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Journal of Asian American Studies 5.1 (2002) 41-50

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"What is she Anyway?"—
Re-arranging Bodily Mythologies

orathai northern

"Are you comfortable with our people?" Aunt Grace asked me: a question that made her taller by the certainty of her own membership. She stretched our to exclude me, dressing it with southern gravy. Aunt Grace clarified, " I mean, Frances says that Ida's son's wife, Betty [who is white], don't feel comfortable around us"—us referring to the same collective as the aforementioned our. A jury of my partner's elder aunts and uncles in rural Mississippi eyed me cautiously, but at the same time, lovingly; my blackness was on trial. Perhaps it didn't really matter to the elders as they offer sweet potato pie regardless, but it mattered enough to compel the asking. Even though my partner's mother chimed in that I am adopted by a black family, and even though I catalogued a list of immediate and distant family who are black, the initial visual register clung quicker than the sting of the Southern heat. And later that day, the same interrogator lightly remarked, "well, maybe you can give Betty some tips [on being comfortable around black folks]." And I thought, By telling her she should've been raised by a black family? By raising a discussion about the social construction of race? I am in constant struggle around honoring the space and place, the time and generation: the context of the asking; such a query comes from a place of familial security and a sense of cultural coalition, but a place that becomes a proving ground as well.

Traveling through the South, usually with family, brings such scenarios. But, in that instance, I didn't have the convenience of pointing to [End Page 41] a family member for validation. I couldn't simply say, see that's my mama (uneasily deploying the problematic notion that my parents' racial identification necessarily determines my own). I can't bring my parents with me or always resort to a wallet-size photograph as some convenient way to authenticate my racial identification. So I am left to my own rhetorics to battle the Aunt Graces.

But the rhetorical ammunition I carry isn't always enough and it is here that I offer disjuncture, a wrestling between mis-recognition, mis-identification, an uneasy floating between body/ culture/ race/ nationality. This disjuncture opens a discursive space to meditate and offer a critical framework for palimpsests of visual registers and ethnic identifications in national and international locations. Indeed, the compelling force behind Aunt Grace's query moves many of us (sometimes persistently) to ask, Well what is she anyway? A query home-grown in a U. S. context that heavily is predicated on visual registers. However, the moment of response—having to explain and attempt to push certain ingrained filters that most times prove immovable—becomes more frustrating when compelled to question the query.

I offer ruminations to interrogate the very query, informed by travels abroad and in domestic spaces, bearing particular guiding questions: How might we theorize this sense of (mis-)recognition within U. S. visual registers and outside of national borders? What are the multiple levels of translation in shifting visual economies, or, translations of disparate bodily imaginations? How are the bodily mythologies in the semiotics of nativistic discourse of other countries resonant with the semiotics of U. S. racial discourse? In terms of international travel, what taxonomies become elided in claiming to identify with native, inside a brown alibi, given the (power) dynamics of enabled and privileged mobility?

It is this disjuncture that shadows me and inflects the multiple contexts I inhabit. So, traveling beyond domestic borders, particularly into a South/east Asian landscape where I was hailed as native or at least native of a neighboring country tweaks the identity politics I have fashioned in this U.S. context. A recent trip to Thailand and India refracted the limits and the possibilities of self-fashioning.

Last summer I spent about four days in Bangkok...


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pp. 41-50
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