by Wendy Qian
I went to a liberal arts college with mostly white peers. My Nigerian American college friend E stood out for that reason. Her high-pitched, infectious laughter posed a stark contrast with the social scene that championed poised sarcasm. She would part by saying “Toodles!” White boys who heard her bubbly laugh would look at her weirdly or even tell her that she was “loud.” She knew that and complained frequently about the “bro-iness” of our dining hall. She tried to transfer to a women’s college on the East Coast, but eventually graduated from the same college as I did.
I never attempted to transfer, but I empathized with some of her pains. E expressed her frustration with the rigid African American stereotypes. I could relate somewhat because at the time I did not identify as Asian American, despite the fact that people would characterize me as “Asian.” Like her, I had more experience with my ancestral country and appreciated my ancestral culture more than many other immigrant minorities.
I knew very little about other minority groups; luckily E had a lot of cultural knowledge to offer aside from her grievances. Once, I entered the dorm lounge when she was braiding dreads for another African American girlfriend. The intimacy of the event reminded me of when my grandmother used to comb my hair, but this happened among peers. I asked her how often she would braid her hair, and exclaimed at the tediousness of the chore. She replied with a sighing tone, “Our hair isn’t as simple as yours, Wendy, and we have to spend a lot of time tending to it.” I continued to marvel at the speed of her hands braiding extremely thin strands, and I was truly humbled.
Still, there were times when I thought E was too defensive about defining her selfhood. She complained about an event that advised attendees to dress in the style of “ghetto fabulous.” “That’s such a lame title and it’s so stereotyping!” she said over brunch. I realized the irony when she mentioned it—rich liberal arts kids dressing up in reference to a community they knew little about. The media glorified the style and all social classes consumed it, much like the numerous parodies of the “Harlem Shake” in later years. But I still maintained that the “ghetto” style has become a source of pride for people from the ghetto, and she could not appreciate it because she preferred “classy” events and wearing high heels.
I enjoyed her self-assured opinions and witticisms. She knowingly judged Akon, also a recent African émigré, as a “confused man” accepting everything that American pop culture offered. But sometimes this attitude could come off as overconfidence, especially when she commented on other countries. She described her trip to the Caribbean as somewhere she found she truly belonged, where people accepted her rather than put her in a racial category. She reminisced about a time when she bonded with a local, while they made fun of a white female tourist. She looked forward to the same feeling in Brazil—the next destination of her study-abroad plans.
I thought that she painted Brazil in such a rosy color on the basis of sharing similar skin colors. The gangs in the violent Brazilian film, City of God, were not divided by skin color. Unlike the 2011 cartoon Rio, City of God depicted Rio de Janeiro as a cruel and cutthroat place. I knew that one film could not tell the whole story, but I still believed that people living in a place of disparate income inequality would most likely cheat an American tourist, regardless of what she looked like. As a person who grew up in China, I was also extremely annoyed by the romanticization of a developing country. I tried to dampen her hopes by telling her that most people in developing countries need to hustle every day, rather than making her feel at home. She also got defensive and did not take my word for it.
No curse words were exchanged, but the dinner still ended unpleasantly. Both of us rushed to leave the table and put our dining plates on the racks. She did not say “toodles” this time. I posted an angry Facebook status when I returned to my dorm, chastising those who idealize foreign developing countries without understanding the reality. With the poor sanitation and crowded surroundings, those places are not as romantic as one would like to think. Fellow international students responded in agreement, while few American students understood what I was talking about. I did not mention E by name in that status, a common rule used whenever one makes a satirical jab at someone among the Chinese intellectuals. She did not comment on that status, or perhaps realized it was directed at her. I let the thought slide.
When E returned from Brazil, I never asked her about her experience as an act of defiance. By the looks of her crazy party photos, she did have a good time and made friends. Like E, I also enjoy traveling alone and I think back to my harsh advice. I might have been too cynical for E’s taste. Perhaps some tourists do get around better for their ability to blend in with the locals—E may have helped a Brazilian braid his long, dark dreads. I would never know.