The In-between: Home Away from Home (Another Take On Passing)
It was the first Friday in January of 2014 and I was in the Central Business District of Cape Town, South Africa checking out a little street-food fair that was being held around the corner from my apartment. I had just arrived in the country a few days ago, and was doing my best to get acquainted with the city, which is where I would be living and researching for the next several months. It was a beautiful summer day, but not too hot, so I had decided to wear a pair of medium-colored blue jeans, a plain gray spaghetti strap top and some black and white leather puma shoes so that later, I could walk comfortably around the city.
After scoping out the food options, I finally settled on some samosas, which I sat down to enjoy in front of a small statue on the far end of the food stalls. The fair was a popular weekly event and the steps leading up to the statue where I was seated were crowded. From my vantage point I was able to see all of the vendors as they interacted with locals and tourists, and soak up the delicious food smells as they danced through the air.
After a few minutes of people watching and enjoying my late morning snack, a White man in his early seventies suddenly came up to me, sat down, and in one quick movement, slid over to put his arm around my shoulders. Looking up, prepared to fend off the grope that I felt certain was coming, I was shocked to follow his gaze toward a woman of a similar age standing in front of us holding a camera. He smiled and she took our picture before I could even make sense of what was happening, and then, in an apparent attempt to explain himself, he pointed toward his chest and said, simply, “Austrian.” Finally grasping that the couple were tourists who had thought they were stealing a picture with a local Coloured girl, I pointed toward myself and, relishing in the anticipation of his disappointment, responded clearly, “American.”
Last week I wrote about the notion of passing, and how for those of us living in the borderlands between worlds, the threat of non-belonging can bring with it an immense amount of pressure to pick a side. I discussed how, due to our perceived ability to pass (i.e. reject or subvert our minority group identities in favor of acceptance as a member of dominant society), in-betweeners often feel compelled to take up extreme performances of their minority group identities just to reassure those around them that they are, indeed, “down.” The irony is, of course, that such suspicions are never fully assuaged, which means that despite these efforts to reassure everyone of our desires to belong, we are never fully accepted as complete members of the group to which we are performing our allegiances.
This week I chose focus on another side of passing, which is also connected to the in-between experience, albeit in a slightly different context. In Navigating the African Diaspora: The Anthropology of Invisibility (2010), author Donald Martin Carter describes how individuals living on the margins of society often come to serve as a human embodiment of the border between the worlds to which they are connected, and in this way, within them, become both hypervisible and invisible at the same time. Their hypervisibility is most clearly articulated through the anxieties of dominant society surrounding the perceived threat to group identity posed by those relegated to the margins. However, because they are never seen or accepted as complete human-beings, these same individuals who are feared for their non-belonging also become invisible as a result of it. In this way, those in the in-between often experience a duality in their existence that allows them to move freely between worlds; however, as noted last week, this duality is also the reason they are rarely embraced or ever accepted as truly belonging to any one space.
Although I have often found both hyper-awareness and invisibility to be an added weight that limit my freedom and mobility, in certain instances they have afforded me unique advantages that have instead worked to enhance and facilitate these experiences. Thus far, my favorite manifestation of these advantages has been in relation to travel, as it is often assumed that I am from wherever I happen to be visiting. While this, of course, has not been as often the case in places like Sweden or Ireland, in a broad spectrum of countries ranging from Guam to Spain to Brazil, my racial ambiguity has allowed me to float rather effortlessly through a variety of worlds.
Ironically, this presumption of my being a local when abroad has made me experience a strange sort of homecoming whenever I travel to foreign places. Yes, the reverse photo-bomb that was forced upon me by the Austrian couple in South Africa was a highly offensive violation of my space and denial of my rights over my own body and image. However, it was also, in a really fucked up way, an opportunity for me to feel a brief sense of belonging. Not only was I being told through the actions of that couple that they thought I belonged (to South Africa, to Cape Town, and to the Coloured community), but also, for the briefest of moments, I experienced South African tourism from the perspective of a local. Of course, I knew I didn’t actually belong, nor was I in any way trying to “pass” in the traditional sense. However, being in a foreign place where I could momentarily set down my usual hyper-awareness of the obligations surrounding performance and belonging, was freeing. And it was this freedom, facilitated through the invisibility of in-betweenness, that always seems to lead me toward that odd sense of coming home whenever I am away.
Perhaps it is because of this sense of “setting down” my struggle to assert belonging that I have come to find myself most at home in the international terminals of airports. On my journey back to California from South Africa I had a long layover in Dubai, where I spent several joyful hours people-watching from a bench in the middle of the terminal. Sitting there listening to the dense tapestry of languages as travelers passed by, I was struck with the realization that this place belongs to no one. We were all there just passing through on our way to somewhere else, and because of that, we all belonged in the space equally. This transitory location, then, is, in many ways, a physical manifestation of the in-between, which, upon further reflection, is undoubtedly why I continue to find myself so at home there.