So yesterday I roamed around downtown Amman, or Wasat al-Balad. Before I had even gone, I looked at this online magazine 7iber, which has a kick-ass events calendar (but of course the whole website is in Arabic, so I had to use Google Translate and read things in broken, Google-translated English. Yippee). There was something about an open house for an art space/creative residency program called Spring Sessions. Basically they developed projects that looks at the urban development in downtown Amman, whether it’s using videography to comment on the class system, using street noises to create abstract oral histories, or even using ethnography to look at the different populations that have or is still currently inhabiting Amman’s downtown area. They were also gonna have music performances (which ended up being amazing, see pics below. Maybe I’ll try to upload some of the videos I took).
I found the name of the place I need to go to, the street name just in case, and I made sure I memorized its facade and its surrounding stores. I hailed a cab and told him I needed to go to downtown Amman, Saadeh street. He knew where it was right away. I was relieved but also slightly concerned. “Is he really taking me to the right place though? This seems wayyy to good to be true.” It was. I stopped in front a hotel in Amman’s 5th Circle, not where I was going (turns out there’s another Saadeh street, which is on the 5th Circle, and according to people, that was also downtown). No one in the hotel knew where I needed to go or spoke very good English. So I decided to hail another cab and go to the downtown area I was familiar with, near the Roman Theatre (turns out later when I got home, I found out that the place I needed to get to was called Wasat al-Balad. Well now I know). As we approached, he asked me something in Arabic. I panicked. “I don’t understand, I can’t speak Arabic well,” I said in Arabic with a pretty convincing accent (thank heavens I spent all those years reading the Koran and learning how to write and say things in Arabic, despite understanding next to nothing). The driver smiled knowingly. He dropped me off near the market and said “Welcome to Jordan” with a warm smile. I smiled awkwardly and thanked him repeatedly in Arabic. I’ve been here for two weeks and of course I’m still about as green as the emerald calf-length skirt I wore that day.
So there I was walking around Wasat al-Balad alone, with my canvas bag on one shoulder and camera bag on another. I ended up finding where I need to go after walking around for like 10 minutes. Despite it being quite warm, I wore my cotton cardigan anyway. I figured better to be sweating lightly on a cool fabric than to not cover up and get roasted under the sun. Also, I’m a woman traveling alone. Covering up would probably be wise.
But of course, it was wise yet in vain to some extent. As I walked along the streets, so many interesting humans passed me by. The sight of jewelry and bags and fabrics. The smell of Arabic coffee and homemade perfumes from the shops and the fresh fruit from the juice stands. The sweaty foreheads and cackling kids and honking cars. SO many things to take in. Unfortunately for me, I was an interesting sight to many of these people too. As I walked by, shielding my eyes behind my dark sunnies, catcalls and wolf-whistles and sizing looks were thrown at me. A few of them actually made hearts with their hands and tried to serenade me (I know right). Of course there were a lot of “well hellos” and “good afternoons” and all that, but you know the interesting thing? There were A LOT of “ni hao”s and “annyeonghaseo”s and “konichiwa”s. Like a lot, a lot. Like a shit ton. Like where is this even coming from? I mean of course needless to say, I don’t have anything against those languages and cultures but it felt…weird (an understatement, everything was pretty much harmless but just mildly annoying. OK maybe more than mildly. Like really annoying). It felt weird (and offending too to some degree, but mostly weird) to be stereotyped to a culture that is, yes, part of the larger ethnic group I’m in, yet at the same time not a culture that I belong to.
Let’s look at the racial context here. Yes I’m gonna bore you with this. This anthropology stuff is really fascinating to me, let’s break it down. I’m Asian. I’m Southeast Asian. I’m Indonesian. I’m Sundanese, one of the second largest ethnic group in Indonesia after the Javanese. When you look at it from a race (genetics) point of view, Native Indonesians are of the Mongoloid-Australoid race. Mongoloids are thought to populate Southeast Asia (Burma, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Brunei, and the likes), Siberia, the Arctic, parts of the Americas, the Pacific Islands, and small parts of South Asia (India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and all the “Stan”s). Australoids, on the other hand, populate Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, New Guinea, Melanesia, the Indian subcontinent, and some parts of the Middle East. But linguistically, Sundanese people like myself are of Austronesian origins, a language family spread through Southeast Asia, Madagascar, the Pacific, and continental Asia. So a bunch of different things.
Then of course, all that background is just me, one person from one ethnic group. Indonesia has over 200 million people and over 300 ethnic groups, so you can’t really typecast anyone there into a certain race, and everyone has vastly different ancestries. But I guess to put it in shorter terms, I have closer ties to the Pacific Islander ethnic group than I do the Asians of the East Asia (China, Japan, North and South Korea, Mongolia, Hong Kong, Macau). So no, technically I’m not “Asian” as in East Asian, I’m more a Pacific Islander. (Although when you look up “Asian-Pacific Islander Americans,” Indonesia is neither listed under “Asian” nor “Pacific Islander,” so well, you know, #awk for me to be celebrating API Month? Just kidding but not really but just kidding).
Anyway, this is a little off topic but important. For many many years, Pacific Islanders, a really diverse group, is just brought into the umbrella term “Asian” and they want a change. Good for them. Why does this matter? Well because their experiences are different. If you look at Asians, they are socially, politically, and economically more well-endowed, have more representation, and constitute a large population in non-Asian countries. That’s not to say they don’t face oppression and marginalization, but they do have the privilege of being in a group large enough to entail representation, whether in the government, media, academia, what have you. But Pacific Islanders, on the other hand have it different. Even at the UW, they make up less than 1 percent. Many face issues like education gap, large high school dropout rate, which leads to crimes etc. etc. Yet most of their issues aren’t being paid attention to because people think they’re “Asians,” and of course, “Asians don’t have it so bad, right?” (in case you don’t pick up on it, that was /sarcasm/ because wrong).
Now why did I get into all of this shit? To prove a point that I felt I don’t belong to the “Asian” group, and to have like more than 20 people in one concentrated area in a totally foreign country with its own rich history assume an identity to which I don’t belong to feels so weird and kind of alienating. Sure, it’s offensive to some extent, and there’s racial power dynamics at play there and all that, but I don’t want to get into that here and now. The whole thing feels weirder than offensive to me because I don’t look Chinese, or Japanese, or Korean, so under basic logic, I just couldn’t understand it. I could say my name and have people look at me, and they would believe me if I told them I have an Arabic father (though I do not). I have told people in the U.S. that I’m “part Bangladeshi, part Native American” when they asked me “What are you?” (classic.) and they actually believed me. The Palestinian woman who sat next to me on the plane from Chicago to Amman, though she doesn’t speak much English, went out of her way to ask whether I was from India. But never have I ever been under the assumption that I was from Korea, or Japan, or China, or anywhere in East Asia. Of course I have some assumptions as to why this happened, and of course it’s racially charged.
Sexist street harassment’s a universal thing, but I’m sure when it comes to racially charged things, white people and black people and brown people from different backgrounds would experience it differently. I’ve heard of stories of Black folks getting kicked out of a place in Bali because “they don’t like Blacks” or a white couple getting hired to be stand around stores in China and check out the merchandise so people will want to come to the stores because ofc, “Westerners like it.” Notice the different treatments, and try to guess why these things happen. Think of history when you try to guess.
Race as a social construct exists as a real thing, and it’s different in every place. And of course, it’s never black and white, it’s always all shades of grey.
On my first day, one of my editors at the JT told me: “People will be nice, and polite, and rude, and racist. I don’t know why Arabs are racist, we don’t have reason to be. We’re not better than anybody.”
Another one of my editors asked whether I’ve had problems with taxis. I told them I expected a lot worse but felt underwhelmed. The people I talked to or the posts I saw on the Internet said some drivers actually deliberately skipped turning the meter on when they know their passengers are foreigners. I was warned and of course took precaution, but it hasn’t happened to me yet. “It helps that you’re not blond and blue-eyed,” my editor said.
Before I left Seattle, I asked a Jordanian-American columnist at the SeattleGlobalist.com. Most of the people I talked to about the experiences of working as a journalist in Jordan were white. I told her I was wondering how different my experiences would be, being a non-white American. She said it will be different of course, and it will be just like in any city.
When I found out I was going to Amman, the chair of the Department of Communication asked whether I had any concerns or questions. I told him I was thinking about how my experiences would be, being foreign to a country, being American, but not a white American. I wasn’t asking him of course, he himself was white and had not had much experience with foreign reporting, but he thought it was good that I was thinking about it.
Well this was one of the ways it was different. It has made me think of a whole lot, especially that the concept of race is such a big can of worms. A lot of people’s always thinking of a “post-racial society,” in the U.S. and probably in other places too. Maybe, I wouldn’t know. But honestly, I feel like the worms, the wounds, the baggage in this can is gonna eat us alive before we even get to the kiss-and-make-up part of the process. It’s gonna take a while.