An 11 hour plane ride almost erases the idea of distance. Initially only the multitude of unfamiliar trees made me feel as though I were carrying a small terrier in a wicker basket and wearing ruby slippers: I weren’t in Texas anymore. The first two weeks of living in Auckland were full of adjusting, adapting, and maneuvering myself to appear as invisible and unassuming as possible. I didn’t realize how uncomfortable testing the waters of a new culture could be. Luckily for me, Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand and it was easy to blend in within the surprisingly international crowd. Eventually, as I familiarized myself with the layout of the city and formed friendships with those living with me, I felt I had a right to own the space I occupied.
Like your last hairpin inhaled into the vacuum, the feeling of validity vanished when I walked into my first class at University: Intro to Pacific Studies. I immediately realized, for one of the handful of times in my life, I was a racial minority in this space of 170+ people. I also realized I had never spoken to anyone of Pacific Island ethnicity before. At this point, I didn’t feel particularly uncomfortable, I simply noticed it. I gravitated toward a group of American students I knew from orientation week. The warm, smiling professor introduced himself and proceeded to discuss typical “welcome to class this is what we’re covering” type topics. As I was listening and taking down some notes, the prof. mumbled a joke in Samoan (I think) to which the class roared with laughter. I was startled by the energetic response and looked around to see everyone around me, save the 4 or 5 American students beside me, was rolling with laughter. I awkwardly laughed along. I laughed for the fact I had no clue what just happened, for the fact that none of my friends did either – but mostly I laughed because at that moment I felt so different and small that I wanted to jump on a bald eagle and fly back to Texas right then and there.
An overreaction? Probably. The regret for leaving my comfort zone was fleeting. It was only for the duration of the laughter that I continued to dwell on my insecurity. I’ve since made many friends from all over the world, a few of them I met in Intro to Pacific Studies. But this whole event got me asking some hard questions of myself.
Why did I notice, the moment I walked in, that I was ethnically different from everyone else? What does it mean that this made me feel uncomfortable? What’s up with this human craving to fit in? Did everyone else notice I was different too?
Does all of this make me racist? … What does it mean to be “racist”?