Mary Ann Thomas: Brown Queer Travel Writer

Nine Ways a Brown Jersey Girl Stands Out in Alaska

At the age of 25, I left the East Coast and drove to Alaska. As a queer brown woman from central Jersey, I was in culture shock for weeks. After three months of living here, I’ve pinpointed the ways that I stand out from Alaskans around me in style, manner, and politics.

1. I talk too fast, I slur my words.

As a fast-talking East Coaster, I have had a lifelong habit of screening my friends by whether they can keep up with my pace of speech. Sometimes, I connect with a new friend but get hung up on their slow speech patterns. I generally cannot carry conversations with slow-talkers. In my first few days of orientation at my job in Alaska, though, they explained that a large portion of Alaska Native elders simply speak slower than most Americans are used to. They may take longer to answer questions. They are not afraid of silence. This quality of speech, and my habit of speaking fast, is noticeable because of these cultural differences. Here in Alaska, I often need to repeat myself two or three times in order for people to understand me because I talk so fast. I have learned to pause for a longer time after I ask a question because the response time is delayed. It sometimes seems like people take a breath every few words when speaking. I have always recognized my desire to be surrounded by people who speak at a similar pace, but now, I’m working on actually slowing down my own pace of speech. Or, at least becoming more accepting of slow talkers.

2. I’m no fashionista, but I do own fitted clothing.

Apparently, wearing skinny jeans, black hoodies, and fitted clothing generally is not normal up here. I’ve seen more hiking pants and rain boots at the bar in a single night than I thought existed. In my NYC life, I rarely saw anyone wearing outdoor brands like Patagonia or North Face while walking around. I’m not someone who spends a lot of effort on my clothing, and, in fact, I have about 5 shirts with me on this 3-month contract. It has been surprising, though, to see so much khaki, camo, and outdoor apparel.

3. I’m a Jersey driver, I guess.

In Jersey, we drive 15 mph over the speed limit as a rule. My sister-in-law literally got pulled over for driving too slow when she was driving 5 mph over the speed limit. I’ve learned to accelerate quickly, because if I don’t speed up fast I’ll get honked at or rear-ended. I’ve also been taught to brake quickly because, as a good friend put it, “If you see brake lights, you gotta hit the brakes!” I never received negative comments about my driving…until I had passengers in my car who were not from the New Jersey-New York area. According to them, I drive too fast and brake too often. Apparently, I scare them.

4. Homophobic, transphobic, and racist comments are normal up here.

Ching-Chong is literally a nickname I have heard people toss around regularly, as if it’s clever, funny, and not super fucking racist. I’ve heard too many jokes about getting free blowjobs from the only openly gay guy around. And, apparently any man who wears lipstick is “rocking the Caitlin Jenner look.” (I thought it would have gone without saying that being a trans person is not a “look.”)

I don’t care about being politically correct for the sake of being politically correct alone. I care about being a better human being, and surrounding myself with other people who want to be good humans. Hearing these comments and insults tells me that I am in a place where people are fine with being cruel. I love Alaska, but this shit makes me want to go back to my relative sanctuary in New York.

5. I think I’m breaking the law every time I bike on a sidewalk.

In every place I’ve lived—from a 30,000 person college town to a 9 million person city-—it has been illegal to bike on the sidewalks. Bicyclists get fined for it. Pedestrians yell at bikers on the sidewalk. Here in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska, it is not only legal for bicyclists to ride on the sidewalk, but encouraged. Despite frequent potholes and construction, the sidewalk is the designated “bike lane”. While I’ve bike commuted throughout winters in DC and rush-hour in NYC, I haven’t been biking much while in Anchorage because it feels wrong to bike on the sidewalk.

6. Why are strangers smiling at me?

When I lived in DC and Brooklyn, I enjoyed the back-and-forth between neighbors. “How y’all doin?” was an everyday greeting. It was rarely accompanied by a smile. If a stranger smiled at me in NYC, a catcall often followed. I quickly learned to activate a scowl. Here in Alaska, I’m thrown off by the genuine smiles with no hypersexualized comments following them. I haven’t quite figured out how, or when, to smile back.

7. I’m no longer a number.

As a travel nurse in New York, it often took months for my coworkers to remember my name. When introduced, a hand was never outstretched to shake. Here, my coworkers have asked me my name, where I’m from and yes, even shook my hand. It’s unsettling to realize that every person I worked with in NYC could have tried harder to get to know me. I had no idea how nice and caring people can actually be. I’m finally realizing why people think New Yorkers are rude. I also feel like I matter as an individual much more than I did in NYC. People here remember what I do and what I say. Actually having a real impact on people, rather than feeling like I am on of 9 million irrelevant crowded souls, is pretty intimidating.

8. Sarcasm pours out of me.

I rarely take myself, other people, or bureaucracy seriously. I cope with people and systems that take themselves too seriously by making sarcastic jokes. To my Alaskan co-workers ears’, these jokes can come off as negative complaints. It’s weird—I’m actually surrounded by genuine, happy people instead of jaded, sarcastic assholes.

9. I want to exercise my thumbs on my glowing blue device.

If not physically attached to me, my phone is always nearby. I’m used to seeing people at restaurants set their phones on the table, and friends casually check facebook or text while we’re at the bar. At work, I’m accustomed to minimal conversation and copious phone usage. In Alaska, though, phone culture is a little different. People talk to each other more, rely on yelp for information less, and don’t seem to scroll through facebook regularly. I’ve only seen tourists use their phones at the dining table. It’s unacceptable to pull the phone out at the bar. And at work, people actually joke with each other during down time. I like this version of phone culture and I’ve actually found myself calling out my friends who are visiting on their phone usage. After all, it’s Alaska—there are mountains everywhere. Look up.

Originally published in Matador Network.

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