Wednesday, December 9, 2015

But where are you really from?

I love the idea of TED nights. Each speaker brings so much excitement and passion to the table and it is so energizing I could burst! In putting together my own thoughts I ran through lists of ideas that I care about, but uncomfortably decided that I had to talk about multicultural identity.

Can you hear the drudgery already? The topic comes with so much weight that it is daunting instead of thrilling. I’m not colorblind; I don’t believe anyone truly is. I am perfectly capable of recognizing that I look slightly different than the basic white girl. Tonight I want to have a discussion about ethnicity and diversity that isn’t painful for everyone involved; so if you’ll agree to be patient and understanding I will promise to speak candidly and *maybe* (fingers crossed) we can accomplish it.

 Allow me to introduce my parents. My mother is from Colorado and my father from Brazil. And they were fierce when it came to establishing a Santos family culture. We sing happy birthday in English, Portuguese and we sing a third song that my parents learned when they were dating just for kicks. We learned to love my mom’s family by spending our summers in Colorado. There was something magical in the long anticipation of seeing our cousins again and reestablishing traditions. On the other hand we had 6 of our Brazilian cousins, our grandmother, and the occasional aunt or uncle come and live with us for months or years at a time. We are insistent that you eat with your fork in the left hand and both feet planted firmly on the ground. And if you want to win an argument you better be prepared to speak the loudest and the longest. Sweetest of all, my Brazilian father taught me to love America while maintaining a mixed culture. His favorite holiday is the fourth of July and he sings “I’m proud to be an American” with more gusto than anyone you will ever meet. He is quick to express his gratitude for the opportunities that immigrating here offered him. My mother is as patriotic as they come, but it was my dad who truly taught me to admire this country…he also taught me that we wear green and yellow and cheer exclusively for Brazil during the World Cup. It was a different home life and I knew that, but I had no reason to believe that my different was stranger than any other families’ different and in my mind all of these differences still belonged under the great big umbrella of “normal.”

The fun part of growing up is that your ideas must be challenged. Enter senior year of high school. My 17-year-old self was sitting in the lunchroom one day when an unknown teacher approached me while speaking Spanish. I didn’t speak Spanish at the time so I said something back in English; and then the conversation took an awkward turn—she said, “wow, you speak English so well!” In a few words my whole world came crashing down. Why was she surprised that I spoke English so well? Do I speak English with an accent? Does she think I look like I shouldn’t speak English? I came home that day and told my mom “I don’t think people think I’m white!” What I was trying to articulate was I don’t think people perceive me as American, or normal, or equal. It stung. I felt robbed of an identity that I loved. My only consolation came from a Mean Girls quote, “you can’t just ask someone why they’re white.” And it’s true. Sadly nobody cares if you’re white, why you’re white, or where your whiteness comes from. The privilege of being fully white is that this apathy makes room for other things, like identifying people by their interests, their goals, their traditions or a myriad of other filters. Even though I am half white, and despite my parents’ best efforts to create a blended culture I was forced to face the one-drop rule—the rule that children of blended ethnicities take on the identity of the parent of color, in my case Brazilian.

That experience has been followed up with all kinds of uninformed remarks like “do you feel inferior to the other kids because you come from a biracial family?” “Are you adopted?” or “this is my friend Jari, she’s Brazilian.”  Because we’re all close friends here I’ll let you know the answers to all those questions. I don’t feel inferior at all, but hearing that question lets me know when others view me as such. Just because I am not what you expect the daughter of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned woman to look like does NOT mean that I am adopted. And it is never appropriate to use my genealogy to make it seem like you run in interesting or exotic crowds. I am not your trinket. To those of my friends who think that my mixed culture makes me interesting or special, I appreciate your kindness. But please know that labeling me as Brazilian comes with a host of assumptions that I may not identify with. I am not a great dancer, or fluent in Portuguese or an expert on Brazilian foods. Please do not pigeonhole me before I even have a chance to establish who I am on my terms.

The most frustrating part is that this dance of not being American enough is played out with equal force on my Brazilian half. When I landed in Brazil I felt like I belonged. I loved the music, the food, and the unrestrained affection. A piece of my heart had always belonged to that country and it felt at home upon my arrival. However, after my first day of school I heard “your last name is Santos and you look like us, but your Portuguese is terrible.” There was a constant focus on my accent, or American culture, or explaining why I hadn’t been properly taught to understand Brazilian culture. And on we went again. Regardless of country I have always experienced one-degree of separation, making it hard to truly belong to an individual country’s culture.

No matter how many times I hear things like this it never hurts less. The joy and heartbreak of being biracial is that I will never be Brazilian enough and I will never be American enough. No matter how hard I try I will still leave someone disappointed with my partial “otherness.” What I’m left with is the choice to develop my own identity.

If you ask me, I’m Jari. I’m an American who is half Brazilian and half Danish (if you’re interested in my mother’s bloodline). I also believe in a two-parts nutella to one-part toast ratio. I am developing a fondness for camping and hiking. I feel most like myself when I take spontaneous trips. Teasing is one of my favorite love languages. I’m obsessed with continual self-improvement. And I am probably a hufflepuff. I can’t speak for all halfsies or any other “others,” but I can suggest that maybe I’m not the only one who would like you to get to know me for me rather than asking “but where are you really from?”

Thursday, September 24, 2015

25 Golden Moments

Tonight is birthday eve.

I love to celebrate birthday eve because the years are always so good and they deserve a proper send off. Tomorrow I'll try on 26 by heading off to Canada and introducing myself to Niagara Falls along the way; but for right now I'm just basking in the absolutely wonderful golden year I have had. 25, you have been full of precious memories, accomplishments and new experiences. I will remember you fondly. 

I promised myself 25 "golden moments" throughout the year, and here they are:

1. I became an aunt. Lizabeth Charlotte Russ (a.k.a. Lizzy, a.k.a LC, a.k.a. Fat Baby) was born in late October and instantly became my most favorite human. 

2. Thanksgiving: FINALLY meeting Fat Baby in real life! Friends. Family. Deep fried turkey. Swimming with Manatees. It was perfect and I loved every second of it! 

3. I got a job that I love! I work for the Partnership for Public Service helping to develop strong leaders for our federal government. 

4. Everyone should live with people they love. I have roommates that I love. Sometimes this means that I get the +1 invite to fancy work Christmas parties since a significant other is lacking. Swanky monuments cruise with awesome dinner and dancing? Totally worth people assuming that I'm a lesbian for the evening.  

5. Celebrating Christmas and New Year's Eve in Florida. There's just something about breezy Florida winters that lead to crazy Christmas parties, absurdly large bon fires and laughing with the humans I love most in the world. 

6. Visiting Canada. The reason for my trip was heartbreaking, but the people that I went to see will forever be dear to my heart. I love the Lowry family and I am so glad to know that families are eternal. I love their examples of strength and faith. I am blessed to know them. 

7. Traveling Iceland with Julie and my mom. I may have spent a ridiculous amount of time asleep in the back seat of a car but I still climbed basalt columns and I learned that Iceland has four guardians: the bull, the eagle, a giant, and a dragon. 

8. Kayaking in Annapolis. There is no better way to ring in spring. 

9. Easter with my family. Aunty time with Fat Baby and making an assortment of deviled eggs with my mom and sister.

10. A spontaneous trip to Cancun. One Friday in April my coworkers asked me, "what are your weekend plans, Jari?" And I got to answer "Oh, I decided this morning that I want to go to Cancun, so I bought a ticket and I'm flying out after work." It was the best weekend decision I think I've ever made. 

11. I became a very dedicated fan. Two words: Nardo Lilly. My friend Annie is an incredible musician and I have had a blast stalking her shows. You should watch one of her performances here, and then go like her facebook page here. No, but really, go like her page! She is the perfect combination of talent and wit. I adore her! 

12. Touring Italy with Blake, Annalee and Lizzy. A. Italy is just stinking awesome with beautiful things to see everywhere. B. Annalee and Blake are my two dearest friends. If you would have told me 8 years ago that at 25 I would be driving around Tuscany in the middle of the night with Blake, Annalee and a baby I wouldn't have believed that such an incredible trip would possibly happen--but it did, and it was the best! C. Did you know that you can silence and entire block of drunk partiers by whisper shouting "SLEEPING BABY, QUIET PLEASE!" Because you can. 

13. I took a solo trip to Istanbul. I haven't traveled alone since I was in South Africa, and I was nervous. Thankfully, I had a blast. If you are ever in Istanbul I highly recommend you take a Turkish bath. 

14. Spontaneous camping (sometimes trips are better when you plan them last minute). My friend Kyle and I were driving around one Saturday and he asked if I had plans for the evening. I didn't, but I mentioned that it would be so nice to go camping. So we grabbed my roommate, bought some brats and headed out. It was beautiful!

15. Philly! Philly! Philly! I finally made it to Philadelphia! I ran the Rocky steps while a group of men attempted to sing the Rocky theme song, and I ate (and loved) a Philly cheesesteak. 

16. Regular camping. I didn't grow up camping too much, Florida is just too hot for that business. I knew I loved the outdoors and I knew I liked camping, but this year was the first time that I did a lot of it and it was fabulous. I have a group of friends that would draw the envy of Taylor Swift and I loved adventuring Shenandoah with them. 

17. Walk the Moon in concert. SHUT UP AND DANCE WITH ME! This was probably the most fun I have had at a concert since Mika in 2007. 

18. The Fourth of July. Okay, one more camping story. There was talk of an ISIS attack on the Fourth and I didn't want to be near DC if that happened, so I convinced some other friends to flee with me and we took off to the mountains. We roasted an entire chicken for one of our dinners, met a pair of thru hikers on the Appalachian trail, got caught in a rain storm while hiking and puddle fought our way back to our was just beautiful on all fronts. I love being outside for days with friends who are awesome problem solvers and good for conversation.

19. My roommate's favorite band is A Silent Film and I have grown to love them because of her. Then she landed tickets to a secret room concert and we ended up with 30 strangers in a church painted random neon colors for an intimate concert. I was featured on the pear shaped shaker for one of the songs, I can feel my big break coming. 

20. Trail Magic comes to DC. Those thru hikers we met took a pit stop in DC and treated us to Indian food. I could listen to stories of the trail forever. 

21. The Russtache Family Beach Trip. I adore my brother-in-law and his family. I love their senses of humor. I love their kindness. I love playing games with them. I love them for letting me hang around at family events like this. 

22. A new house! Moving is kind of the worst, but living in an adorable house in an awesome town with my soulmate roommates--that's the best. 

23. Once. You should go see this musical right now. It made we want to stomp and holler then cry all within 135 minutes. 

24. Mama came to visit. We have talked about her coming to visit for ages, but she finally made it here! Taking her to Mt. Vernon and showing her around my town was a treat. Now she finally has an idea of all the things and places I chat about. 

25. After three versions of the book and about a year of reading I finally finished reading Les Mis, and it was beautiful. 

Good-bye, my golden year. You have been practically perfect in every way! 

Monday, July 6, 2015

The runaway curse

There was a moment on Sunday morning when the music had replaced conversation in the car. I rested my head on the window and let my brain run through all the disconnected thoughts that it pleased. Right in the middle of reminiscing over the excellent weekend I had just experienced I noticed that the trees were starting to thin. My heart stopped for a second, and I knew I had just been hit with a case of the runaways.

During the previous month or so I attempted to make plans for the Fourth of July weekend. Strong contenders were Tennessee, the beach, Long Island, Florida and staying near the District. Eventually weather, funds, my poor planning skills, a lack of interested companions and a potential terrorist attack put a stop to all of those and mostly on a whim I took up an offer from a friend to go camping. Camping and spontaneity are two of my favorite things; sprinkle that with a few of my favorite humans and this seemed like the perfect plan was the perfect plan.

You know when things just come together? We haphazardly picked up groceries and packed the night before, leaving notes on the door just in case we forgot anything. We still forgot things, but we had the essentials. We left a little later than planned, but we left early enough. There were no decent campsites available when we arrived, but in less than an hour the perfect spot was vacated and we claimed it. We didn’t have enough rope but a previous camper had left some in a tree. It was little things like that over and over the entire weekend.

Not only that, but I was with three of the happiest campers. Let me just tell you what kind of people they are, okay! These are people with fascinating thoughts and incredible dreams. My friends are the kind of people who say, “Yeah, let’s go on a 13 mile hike. It might rain, but we can do it!” They are also the kind of people who get distracted from said hike by conversations with Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. They are the perfect people to get caught in a mountain rainstorm with because they laugh or splash puddles on you or tell you your hair looks nice in the rain. They are friends who sing, friends who are kind, friends who speak their mind. I love them.

I almost wrote that this was a pretty ordinary camping trip, just with extraordinary people, but that is a complete lie. This was a superior camping trip! We built an incredible shelter with just one tarp and by standing on shoulders to make a human ladder. We roasted an entire chicken for one of our dinners. We had a history geek and a bio medical engineer over as guests and they told us about their months long journey on the Appalachian Trail, including a story of being charged by a bear. We even discovered a random Dukes of Hazard themed restaurant in the middle of nowhere and sat in The General Lee.

I live a kind-of grown up life. I love my kind-of grown up life! I have a rad job. I have awesome roommates. I live near tons of interesting sites and activities. But weekends like this don’t let me come back all the way. How can I when the smell of campfire is lingering in my hair and my legs are aching to wander?

I wrestle with the painful yet satisfying joy of nostalgia. My heart aches for a few more mornings that promise a new adventure. I have a case of the runaways and I’m pretty sure they refuse to be cured; but salty air and crashing waves might be what take the edge off for now.