Another Form of Politics
Social events try my already worn patience, and yet I, too often for my liking, find myself at the center of them (the introvert inside me weeps, gently.)
Every one of these is a trial by fire, the poisoned gift that keeps on giving. I put up with them only in the company of my parents, because I had little choice. After all, entertaining others comes with their job description: it’s another form of politics, nastier, subtler, one I have witnessed growing up, with equal fascination and revolt.
Dinner parties nauseate me; cocktails make me see red; parties turn my stomach — but you wouldn’t know it. And while the setting constantly shifts, depending on where in the world they are living at any given moment, the scene remains the same.
Case in point.
A guest and I run through the motions of a conversation, and I handle it with the polished practice you only acquire by having diplomats as parents.
I’m talking: knowing the right things to say and when to say them; how to circumvent potential awkward topics, unruffle feathers, and how to smooth things over when you have; how to translate, as best as possible, between two guests who insist on talking to each other despite the language barrier; who to pour drinks to, and who to offer food or company; who to keep away from who, because their political conversations might derail the evening; how to gauge cues wherein you insert charming anecdotes that make you seem approachable; how to balance a three, five, nine-way conversation with the ease of a seasoned acrobat; and above all, how to appear like a perfect extension of your parents — that is to say lovely, delightful.
I hate this.
And yet, I do it so well. I do it so well you wouldn’t know how badly I want to tell you to fuck the fuck off. I do it so well you wouldn’t know I didn’t tell you a single thing about myself. I do it so well you wouldn’t know that, despite my affable smile, I usually suffer from RBS (Resting Bitchface Syndrome).
And that’s because this is my parents’ world, and I can’t screw this up (ever since my siblings and I were old enough to be out “in polite society”, that warning has been etched at the back of my parents’ eyes as they glided over us from across the room. Don’t screw this up.)
As such, I can’t tell people what I really think, namely that I know that they are playing the same game as me, that I can read them like an ugly, open book; that their opinions are trite, and that being privileged envoys and mouthpieces for other countries does not entitle them to say whatever they want.
Having grown up in this strange, strange environment is akin to getting a glimpse into Bizarro Narnia, and being prohibited from speaking about it.
I remember vague incidents between this and that ambassador (over some trivial thing or another), and the weeklong ensuing damage control to avoid a diplomatic incident. I’d fantasize about one of them smashing a champagne glass into another’s face during one of my parents’ gatherings. I’d pray for something dramatic, bloody: anything to alleviate the tedium. My Dad — not so much.
I remember comments made to my mother, tinged in barely-concealed racism, by well-known, seemingly open-minded officials. They were never meant for her but, because they were directed at people like her (the sentence, always meant reassuringly: “don’t worry, you’re different”), the insult encompassed her all the same. It would be painful, later on, watching her mediate conversations between said officials, in full cognizance of their asshole opinions.
On more than one occasion, my sisters and I have been hit on by married, respectable people during events, just because they could. I could go on. And while I find most of these stories rather funny, I’ll admit: ’twas a wild childhood.
It is growing up with the implicit awareness that what happens here stays here. It’s seeing people in formal settings (on national television, in press conferences, at ceremonies), and knowing that there is a seedier side of them underneath that polished exterior. It’s having to see your parents deftly grin and bear it, and hold peace-at-any-cost over prickly truths.
It is no coincidence that I became fierce about my own spaces, and struggle not to flip tables and raise hell at the slightest perceived provocation. But that is a tangent for another day.
I used to be blanketed by the comfort of the following notion: that when I finally got a life of my own, far from the (frankly) surreal one my parents have committed themselves to, I would finally be free. I could choose my people, and interact with them how I wanted; namely filter-free.
Oh, how wrong was I.
I started to navigate my own dynamics with a feeling of empowerment. I had no intention of replicating my extrovert parents’ lives; but having played that game before I even understood it, I expected to coast through the awkward world of dinners, house parties and other affairs we in our twenties hate so much.
And it never seems hard, at first: just like I’ve been taught, I endure social gatherings with the facade of ease. Hell, I might even enjoy myself, if I am lucky enough to find someone who has enough in common with me to hold my attention.
… Until it comes to it, that question, asked oh-so-casually, with the expectation of an oh-so-casual response: so, where do you come from?
And there I falter. Something inside me gives way, resentful, almost at the intrusion; because this side of me, the root of so much neuroticism, I guard with tooth and nail — resentment and irritation that is unfair, in truth, because how the hell could this person know?
I cannot tell them that I don’t know. That I come from everywhere, and nowhere. That I belong to many places, and to none. That I fit in the way one fits in at a friend’s house: I am allowed to be there, but never too cozily, and never for too long.
That my parents’ house is not a house, but a museum, a display of items they’ve collected from their various stays: a knife collection from Japan. Masks from Senegal. A 2-foot bust from Gabon. Triptych paintings from Paris. The list of objects goes on, shiny playthings that weren’t really toys. And this is normal.
That friends are not friends, they are temporary reliefs against the desolate going-through-the-motions of discovering a new country — and even they, after a while, become yet another thing you can dispense of. And this is normal.
That while my peers went away for family weekends, ours had to wake up at the crack of dawn to go through visa formalities or replace our passports when the pages had run out. And this is normal.
That I do not know what homesickness is, because I don’t have a home, and felt envious watching others stand against their kitchen walls and mark their heights with colorful pencils. And this is normal.
That I have not lived in the same place for more than four years, and that while I wished for nothing more than a stable life as a child, I now find myself becoming restless and dissatisfied after only two weeks in one place. And after a while, this, too, is normal.
That my apartment is not truly mine, it is merely a place to put down and pick up things before I’m off again; that my suitcases are never truly unpacked, nor are they very far. And this is normal.
That I measure my relationships with people by how likely they are to survive the strain of hopping in and out of their lives at any given moment, or simply never seeing them again; they, like everything else, become baggage. Caring about things and places is a currency I become more and more reluctant to spend, unless it proves to be worth it. And this is normal.
And most of all, that I am who my involuntary travels have made me, and that while it has opened me to people in astounding ways, it has also made me much more aloof, and much less hesitant to cut people out of my life. And as much as this alarms me, it is normal.
But really, it’s not. Nor should it be. Something about grasses being greener on other sides and all that noise. Maybe someday I will make sense of it all; but most of the time, I want freedom from the accursed where do you come from, because the answer does not arrive on its own. It comes with disclaimers and clarifications, and with a roundabout trip up my life story that no one really asked for.
And so I smile the way I’ve seen my parents do when grappling with vaguely uncomfortable questions. I smile, so well and so deeply that it softens my face, serve up that short laugh I’ve been told puts people at ease, and give them the easy answer.
Eh, it’s complicated.