I am called “china” quite often during the trip. But it doesn’t really feel like people have an idea of what personality traits a china has or a stereotype in mind (i.e., hot geisha chick, godamn foreigner, come do my laundry and make me chop suey, etc.) when they say the word. It would make me feel quite different, I suspect, if I were to be called any one of those other words. But instead of sounding like a commentary on my personality or an ethnic slur, “China!” seems more of an astonished observation-a “look at that pink elephant” exclamation.
And for that reason, I start to feel much freer in Cuba than I have in my travels in Asia, where the clash of my appearance, clothing, behavior, language skills, and people’s ideas about me cause much confusion and consternation for them, and oppressive feelings of being inescapably foreign and “off” for me. Not to mention the resentment I feel at the white people who claim to have found their spiritual home in these countries where I feel so strange. But in Cuba, if I explain what I am, I am never doubted. I am never expected to act a certain way (in contrast to “not Thai enough,” “not really American, either,” in Thailand; in Japan, “How much are you, baby?”; “Why do you speak English?”). Nor do I feel people scrutinize my behavior to make sure I conform to their ideas about me.
I don’t really speak Spanish, however, and I am only here for twelve days, so perhaps ignorance is bliss. But this ignorance has been liberating in many ways-I am in no position to indulge my Virgo Gone Bad tendencies to be an expert, flog myself for not knowing everything, or plan my interactions with people down to the last detail like I’ve too often tried to do in Thailand and Japan. I’m a fish completely out of water, a “china” out of “China,” finding out that charades are fun when language fails, that when you are lost you often find good food, and that chaotic uncertainty and gnawing fear can give way to a sense of spontaneity and discovery that is, well, brand new for me. I remember a Buddhist term I learned in school-shosin, or beginner’s mind-a state of newness and egoless, clear perception that the beginner has and that an expert should strive towards, a state that I have only started to explore in Cuba because I have no other option.
So even if it is ignorance, it is amazing to feel free of my face even if someone chooses to remark on its difference. And it is yet more unbelievable on those nights when I am walking in just the right light, when I am with just the right dark-haired travelers, when I am wearing just the right clothes, and a Cuban person will speak to me in Spanish, asking the time or how to get to a certain place, and then say, puzzled at my nonverbal answer-“You aren’t Cubana?” When this happens, I am tremblingly happy, ashamed of daring to think that I could be free of my hyphenated self and my privileged American life-a stranger eavesdropping on someone else’s story of home who can just barely, guiltily picture herself a part of it.