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I like to think that I am an adventurous person, but at the end of a typical day at Duke, I can be found in bed at 10pm journaling and saying a prayer before soundly going to sleep. I have those nights where I am up past my bedtime, but I am the poster child for movie nights and ice cream dates, not drives around Durham or adventures to Chapel Hill. Here in China, things are different. I keep telling myself that I cannot say no to opportunities because when will I ever be here like this again. Even something as simple as going to the gym is something I (sadly) have never done with my dad, no matter how many times he asks, and yet I was there dripping with sweat with my host mom doing some random dance class Saturday night.

Can I bring this mentality back home?

What is it about life that makes us, or at least me, crave comfort and routine over memories and adventure? Am I too afraid to leave the safety of my own home? Claiming to be ‘too tired’ at the end of each day only goes so far. Especially here in China. We are ALL tired at the end of each day, but will we remember the nights we got 8 hours of sleep or the nights we met up at for karaoke or tea? Even here, I crave routine and time for myself, but there is something special in breaking out of routine every once in a while.

Being within the confines of a routine does have its perks. One being existential questions. For myself, something I have been struggling with is me. Who am I? Like, hello, I’m Nadia, of course, but what am I made of? Not the whole atoms and cells part, but my background. What does it mean to be mixed?

I have had an endless string of people tell me that I’m not “really black”, but what do they mean by that? Is there a correct way to BE black? Just because I’m bad at Spanish, doesn’t mean I am any less Hispanic. Does the fact that I’m Hispanic, though, warrant black joke after black joke? Albeit some are a true chuckle and mean no harm whatsoever, but being in China, of all places, does not make what would never happen in America suddenly okay. Am I only black when it’s convenient for others and I’m Hispanic when they need it as well? Being half one and half the other does not mean the jokes and comments are okay. It does not mean you have a free pass to say what you’d like. How dark must I be for black jokes to never enter a conversation, but at the same time, how dark is too dark for people to take me seriously when I say I’m Hispanic? And yes, I am well aware growing up on the border of Mexico and being Hispanic are two different things. Both of which just so happen to be facts about my life.

I have never felt more uncomfortable in my skin than here, in China. The stares from people as I walk around were, at first, charming, while now I feel like an outsider. It is completely apparent that dark skin is not favored when I must watch as students moan in agony and reach for other Duke students when we are dividing them in the classroom. Are there any mixed people reading this? You all would understand what I mean. Having to explain to people “no, my mom is this, and my dad is that”. Or having to explain that you eat this food for this holiday, not that other food. How about scholarship season? Which box do you check off? How much are you going to be one ethnicity to apply for one thing, and how much should you play your other card(s) in order to apply for something else?

So, how do we combat this? Do I need another Duke Engage lesson on how other cultures are different? Do I talk to the other ‘colored kids’ in the group to see how they handle their emotions? And yet, what if none of these help? What if no amount of pre-departure trainings and long talks about feelings truly solves what I’m battling inside? I’m going to be the last person to claim that the world is terrible and I’m a victim because of my golden hue, but I can be the first person to say that sucking it up, well, sucks. It sucks to be super pumped to be in a new place, only to have this menial problem sneak up on me in the midst of my fun. It sucks to not have answers, and it sucks that the solution isn’t in a guide book, but more in a case by case reaction sort of deal. Sometimes I just look at my skin and I think, “Wow…you’re pretty, but hey, sometimes you cause problems. What am I going to do with you?”.

I am in a foreign country. I am mixed. Sometimes I have to explain to kids that it isn’t okay to call black skin sexy. Other times I get to smile to myself as my goofy host brother comments that my “color is so beautiful”. I’m working on a solution. I’m working to accept what I see in the mirror. Maybe I needed this wake up call in order to fight for those who look like me. Maybe God simply wanted me to one day be able to better connect with a child of a similar background. Whatever the reason is, I know a few things to be true: I have made it this far looking how I am. My color will not stop me from taking over the field of education one day. And I love how I look, no matter what comes with it. Who else can proudly say they are a perfect 50/50 combination of their two favorite people on Earth?

2 responses to “Eat Pray Love

  • Kelly CM says:

    Nadia, thanks so much for sharing your experience. It sounds like both a wonderful, trying, and complicated time for you in China. I hope that you’ll continue to wrestle with these good questions, of what it means to be you in a new context, and that you’ll be able to begin to work out a solution that works for you.
    As a white undergraduate myself studying abroad in East Africa, I know I struggled with many of the assumptions that my fellow students made about me based on my skin color. It was really challenging to confront those assumptions while at the same time understanding that others’ experience of skin color was very different from my own. Over time I was able to begin to re-construct myself and figure out how I wanted to engage with others. I hope you will too!

    • NadiaFord says:

      Thank you so much for your insight, Kelly! I’m happy to know that, although the experience is trying, it can be placed in many contexts and help others to grow as well.

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