My brown body is flesh. What was mixed and stirred together in the messiness of two bodies from different corners of the earth coming together became my flesh. In my case, the brown body that entered the world brought about a life-threatening tearing up of the brown world it came from. Literally. My mother’s womb was torn, and then torn out after my birth, and so was her culture, her language, her world torn from her and by her as her body raised mine.
My mother worked hard on prevent her brownness from seeping into me, when unsuccessful, we attempted to weed it out. Making me a white person required her to separate herself and me from that which nourished and grew her. Yet my body is mixed, my body is flesh, and my flesh knows. Like her flesh knows the scars that my body produced, my flesh knows that part of the soil it grows in is her brown body. Deconstructing my whiteness in my brown body is a messy and beautiful journey. It is messy because this body grew up in German hills with different concepts constructing and shaping the bodies that inhabit the space – and now this body moves in a land where different structures absorb bodies into a different violent system. It is beautiful, as it allows me to eat from the bitter and sweet fruit of the colorful migrant garden my parents grow.
Self-disclosure (does color always require an explanation?). I grew up in a rural area of Southern Germany as the daughter of a resettled World War II refugee and a Thai immigrant mother. To my childhood friends I have never been not German. To others, who couldn’t make sense of thick lips and brown skin speaking perfect German and even perfect dialect, I was always a hyphen (“you’re German and…?). While my skin takes on different shades of brown through the seasons, I trust my childhood friends when they declare that they somehow don’t seem to notice my color. However, I do know for certain that whatever it is that my skin signifies, most likely others attached it to my mother – who stuck out like a sore thumb. Sore from her visible and invisible difference, sore from her constant negotiation of difference and blending in, sore from her experiences of being othered. From my mother I learned the art of being as German as it gets: speaking, acting, thinking and moving as to blend in and to excel in the system. Excelling in language, both my parents insist, is the key to success. Becoming white meant becoming articulate.
My encounters with postcolonial discourse, especially postcolonial feminist theory and theology have provided me with grounding experiences (albeit in ever shifting, moving soil). It provided me with texts and language to do think about and within the context of my brown body. I found a discourse where my body is a valid source of reflection of all things theological and social. Now this body walks and grows on this earth more aware of the stakes that uphold the systems we all live in. Yet a theory in the flesh always needs to grow into more than learning to be articulate. Theory in the flesh is this brown body becoming a body of knowledge, a body that knows. Knowledge is grown in, tended to, expressed in and transmitted to the flesh and the soil of our land and our families, our ancestors, all our relations.
Words will always fail to tap into material experience. If religion (whatever that is, sighs the postcolonial scholar) is what orients us in the world, what gives our place in the world significance, then bodies are religion. Bodies can tap into memories, ruptured through migration and oppression, ground themselves in experiences and wisdom gained across time and space, tap into truths of pain and healing, and embody the knowledge that has gotten other bodies through in this world and towards others. This body knows when it is othered, when fear of the other becomes abjected and projected into my body. Bodies know when they are othered for being a body that is female, queer, asian, differently abled, differently colored. Because othering is embodied. When discourse can arrange and re-arrange bodies and knowledge about them, the flesh knows the suffering that comes with it.
The body knows that there is no such thing as the singular self in the singular body. Physics tells us that there are strings, energy vibrating throughout the universe. Material particles, that have been close together once, can respond to each other across space. Bodies of knowledge know that they are bodies connected to bodies connected to land connected to bodies connected to life. Our bodies might look the same, but never know, think and act the same. But bodies can feel together. This body feels the tension and pain that seeps in and out of my bones and flesh and seeps into your skin. What touches your body, mother, even as you are growing in a different soil, touches mine, and both our bodies are vibrating together like one string. Music? Physics? Only bodies know how to play and feel this tune. This body knows when all the white hurts my eyes and keeps blinding me to the colors of my flesh. Because knowing is not always seeing, my body knows nausea induced by eating from the tree of the universal rational for too long. This body knows that your white body has some brown flesh in it as well. And your body knows it too.
My body knows when it is loved, when it is respected, when it needs sleep. My body knows when yours is anxious, when you ache for a loving touch or some distance to recover yourself. This body feels the mixing of colors, colors that never blend. The body of knowledge knows that it is mixed, and this body feels the tensions, the rawness of the rubbing edges, the misfits. This body taps into the still bleeding wounds of my mother’s womb, the strong and careful hands of my father, touching the knowledge that helped their bodies survive and grow life in a different soil.
My body becomes the means by which I remember and grow a different understanding of who I am, where I came from and where my place in this world is. In the midst of the beautiful struggle to affirm the humanity and dignity of all with those who embrace me in their community – women, people of color, queer folks – my body is fed and feeds into meaning that is outside my language.
The fumbling towards words in this essay is my feeble attempt to tell what only my body knows. It is an attempt to know in and through the body. Am I romanticizing the body in a perpetuating body-mind split? I hope not. But somewhere inside and out I know that body is mind is soul is body is earth is body is you is me. And any body-mind split is exactly that. A splitting of what is not meant to be apart – and maybe that is so strung up together tightly we cannot tell one from the other unless we make it so. My body grows in knowing that happens when I stand, dance, sway, hold, touch, embrace, hurt, eat, stomp, hum, curl, leave. My body knows with your body, as your heart, breath, sound, touch, gaze, warmth, moving is vibrating with my own. Walking the walk of postcolonial theology is walking with the grain and the rhythm of our bodies. It is feeling the religion of our bodies in our bones, going crazy in a body of knowledge that draws us towards the flesh of others. And only with our bodies in this world can we build a reality, a reality that is based in knowledge that our bodies in themselves can make meaning and goodness, can orient us towards each other and our stories in this space we grow in.
** The alert reader will notice that I am indebted to and have dug in the intellectual and poetic gardens of Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, Marla Morris, Rainer Maria Rilke, the Indigo Girls and Charles Long.