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|my brown face||3|
|klaus barbie, and other dolls i'd like to see||14|
|the butt: its politics, its profanity, its power||22|
|the skinny on small||32|
|becoming la mujer||38|
|memoirs of a (sorta) ex-shaver||55|
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|to apu, with love||68|
|fishnets, feather boas and fat||78|
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|food for our souls||96|
|lucy, i'm home||114|
|the art of the ponytail||124|
|mirror, mirror on the wall||144|
|appraising god's property||159|
|dancing toward redemption||165|
|conquering the fear of a fat body: the journey toward myself||176|
|breaking the model||188|
|body image: third wave feminism's issue?||196|
|all-american girls: jock chic, body image and sports||201|
|marked for life: tattoos and the redefinition of self||211|
|at home in my body: an asian-american athlete searches for self||219|
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|about the contributors||229|
|about the editor||237|
my brown face
Next time, I'm going to walk into that warehouse and snap my tongue like a honeyed whip. I'm going to unfurl with grace and fury. I will stand in the dead center of the room, and I will say:
Obviously, you were raised in a goddamn barn. Haven't any of you boys ever gotten near a woman, or was your leash too short? Well, I know you've never come close to my kind because you would know better than to hiss "Hey, Indi" at my passing shadow, or try that where-you-from-baby line with that don't-I-know-it look in your eye. And the next time you see me ...
Welcome to my morning fantasy. It starts about forty feet from my door and continues between Brooklyn and Sixth Avenue, occasionally bubbling to the surface in waves of "goddamn." It keeps me occupied on the subway and preoccupied at my desk, my mind shuffling out the endless possibilities of what I'll do next time. By mid-afternoon I've usually pep-rallied myself into a proud-to-be-Indian state of mind, and by nightfall, in an act of denial or resilience, I've let the whole ritual slip away. Survival of the forgetful.
Worse things have happened in this world, to be sure. A steady tap on my remote control informs me of the multitudes of hell that have yet to befall me. My family hasn't been torn apart by war and disease. I'm not under persecution for my political beliefs, and next to "Mama, Stop Screwing My Boyfriend," even my Ricki Lake potential seems small.
"Mira, you say you feel betrayed by your face?" Ricki asks.
"Yes, I do, Ricki, "I reply.
"And can you tell the members of our audience what that means?" she asks, gesturing to the rows of scrutiny, hard gazes and arms folded over chests.
"Well, every morning, the guys on the corner scream `Indi' at me and ask me what style we go for down there, and some mornings I just can't take it."
"Can't take it. Now what does that mean, Mira? What's the worst thing you've done as a result of this?" Ricki gives me a concerned look.
"Uh, nothing, really, it's a more internal kind of thing."
"Okay," Ricki says, not missing a beat. "Our next guest says she is being poisoned by her six-month-old baby. Give a big welcome to ..."
No, my problem is straightforward and undramatically simple: I was born with a mysterious face. My deep brown eyes and skin, the thick line of my black eyebrows and the slant of my cheekbones have always been described to me as exotic, haunting, elusive. From the day I hit puberty, my Indian-ness has labeled me a box full of secrets, left me wrapped as a package of woman labeled "the other." Why are Indian women mysterious? To answer that question I would have to be outside of myself, claiming a territory I don't inhabit --American, male, most often white. As all outsiders do, I can only hazard a guess, regurgitating the perceptions fed to me: Indian women are quiet, graceful, serene and tranquilized by a thousand blue-skinned gods. We are bent heads looking slyly downward, almond eyes and lotus lips tender with secret knowledge. We are fabulous cooks cloaked in layers of bright silk, bangles dangling in permanent dance from our lithe arms. We are mystery, waiting to be unfolded.
Seattle, late afternoon. The man on the corner is staring at me. I can feel his eyes traveling up my leg, over my stomach and chest, to my face. A smile spreads over his face, and I give all my attention to the red DON'T WALK sign across the street.
"Hey, you're Indian, right?" he asks in greeting, stepping in front of me. I walk around him and wait for the light to turn. "Hey, what's up, you don't speak English? I'm just asking you a question. Where are you from?"
I stare at the stoplight, the row of buildings just beyond it. I stare at the businessmen walking around me and glance down at my watch.
"What time is it? Hey, what time is it, baby?" he asks. A slow pool of people gathers at the corner, and the man talks louder, laughing. "Hey, girl, hey! What time is it where you're from? Nighttime?"
A quick heat rises to my face, and I watch the cars pass. Two men in suits turn their heads slightly, their eyes scanning my face.
"What, you can't speak to me?" he asks, pushing his face next to mine. He smells like mint gum, sweat and city.
The next time I'm going to look right at you. I'm going to stare into your eyes and wait through twenty lights, and when you are finally mute and embarrassed, I'll walk on.
I wait for the light to turn, my stomach churning, the pulse in my ears growing louder.
"You too good to speak to me? That it?"
The WALK sign lights up, and I spring forward, hoping he'll stay behind. He does. "Hey!" he yells after me. "You don't look that good, bitch."
I've been unfolded to the point of splitting. I've had my lid thrust open, my contents investigated by prying eyes, hands, lips. Concealed in compliments, come-ons, gifts, I've been asked to explain the wave of enigma my country of origin arouses in the minds of others.
Indophiles, my Indian friends call the more persistent among them. "Tell me about you," these men ask, the sophisticated version of "Where are you from?" Half listening as I rattle off about anything but my ethnicity, they nod knowingly, more interested in my looks than anything I say. I can see it in them, the hunger for a quiet woman, an erotic encounter, a spicy dish. Some men don't even bother with the formalities, cutting to the chase. "Indian," a man in a bar once said, nodding to me. Then, by way of invitation, his mouth pressed hot against my ear, "Kamasutra?"
My mother laughs a tired laugh when I tell her this, her voice weary through the crackling phone line. "Oh, men will do that. You're exciting to them because you're something they do not know, an Indian woman."
An Indian woman. I have been to India several times, and I have watched my aunts and cousins with a mixture of curiosity and awe. I've heard their sing-song chatter and loud-mouthed gossip, watched their deft fingers plucking endless batches of coriander leaves. And while they've never consciously excluded me, my ear cannot follow the lilting mother-tongue conversations, my laugh among them is much too loud. They teasingly call me a tomboy and warn that I may end up marrying my truck, a possibility that repulses them as much as it excites me. Simply put, our graces are instinctually different. My bones and flesh hold the precious truth of a history I can claim more in blood than in experience.
Funny that some men can latch on to a part of me I'm still trying to locate. My brown face has made me the recipient of numerous gifts and cryptic cards, mostly from guys I've met in passing. Broken bird wings, wire necklaces and wine bottles filled with rose petals have all found their way to my doorstep, fervid notes tucked under the windshield of my truck. I once opened up a cardboard box to find shattered mirror pieces glued in careful mosaic inside, my own shocked face stating back at me.
Oh, but those gifts were fun when I was younger, in my teens. Just the thought of some stranger thinking enough of me to plot a course of action had me strutting around like a movie star. I rode the drama bull like a rodeo queen, fancied myself a connoisseur of the slightly deranged and obsessed. Heady stuff--all that desire and frisson, electric connection given in doses. I floated outside my body in a state of awe, imagining something in my very soul conducted the energy around me, leading guys to do things they had "never done before" or "felt before" or "dared to think."
The shift from arousal to fear is as hard to pinpoint as it is unmistakable. As I grew older, these gifts were less appreciated, received on days when I needed to stay in my body and be unaware of it. I couldn't understand the loaded intent behind the presents, and instead I began to realize what was being taken away. That old junkie craving for unseen passion left suddenly, replaced by the certain knowledge that these men were not reacting to me, to my mind or words or wit, but to my face, my brown face.
In Denny's, crying to my best friend Laura over coffee, I struggle to keep my eyes averted from the man in the corner, to answer her questions.
"Did you just hear me?" she asks.
"No. Yes. I can't concentrate, that man is watching me. Don't turn around and look." The man stares straight at me with such a force I wonder if I don't know him. I feel his eyes hotter on my face with every word I say, my voice fading as I realize he isn't going to look away. I'm embarrassed that he can see me crying, embarrassed that I can't concentrate. Relieved when I see him get up to pay his bill and walk out, the pinch in my throat loosens, and Laura and I can finally talk.
Our conversation comes to an abrupt halt when the man returns half an hour later with earrings in hand. Two silver Egyptian pharaohs dangle in my blurred line of vision as he announces, "I've been watching you all night. I don't know much about India, but I thought these would look nice on you. I had to get them for you." He searches my eyes with brooding intensity, as though we've just established spiritual connection over my Grand Slam breakfast combo. "If I give you my number, will you call?"
If I give you a black eye, will you take it and leave?
"She's upset," Laura says, her head shaking, eyes wide. "She's crying." The man ignores her, pressing a piece of paper into my palm. "My name is Gil. I think you should call me. You know what I mean." He gives me one last penetrating look, spins on his heel and walks out the door.
God bless my heart of darkness, I think I've stumbled upon a Colonizer Syndrome. It takes seemingly normal men and causes them to lose their minds with brash abandon. It's jarring enough to be snapped in and out of one's body, a phenomenon most women grow accustomed to through experience, resilience. Being sexualized has the remarkable effect of erasing even the most introspective of moments, leaving a woman utterly aware of nothing but her body, while at the same time making her a spectator of herself. But while every woman I know has been cat-called enough to land up on that hot tin roof, or yanked off her train of thought by some whistling dimwit, my brown face pushes me into the region of the unknown. I am left in a place uninhabited by white sisters, mothers, wives, where common courtesy takes a back seat to wild inspiration. I am uncharted territory, ripe for the conquest.
Hearing the word India from a stranger leaves me feeling naked and raw, as though something sacred in me has been cheapened through exposure. The word becomes insulting rolling off certain tongues, the poison of intent harder to trace back to "Pssst ... Indi" than it is to "nice ass." It's harder to yell back at.
But that's what we're known for, we Indian women: bent heads and shut mouths, quiet grace, the Eastern-girl works. I've seen it so many times before, grown up with it hanging over me like a shadow I would eventually step into and unwillingly claim. Men used to follow my mother through the supermarket, mesmerized at the vegetable court, drooling through the detergents. They drew hearts on her palm at the city dump and made her promise not to wash them off before they let her pass through the gates, curiously blind to the rest of her cargo--me and my brother. They chatted with her at our soccer games, small talk leading to a rush of questions. "Where are you from? You're so unusual looking. You're really quite beautiful ..." this last part said with a furtive glance in her direction. "India," she would mutter, looking away, a cool weight pressing an invisible screen over her eyes. The same heaviness dulled her eyes sometimes while she cooked or, later, in our nighttime bath ritual. It was a look that hung between boredom and frustration, a thin pulse of anger running through it. But my mother never said anything to these men, who would wait for a thank you, a smile, some sort of acknowledgment. "Why don't you ever smile when people tell you you're pretty?" I asked her once, embarrassed by her rudeness. She never answered me either.
Was she weak? Submissive? Clueless? I can't say that about my mother, She of the Wicked Wit and Ever-Dicing Tongue, an Indian version of a pistol-packing mama, sharpshooting and ready for any showdown. In my house, we know my mother is angry when she yells and, worse, disdainfully apathetic when she is silent, leaving us to boil in our own stew. But the intent behind my mother's deadly quiet, a calm I've seen replayed across the features of many of my other female relatives, isn't often recognized by American men. It's our faces, and our supposed mystery, that they tap into.
My late-teens realization about the powers of mystery, or lack thereof, was followed by the keenest silence my lips have ever observed. Just the mention of my "exotic looks" could shut me up for days on end, a phenomenon previously unwitnessed. Yet contrary to my hasty logic (mute girl = bored guy), my silence only perpetuated the enigma, adding the brute element of interpretation. "I think you're avoiding me," I heard at parties, often only hours after being introduced to a guy. "You're scared of our connection, right? I know you can feel it. I felt it the minute I laid eyes on you." And here it was again, the bond, the miracle, the connection associated with my face, the need to be led into whatever temple I had available. I saw desire thrown back to me in fragments of Taj Mahal, Kamasutra, womanly wiles. I felt my body turn into a dark country, my silence permission to colonize.
Next time, I will undress in the middle of the room. I will show you the scar of nightmares on my inner thigh and tuck my vision behind your eyelids. This is what you will remember when you wake sweating at night: the sickened Braille of my skin, the emptiness behind my eyes, the blindness of your desire.
Battle tactics--swing hard and low, use the force of motion. My brother taught me that around the time he bought me a thread bracelet for "protection against freaks." I have a mediocre right hook and a prize-fighting tongue, and at age twenty I storm the fort, beginning an all-out war against anything mysterious in me. I begin to talk. Really talk. From the moment I encounter a man, my mouth becomes a vicious running motor, spewing forth indelectable information at a rapid pace. Pauses, silences and ever-sneaky meaningful-eye-contact moments become the perfect stage for an update on my bowel movements and skin abrasions. I curse loudly and often enough to leave me free of a docile stereotype. Too much information becomes my best defense against mystery, rattling off my own lid and investigating my contents in front of anyone who dares to watch. Laden with the ammunition of bodily functions and lewd neuroses, I wreck any sacred shrine I could possibly hold inside me, leaving both me and my audience standing in awkward rubble. With each demolition I am chatterboxing, punching behind my words, swinging fast and hard into conversation with my vicious tongue. With each demolition I am breathless, tired, terrified of being caught off guard.
"I can't stop talking," I confess to Laura over the phone. "I never know where the conversation is going to go." I was exhausted, bone bitten, weary of any man I met, on edge with those I already knew. Every part of my body had been itemized into comedic value, and a mere glance would set me smacking any tender portion into a window display, a caricature.
"I know," Laura said quietly. "I'm worried about you. I don't recognize you sometimes." I was hardening inside, a thick callus growing over my ribs. Any hint that I might soften for a minute, crave something kind, threw me into a panic. I knew she was right. I had become no more than a jumble of body parts, a facade raised in perfect opposition to the white man's Indian woman. "I don't recognize me either," I told her.
And that may be the one sticky truth I have to hold on to: I am not so easy to recognize. I am not so easy to taste, to sample or to know. But this truth, far from being an elusive beckoning to an outsider, or one last boundary for the brave to cross, is a mystery that is only mine. It's the puzzle of how to let myself evolve in a world that will never stop assuming my identity.
In trying to be anything but a brown face, an exotic myth, I almost lost the best part of who I am. I dissected myself into a jumble of Indian and American parts, deeming all things Indian as seductive and weak, and trying to find salvation in being an untouchable "lewd American." And yet, after all of my talking and muting, and general abusing of my body, nothing outside of me had changed. Even if I had opened my mouth and poured every last bit of myself into shifting perceptions and the rest of the cosmos, I was, am and will always be seen as "an Indian woman." So the terror for me is also the one realization that offers me hope: I can't change the reactions that my face triggers. It's not my battle to fight.
I also know that my Indian woman isn't the shared secret some men imply, with their hissing "Indis," their darting eyes and spice-hungry lips. She isn't the love of curry or the cool crush of silk beneath greedy palms or "chai tea" served redundantly and by the gallon at Starbucks.
My Indian woman is a work in progress. I find her in the grumbling of my daily subway commute, in the damp green smell of coriander leaves and in late-night drives in my track. She resides in the thousand small deaths my parents lived through to part from their mother country, in the survival skills they have taught me and in the legendary powers of silence. My Indian woman is not the history of submission, but the history of resilience, of beginning again. It's this woman who is at the center of me, the one the men on the street will never see: this woman who is simultaneously on fire and rising from the ashes.
Posted September 19, 2000
well, to say this book is a good book you are a 100% right. I loved the way it focuses on how people had made mistakes and corrected them. It is a grand book for children 12 and older I hope it becomes a 5 star Book!!!!!!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.