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How I Got My Tan and Lost My Identity

08 Nov Posted by in Rachel Wahba | 8 comments
How I Got My Tan and Lost My Identity

I was eighteen when I landed in Los Angeles International airport. And after a lifetime of being a brown-skinned “curombo,” (“darky”) in Japan, I turned white! Yes. Suddenly I was no longer a strange brown skinned gaigin (perjorative for foreigner.)

My little brother and I spent our childhood as moving targets for the Japanese boys and giggling girls walking past our house to their school up the hill. I was too busy ducking their cries of  “curombo!” to notice much else.  We lived in Ashiya-gawa, a beautiful suburb with the gawa, the river that ran from the mountain to the sea, Both sides of Ashiya river were lined with rows of cherry blossom and maple trees; pink in the spring, bright reds and deep oranges for the fall.

I went back there recently with my brother. We walked from the mountain to the sea (now mostly landfill). No one yells out “curombo” anymore, and foreigners are not a strange sight.  It is very rare however to see any Africans or African Americans anywhere.  I met an African American piano player who had a gig playing a Kobe nightclub. He told me he was the only person of African heritage in Kobe. Despite the changes, despite Japan being a modern country now, its still considered ugly or unfortunate to be a curombo.

At the same time, I saw something I never would have seen growing up there —a billboard advertising Hawaiian tanning lotion!  Japanese sunbathe? I asked in my perfect accent-less Japanese.  Yes, more and more are, like America-jin, like the Americans. Of course, sooner or later we all become Americans…

It’s a long story how my parents got to Japan, so let me just say that we were Stateless Egyptian (dad)/Iraqi(mom), Jews, who ended up in Japan before Egypt cancelled dad’s passport (the precursor to the mass expulsion of Egyptian Jews in 1956), making it impossible to conduct a viable import-export business.

Japan was uncomfortable being stuck with stateless foreigners and we were desperately waiting for immigration to the USA.  I turned 18 and graduated high school, still no immigration on the horizon, so my parents put me on an airplane with my visa from the Red Cross to go to college. Lots of crying, lots of separation anxiety, but the litany, “there is no future here for you, you must go, and inshallah, we will follow…” was well imbedded in my psyche.

Something happened when I landed at LAX. Something I never imagined. Something so strong and compelling and almost immediate: I turned white! There were “real” dark people in America. Real “curombos” and a country filled with “gaigin.”

Imagine: a lifetime of being seen as an unattractive “darky,” now magically turned inside out into, “Where did you get your tan”? Gaigin no more, curombo no more. Gone, in a flash, it was all gone.

Overnight, with one plane trip, my curse became “exotic”.  I am not making this up: I spent my high school years with a masque of Clearasil carefully applied on my brown face every single night. I bought it with my allowance at the American Pharmacy, not for acne, but as a masque to lighten the brown. I prayed to my personal God for it to work, I tortured my brother taunting him with “you are darker”!  I feared the devil would come to me and make a deal I couldn’t refuse (I was raised in Catholic missionary schools).  My skin colored every aspect of my being.

Its even hard for me to imagine now: Before Black Liberation, Before the world changed. Before the browning of America.  Before Malcolm X. Before Barack Obama. So much misery, wiped out by one plane ride.  But I had done my homework before getting to America.  I lost my Indian singsong English dialect by the time I was 8.

I refused to speak Judeo-Arabic and yelled at my parents “do not speak to me in that ugly language!” Of course I understood every single word they said.  I studied every American magazine that came my way.  I rejected my Arabic nationality. I was miserable with the skin I lived in, and I lost any trace of a “foreign” accent. I worked hard to lose my identity.

The only thing I did keep because it was the only thing I wasn’t going to lose was being a Jew. I was a Jew, and I defiantly stood up to the nuns. “If Jesus was a Jew, then why do I have to convert”?

So at age eighteen and a half, the nuns are gone, the taunts are gone, and I am in America, in the San Fernando Valley, and except for the occasional “who’s that cute Spic chick?” I was a white Jewish girl with a great tan.

When I asked my mother, so many years later in San Francisco where we settled, “speak to me in Arabic,” she gave it back to me with raised eyebrows, “now you want to learn? Its too late!”

Judeo -Arabic is my mother-language, but my tongue won’t go there. I understand every single word, but I can’t find the words on my own, and when I manage to retrieve a phrase, my accent is so bad, better not open my mouth.

My background remains invisible but I have a great tan. And now, when I am asked, “where did you get your tan?” I tell them: From my father.

“How I got my Tan and Lost My Identity” by Rachel Wahba  first appeared in on November 3rd, 2010

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  • rachel wahba says:

    and to you mel…after so. africa, i can only imagine —
    i tutored african american kids fifteen min. away from cal state northridge which was not integrated yet. in 1965, there were less black students than you could count on one hand. and next door…a whole community …

  • Elliot Wahba says:

    Beautiful article Rachel. How I miss the incredible food!!

  • Eleanor Palacios says:


    What a lovely story. You left me wanting for more! Eleanor

  • Denelle says:

    Fabulous article, Rach, when is your book coming out?

  • emma garcia says:

    I am a “maestra” as my young students called me. I am in awed of the beautiful and yet painful piece you wrote. We have been reading a few articles about race dating from the late 1800’s to 1979. The students are having a hard time speaking about race even though it affects them everyday. I will borrow your piece and share it them. Thank you.

  • rachel wahba says:

    you have brought a big smile in my heart, and that you will share this with your students is such an honor and i am very moved —thank you!!!!

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