You know you are acclimating to Belfast culture when you find yourself in Primark trying to decide which shade of “denim” leggings go best with your new plaid shirt. This is the beginning of a love affair. I often tell people my roots are in the mountains of Virginia and my soul is in the dust of Ghana, and now I think Belfast has stolen my heart. I love this city. I love turning a street corner at night and catching the lit profile of a spire. I am enamored with the scenic Lagan towpath for long runs and bike rides with its wild swans and meandering couples. I race to St. Georges Market on Saturdays, gorging myself on fajitas, milkshakes and all the fresh fruit I can carry home. Every Monday I am seated with a local brew at the John Hewitt, tapping my foot to every good (ex. my friend Ben) and bad (ex. the guy who screams a lot) open mic act. I could spend all afternoon sitting in the cool gray CS Lewis reading room overlooking the knobby tree that guards the entrance of the Botanic Gardens. And I could spend every evening studying at Clements at 10pm, with the brightly lit rainbow panels and blaring Canadian rock cheering me through my regression analysis. Have I sad enough? I love Belfast.
It is somewhat strange that I find myself loving this city so much when I often find myself feeling so uncomfortable in it. My program in Environmental Management is wonderful, but being the only American in a sustainable planning course discussing international environmental legislation is nothing if not awkward. Often I feel that I am expected to apologize for our current environmental policy or lack thereof, but examining EU policy has given me new perspective; I am finding myself defending my complicated federal system and the theory of private land ownership in the US, which is new for me.
My most obvious source of discomfort is my brownness. First, I should explain brownness. I say brown because as a multiracial child I feel awkward saying black or African American, that doesn’t adequately describe my heritage. I feel even stranger saying “mixed,” the preferred check box on employment forms, which makes me feel like a cocktail or something. So I go with brown, because I am. Being brown has never been particularly hard for me. In fact, through most of my childhood and adolescence I never really thought about it. I grew up in a loving home in a nurturing community that never evaluated me based on my skin tone. My skin color really only appeared on standardized tests and when I started buying foundation. I have always had mostly white friends and usually have difficulty identifying with aspects of young black culture. But in Belfast I am constantly reminded of my brownness. It’s subtle, like a look at a bar or an unnecessarily awkward exchange. Occasionally I get a strange comment, as in the case of one classmate who asked if I was “a gypsy.” I am by no means saying that people are rude, in fact, most people I interface with are perfectly lovely. I just feel a little culturally lost at times, and find that I am listening to more Jay-Z and Dead Prez than ever before.
There are some serious benefits to being brown in Belfast. Kebab. One night, upon my 2am entrance into our favorite late night kebab shop, the man behind the counter exclaimed I was brown like him, holding my arm to his. He has now proclaimed me his “Brown Queen,” a comment I am totally comfortable with as it usually accompanies a discount off my amazing kebab.
Despite the occasional discomforts, Belfast has been nothing but welcoming and each day I feel more and more at home here. I find myself returning from travel grateful to be in such a nice, familiar place. This is usually a feeling I reminded of every weekend with the massive amount of traveling I have been doing. Almost as soon as we arrived Adam, Rebekah and I ferried over to Scotland for a day of cliff hiking and castle exploration. This was followed by a very lovely Mitchell orientation in Dublin where the 12 of us were able to begin our mutual infatuation that has extended to a theatrical weekend in Belfast, a jazz festival in Cork, a spooky Halloween in Derry, and a massive amount of group e-mails filled with boy band videos and punching jokes. I’ve just returned from a chilly weekend in Poland where I ate a massive amount of perogies and potato cakes. In the coming weeks I’m off to London, Scotland (Again! I can’t get enough of it!) and then home for Christmas. My flatmates were shocked when I was seen walking about the house last weekend since I am rarely in town Friday through Sunday.
My mom and grandma say they are living through me this year as I travel and study abroad, something they have always wanted to do. I am happy to be their ambassador and I am so very grateful to everyone at the US Ireland Alliance for this amazing opportunity.