!!). I guess after all these years, KGK has come to represent the “dark face of globalization” or imperialist overtaking of Orientalism in my life…by which I mean we were in a fight to imprint our own unique identity onto the world and the other’s racial identity was the most obvious distinguishing feature to pit against each other.
* Sunaina Maira, “Indo-Chic: Late Capitalist Orientalism and Imperial Culture,” in Nguyen and Tu, Alein Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian America. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. (221-243)