Unconditionally Self-Aware

I didn’t nestle into the couch this Sunday night thinking that I was old. I mean, recounting the weekend, it becomes kind of obvious. I fell dead asleep on Friday night after two glasses of Angry Orchard hard cider with a shot of Fireball whiskey, collapsing into my bed between two cats and the same guy I’ve slept next to for eight years. In the morning I went into the office to get a jump-start on a sticky new project hanging on a tight deadline, then bought bulk toilet paper at Costco and made mole from scratch. All told, I was feeling like a pretty badass time was had by all.

Then, after the dishes were put away and the laundry was folded, my husband Matt made this brilliant suggestion: “Let’s watch the AMAs.” He secretly watches Fashion Police with me on Friday nights, so I guess this isn’t the biggest surprise in the universe. I put on my ugliest sweatpants, popped open a $30-range bottle of Oregon Pinot, and snuggled up for a night of shamelessly gawking at the beautiful people.

First sign that I’m on a rapid countdown to 30 (aside from not knowing the names of the One Directionals or realizing that “Waterfalls” is almost old enough to drink): As the show opened with Katy Perry opting for silhouettes of geisha and paper lanterns, all I could think about was Madonna performing “Nothing Really Matters” using the same set-pieces at the 1999 Grammys. It was right after everyone in America had finished reading Memoirs of a Geisha. That Halloween I saved up my allowance to buy an authentic kimono bathrobe and try to become Japanese. But here’s Katy Perry, stealing Madonna and my terrible ideas from last century. Am I the only one who remembers this phase?

Instead of feeling a cozy cloud of nostalgia watching the paper parasols unfold, I felt a ginormous wave of shame. Was this what I looked like in high school, making these cringe-worthy “konnichiwa” poses in an outfit that can’t even get the proper specifications of a traditional kimono and obi right?

My mother’s voice (one that’s starting to sound like my own) reappeared in my head after a fifteen-year slumber in my memory banks. It was a week before Halloween, and I was yanking a black geisha wig over my baby-fine strawberry-dyed hair. “Are you sure this is a good costume idea?” she prodded.

“This is perfect,” I said, admiring the nylon buns in the mirror. I fumbled around in my dresser for a pair of chopsticks to stick in the back.

“Don’t you think you might seem a little, oh, offensive to Japanese people?”

“How can it be offensive?” I asked, rolling my eyes in a way that is the 14,348th reason I never want kids. “I love Japan.” And I did. As much as you can love a place you’ve never been and a culture you’re not a part of, from a distance and in hand-selected chunks. I loved sushi. I loved anime. I loved cherry blossoms and Hello Kitty and tea ceremonies held in rock gardens, and to an ignorant white girl in a town with the diversity of a loaf of Wonder bread, that was enough to claim 2,000 years of an island’s history as my own.

“You’re not Japanese,” she reminded me. The words fell though the sieve of my 10th-grade comprehension.

I didn’t have a watershed moment of realization in my path away from being really stupidly, ridiculously racist. The self-awareness came slowly, as I got older and established some semblance of identity. It came from meeting people outside of my tiny, sheltered box. It came from being typecast in a role and battering back into my individuality. It came from living in the world instead of trying to make it about me. It came from growing the fuck up.

The Katy Perry backlash has been swift. Maybe in the spotlight she will have that watershed and tone down the stereotype-spectaculars. I mean, probably not. She’s got way too many publicists and managers to issue fake apologies. But maybe some girl like I used to be will take some of the offense to heart, and realize that it’s okay to have a Hello Kitty pen. Just don’t think you can assimilate and understand another race because you like a few of their tourist trappings. Knowing that much is worth feeling over-the-hill.

3 responses to “Unconditionally Self-Aware

  1. That poem at the end of the Psychology Today article you linked to was strikingly perfect. Similarly, some of my favorite and most interesting comments from this whole thing address the idea of cultural costuming.

    If wearing the clothing from another culture is now considered racist “we should tell all the Asians that they cant wear T-shirts, jeans, and baseball caps, they can only dress in their own historical clothing forever.”

    It is the difference between wearing clothing from another culture and using it as a costume. “Africans get donated clothing from the US so of course they’ll be running around wearing tees and jeans cause that’s all they own. But it’d be different if they wore that clothing as a stage costume. Imagine a foreign performer wearing cowboy clothes with a giant American flag and all the backup dancers eating hot dogs and hamburgers. She might not mean any harm but she IS stereotyping and using culture as a frilly decoration, not something to be admired.”

  2. Funny, I had a somewhat similar moment in putting together my Halloween costume this year. I went as Nina Davuluri, who won the 2014 Miss America pageant–in part because I prefer to have some kind of political undertone to my Halloween costumes (OMG! An Indian girl won Miss America!), and in part because, hey, I’m part East Indian. It was only in actually putting together this outfit I realized that I really don’t look Indian at all, even though that’s part of my ethnicity–and it wasn’t hard to see how my costume could be construed as to some as racist. Doh!

  3. Angry Orchard with Fireball Whiskey is called “Angry Balls,” one of my favorite concoctions.

    In college, I thought I would go as Krisna for Halloween and painted myself blue. I got a bit of comeuppance when two Indian girls turned around and laughed at me.

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