A Stranger in Venice
When race travels. Catherine Chen grapples with gestures of exotification and recognition on the streets of Venice.
She’s maneuvering a selfie stick to fit her family of six within the camera’s frame while threatening to omit a younger brother cranky from the early morning frenzy already in place at the Bridge of Sighs. Their mother berates them in Mandarin, a language I will overhear more snippets of than English over the course of my eight days in Venice. This is my first day, and I’m jetlagged and overdressed, still registering the fact that I am in Europe and not home in the suburbs of Los Angeles. So I laugh. Not necessarily because the scene is hilarious; rather, it is familiar, and I feel less alone, funnily enough, upon hearing the same reprimand in a tongue my mother has delivered many times to me and my younger brother.
But my laugh interrupts the photoshoot I’m witnessing, and the selfie stick-wielding girl jerks her head up in my direction. Is she surprised by the laugh or by the person who laughed? Nevertheless, she smiles. I return the smile, then leave.
I think of the gesture, this smile or laugh or any of its variable forms, as a temporary sort of matter. A weak glue applied between strangers on the street. It is accidental and incidental. Yet, it also activates something powerful, though I find it difficult to place my finger on the whys and hows. My attempts tend to follow a reckless pattern of describing the affect surrounding the gesture, rarely the gesture itself. Here are three such attempts:
- Something like recognition.
- Something like a connective tissue for otherwise estranged people.
- Something like a survival guide for those who, like me, are lost in the ordinary exile of living in exclusionary spaces.
I am in Venice for a conference on Ernest Hemingway predominantly attended by – surprise! – old, white, straight men. Though I’d planned the trip for over a year, my excitement is immediately deflated by the company I encounter. “How long have you spoken English?” “Where in Asia are you from?” It is clear that I, a young woman of color, am not supposed to be here. I feel exhausted rather than upset. I’m familiar with these statements and I’m used to being an alien within my own academic discipline.
At the conference, before the keynote speech, a graduate student called A— approaches me, asking if I am the Catherine who will be presenting on the queering of language in Hemingway’s short stories. Yes, I am. This gesture of interest brings us to a conversation about the conference, whose panels and participants, we agree, are pretty disappointing. As more and more conference attendees file into the room, we talk about the way in which whiteness encroaches upon and consumes a space. To A—, I admit my anxiety. About being an alien. I tell him, “I’m so glad I’m not alone.” He suggests we sit together.
It is June, and we are in Venice, a city of aliens. We ditch the afternoon panels and wander amidst tourists who argue prices with gondolier services, who play with the San Marco pigeons, who splurge on carnival masks for loved ones who could not come. The frustrations we typically endure when racially othered have been converted to a mood of excitement. That week, our alien bodies blend in. Vacationing, as it turns out, is an exhilarating mode of alienation, and, like anyone else, we are on holiday.
Prior to visiting, I was often told two seemingly contradictory things: that Venice is the most beautiful place in the world and that it is grossly overrun by tourists. Standing in the shipyard complex known as the Arsenal, on a midnight following a sweaty dance performance, I reconcile the paradox. The city, I type on my phone, has swallowed every ugly narrative of tourism and made its essence pleasing, even pleasurable. Venice has learned how to profit off of the gesture, and it is always performing a version of that gesture to you, for me. It performs for anyone who is willing to pay.
As a result, I cannot distinguish homes from businesses. An arrangement of white flowers hangs off a window ledge. “My mother’s favorite,” A— says, though I no longer remember which flower that is. The heat feels prickly against my skin. It is June, and the Biennale has transformed the city. Roads that lack signage, for instance, have been marked with stickers advertising nearby national art pavilions. Church steps become an impromptu stage for experimental musicians, dancers, performers. On Tuesday, I follow some of these stickers to pavilions curated by Armenia, Taiwan, and Russia, while a sticker labeled Luxembourg leads me instead to a secondhand bookshop. I am beginning to feel guilty for missing so much of the conference. I write about this anxiety as if I were Hemingway. Lots of short sentences. I cut everything. Off. My language, my limbs. I want to write a poem about Luciano, the hostel manager, and all I manage is a two-page Word document of my observations of the shadows extending out from the water-damaged building I am staying in. Eating gelato, I take photos of a water route that is probably someone’s driveway. The stern of an adjacent boat is engraved Rosa x Salva. A gondolier rowing past looks over, whistles, and calls me the pretty Chinese girl. This too is a gesture. I do not respond.
The gesture is as much an exposé as it is a survival tactic. Public intimacy is a tricky performance. In public, my body exits my realm of control. Regardless of intent, I never fully know who is watching or consuming my movements. The political reality of my alien/raced/gendered body intensifies the vulnerability I experience for catching a stranger’s eye. Will you validate me? Will you hurt me? For the gesture is largely desired under conditions of reciprocity. I glance up at you in the hopes that you return my gaze with kindness.
With no planned destination, one late afternoon A— and I plod through a narrow alley full of Chinese restaurants. Every Oriental signifier is in sight – I won’t name them. With his foot blocking the door, a man, clad in a white apron and Gap T-shirt, takes a smoking break. He is in his fifties. He is a stranger. We are ten feet past him when, without breaking a stride, I decide to turn around and ask him in Mandarin, “What time are you open until?”
“Midnight,” he replies, exhaling smoke through his nostrils.
A— asks why I spoke at all. We are walking single-file in an alleyway illuminated by pockets of light from overhead windows. The windows are squares whose cobblestone refractions shapeshift the squares to rhombuses tilting to the right. I notice this pattern on the ground because I’m stalling, uncertain about my answer. I still don’t know how to articulate the gesture’s appeal, neither its combination of the coy and the private nor its spontaneous formation and disintegration. I see you. You see me. Years from now, with a jolt, you may remember me. Perhaps the gesture is an incubator for a future gesture, one we’ve yet to meet. Perhaps that gesture is thriving without our knowing. I know only that somewhere beneath a mountain of words and languages, the gesture’s meanings exist to nourish alien bodies like mine. To heal, however slowly, the wounds we carry.
Eventually, I reply: “I knew we saw each other, and I guess I wanted to acknowledge that in some way.”
He says he understands. We continue walking, tender silence between us.