When I was a sophomore in college, I went straight to my new dorm room after the five-hour flight from California. I was anxious to find out whether or not the roommate gods had smiled upon me. Being a newly out young gay man, I naturally had spent the bulk of my freshman year developing safe relationships with cute girls, most of which have endured over the past twenty years. I was nervous around boys though; if they were gay, I wondered if we compatible romantically; if they weren’t, I found them hopelessly attractive of course. Neither of those scenarios made for a good roommate situation, so I found myself without a pal for sophomore room selection. I figured I’d try my luck, even though freshman year had landed me with two upperclassmen who were friendly but not the type of people I’d grab late night french fries with.
As I opened the door to my new dorm room, I saw that my roommate had already arrived. He turned to me with a huge smile and said, “Hi, I’m Eddie. What are you?”
I replied with my name, and he shook his head: “No, I’m Korean. What are you?”
“Oh,” I said, “my mom is Dutch Indonesian.”
“Great!” Eddie exclaimed. “Us Asians have to stick together. Don’t worry I brought the rice cooker!”
Eddie was absolutely serious about the rice cooker, and I found myself laughing to myself, thinking, “This guy thinks I’m Asian!” Three days later, Eddie moved out to live with an actual Asian, a Korean like him.
Growing up in California, I never thought of myself as anything specifically racial. I sort of knew I wasn’t white, but I was indoctrinated with white culture. My mother was born in Jakarta and clearly looks Indonesian, as does most of her family. My biological father is a white man, but I received very little of his aesthetic DNA. Still, I knew I didn’t look like the hoards of actual Asians in California, the Japanese and the Chinese and the Koreans, and I was raised by my white step-father and my immigrant mother who came to America in the era of you-stop-speaking-our-native-language-and-assimilate-damn-it. I grew up identifying with white culture far more than any other, in spite of enjoying Indonesian foods with my extended family.
Through a journey I’ll save for another time, I realized that, yes, I am in fact Asian (not Oriental as my grandmother sometimes refers to herself when she’s not clinging tightly to the Dutch portion of her ancestry). And now that I’m raising two children of color, I see the importance of affinity groups. It’s something we all can understand to an extent. My girlfriends experience it when there are no men around; I experience it with other gay men (now that I’m no longer looking for a partner).
A few days ago, we took the kids into Boston, and they jumped around in the fountain with other kids, most of whom liked them with a range of dark to light brown skin. My daughter immediately befriended the darkest boy and when we left, she smilingly asked if I noticed that she made a friend with skin like hers. “I did,” I told her, smiling back.
Today, we enjoyed a barbeque in the backyard with two other families that have adopted children of color. I wondered if we should invite a few other friends, ones who perhaps didn’t fit into this little familial niche. I remembered though that it’s okay to have these occasional groups of families that are going through the same thing.
In college when my closest friends were all girls and they wanted to have a night without me–just the girls–it stung a little bit to not be included. I realize now that I compensate for my exclusion with my male privilege, and that’s true of most situations like the barbecue today or my daughter gravitating toward the boy with darker skin. When someone in a privileged group wonders why “those” kids or “those” people are sticking together, can’t we remind ourselves what it’s like to feel like the other? When we find someone that watches the same trashy television show that we do, don’t we get a little ecstatic to have found a kindred soul? Of course, with aspects of identity like race, not everyone can watch the same show, but that has to be okay, if only because it makes the minority groups feel a little more at ease when interacting with the majority.