LONELY PLANET

What’s it like to be one of the few peo­ple of your race in a tiny, far­away town? Nov­el­ist found out.

Fashion (Canada) - - CONTENTS - Za­lika Reid-Benta

Za­lika Reid-Benta dis­cov­ered what it’s like to be truly alone when she be­came one of a town’s few non-white res­i­dents.

For three months in my early 20s, I found my­self work­ing at and liv­ing in a ho­tel in Bide­ford, a small coastal town in North Devon, Eng­land. Ac­cord­ing to a 2001 cen­sus, 98.3 per cent of the parish’s pop­u­la­tion was white, which means that of the nearly 14,500 peo­ple liv­ing in Bide­ford that year, only 246 were peo­ple of colour. Since then, I’ve spo­ken to friends and fam­ily, some­times even new ac­quain­tances, about how frus­trated—how an­gry and be­wil­dered—I was dur­ing my time over­seas. But I’ve never quite ar­tic­u­lated the depth of the iso­la­tion I felt, the melan­choly that even­tu­ally shifted to numb­ness. Un­til now.

I had just fin­ished my mas­ter’s at Columbia Univer­sity in New York and planned on do­ing my PhD in the United Kingdom. I de­cided I would only move there with a job al­ready in place. I submitted an ap­pli­ca­tion to an or­ga­ni­za­tion that finds jobs for young Cana­di­ans all over the world.

It put me in Bide­ford.

The day I ar­rived, I thought the town had a cer­tain charm to it. Af­fec­tion­ately nick­named “The Lit­tle White Town,” Bide­ford is made up of lit­tle shops, white­washed houses and nar­row streets that slope up­ward. The ho­tel I was placed in was on a hill above the town, with noth­ing else around it but a road and trees. Its lo­ca­tion would come to per­fectly epit­o­mize my frame of mind dur­ing my time there.

I had no cell­phone, and while guests were pro­vided with in­ter­net ac­cess, there was no Wi-Fi in the staff quar­ters. Most of my fel­low servers had been work­ing to­gether for sev­eral months and were al­ready friends. Shifts ended af­ter mid­night, and they would all go to the lo­cal pub to blow off steam while I stayed in my room binge-watch­ing the DVDs I’d brought from home. Nearly half of the staff were from var­i­ous coun­tries in Europe, and English wasn’t their first lan­guage. But I learned that stereo­types travel far, as one man found the words to ask: “So what is that you eat? Grape soda and chicken nuggets?” Two of the other Cana­di­ans on staff, both white men, laughed eas­ily and con­tin­ued to set the ta­ble as I stood in shock. Upon see­ing my ex­pres­sion, the man tried to as­sure me he wasn’t be­ing racist. “I just thought it was a racial stereo­type, you know? Like a joke!”

Sim­i­lar “like a joke” ob­ser­va­tions were com­mon among my co-work­ers: “The ball­room is too hot, don’t you all think?” “Don’t ask Za­lika; her kind likes the heat!”

The guests, on the other hand, loved to ask me ques­tions. My hair was a pop­u­lar topic. One man tugged on my vest as I served plates of English break­fast.

“Do you have a spe­cial comb for it?” He looked up­ward to my ’fro. “My wife seems to think you need spe­cial combs.”

Some­times, bets were placed. “Ex­cuse me, love, where are you from? We have a wa­ger around the ta­ble, you see. About your na­tion­al­ity.”

In town, no one asked ques­tions or made jokes. They mostly stared, puz­zled at my ex­is­tence as a per­son liv­ing there and not sim­ply pass­ing through.

Shifts at the ho­tel had five-hour breaks be­tween break­fast and din­ner ser­vice, which was the only time out­side of my weekly day off that I could go into town and use the in­ter­net to con­tact my friends and fam­ily. I spent those five hours in a restau­rant called Wether­spoon, eat­ing lunch and leav­ing long rants on Google or Face­book Mes­sen­ger. The time dif­fer­ence meant that my friends would wake up to an­other com­plaint and I could only read their re­sponses dur­ing my lunch break the next day. Some­times, my mother would rise early to Skype with me.

“You look tired,” she’d say. “De­feated.”

Find­ing the words to ex­plain the nu­ances of my sit­u­a­tion was dif­fi­cult. I ended up be­com­ing friendly enough with my co-work­ers, and I was never the only staff mem­ber who was teased. But other peo­ple seemed to be ribbed for things they did; I was sin­gled out for what I was. My black­ness was the target of jokes; my black­ness al­ways seemed to be a char­ac­ter­is­tic that they liked to laugh at. No guest called me a racial slur, no res­i­dent ex­uded hos­til­ity at my pres­ence, yet they ex­o­ti­fied me with their ques­tions and didn’t hide their dis­ap­point­ment when my an­swers less­ened the alien al­lure they had put upon me. Drunk men in pubs would say I looked like Lau­ryn Hill, and at work, my bosses would tell me to smile more so I wouldn’t look so “in­tim­i­dat­ing.”

My stint in Bide­ford wasn’t the first time I had been in a pre­dom­i­nantly white space, but it was the first time in my life I’d felt truly and pro­foundly lonely and at a loss to know how to nav­i­gate the ter­ri­tory I found my­self in. No one in my im­me­di­ate prox­im­ity could un­der­stand the na­ture of my ex­pe­ri­ences, and the peo­ple whom I would lean on were an en­tire ocean away.

I was on a hill above a town, with noth­ing else around it but a road and trees.

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