Back to
Photo by Celia Mitchell (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Entry), Indonesia Semester.

Not Always But Sometimes

Photo by Sarah Weiner, Nepal Semester

Not Always But Sometimes: Views from a Non White American Abroad

Not always but sometimes I see myself as different from the rest of our group. It’s hard not to; in our herd of white, I am a speck of coffee brown. Onlookers furrow their eyebrows in confusion, usually accompanied with hushed whispers about where I am from.

Not always but sometimes I find myself answering the question “Where are you from?” with “I’m Pakistani” just to avoid the long-winded explanation that I feel obliged to give when “America” does not seem to be the right answer for people. The more time I’ve spent with such a question, the more I’ve come to loathe both of my options for answers. I feel less associated with either; I was not born nor did I grow up in my parent’s country, and I do not fit the stereotypical image of a person from America. I do not know where I represent and where I fit in.

Not always but sometimes I am proud to not be a “buleh.” It’s a neat feeling to be able to slip through the cracks of being a tourist and roam around freely, camouflaged by one of the few advantages my skin color has brought me. No curious local students bombard me with photo requests; no standing out as someone who looks different. I am not exciting nor am I treated like a zoo animal. I only observe the occasional double take when someone notices my South Asian facial features.

Not always but sometimes I feel beautiful. It’s not a message I encounter frequently back home where I rarely see anyone like myself represented as a pretty person. I notice the Westernization of the Indonesian beauty ideal around the large metropolitan cities that advertise whitening soaps and creams and masks; however, it was in the villages where for the first time in my life, people acknowledged the darker color of my skin with beauty. Witnessing that the idea hadn’t yet been changed in these areas made me feel incredibly empowered yet left wondering when it might shift.

Not always but sometimes I will admit I waited for the person who first asks me whether there are non-whites in America, wide-eyed and confused at my existence. I uncomfortably smile and laugh, before nodding and explaining that there are a lot of us and from all different backgrounds and places. I feel strange describing the melting pot of America, the country with which no one will first identify me with, the country that has a complicated relationship with my parents’ country, and the country that is mine.

Not always but sometimes I think about who I am.

Not always but sometimes I wonder if I would change my story.

Always, I decide, never.