It’s 3:18 a.m. in Bali, Indonesia and here I am, browsing through music on iTunes, a far cry from Oakdale, the suburb west of Pittsburgh where I grew up. As I sit on my bed in our cozy wooden home located in the middle of rice paddies in a small, quiet village outside of the town center, I listen to 9th Wonder, Blitz the Ambassador, and Gregory Porter, and I reflect on the life I chose to leave.
Growing up in a boring, predominantly white suburb had its range of positives for a Black girl like me. For instance, I learned the inner-workings of white privilege, subtleties of racism and the Eurocentric way of thinking. I learned that having Black skin doesn’t make you Black. What makes a person Black is their worldview, their respect and love for other Black people and their willingness and desire to preserve Black culture.
I remember sitting in art class in high school, and watching a group of white male students joke about their Black “friend,” using the pencil shading chart on the wall. One boy said to the others, “So, how Black do you think Damen* is, according to this chart?” They all snickered.
The boy pointed to one of the light grey shades. “I think he’s about here,” and they all burst out laughing. Damen* wasn’t there to defend himself. I didn’t defend him either. In that moment, though, I felt disgusted and angry, but not surprised. Why should I be? This, for me, was suburban life in Pittsburgh. I learned by watching first-hand that no matter how much you try to assimilate into white culture as a Black person, the only person you’re fooling is yourself. I didn’t know it then, but it was a culmination of situations like this that would later be the foundation for why I would leave Pittsburgh.
Back in middle school and high school at West Allegheny, my soundtrack included Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G., Mary J. Blige, and Jodeci. Acrylic nails, box braids, and Cross Colors were in, so that’s what I wore. There was a time when fitting in with the other Black students (who transferred in from the city) was a priority. Over time, though, I realized this wasn’t me. But what was me? My peers were either Caucasian; Black and from Pittsburgh’s inner-city; or Black yet unaware of their Blackness. Where did I belong? Adolescence was complicated and at times very rough for an acne-prone, artistic, culturally aware (thanks to my parents), introverted teenager like me.
In 1999, I left the Steel City for Kent State University in Ohio. I also gravitated to a new soundtrack that ultimately changed my life. It included Black Star, Common, The Roots, Slum Village and Dilla. My time at college was transformative. I finally found people who were like me. Black suburbanites, yet aware and confident in who they were. I found the friendship and understanding I never knew could exist. I partied, I studied, I loved, I cried, and I grew. I graduated from KSU in 2004 with a degree in Pan-African Studies and with the confidence that I could and would create a career for myself, as opposed to competing for one and working for someone else.
I decided not to move back to Pittsburgh like my oldest sister had after graduation. I noticed the more time I spent away from Pittsburgh, the more clearly I saw that it was not the city for me. I felt as though I had been cheated by the very city I grew up in. The closed-mindedness, lack of diversity, and racist undertones of tha Burgh’ were the reasons I moved in succession to northern Virginia; Indonesia; Washington, D.C.; the Virgins Islands; and Puerto Rico.
In Puerto Rico, I added artists like José Gonzalez to my soundtrack, but later that year in 2012, I started to have a change of mind about Pittsburgh. What if I was wrong all this time? What if I could make it work there? By this time, I was married with kids, and my husband was working in Afghanistan. I wondered if my children would prefer to leave the sunshine in order to live closer to my family. Maybe it was time to give Pittsburgh another chance. I mean…Wiz Khalifa made a whole song about Pittsburgh. Why not?
Instead of moving back to the Pittsburgh suburbs, I decided to move to the city near my sister in East Liberty. I think she moved away from the suburbs because she felt the same way I did. Being closer to family and friends was amazing; I hadn’t lived that close to my people in what felt like ages.
I also opened a business in the heart of gentrifying “East Lib.” I was finally working for myself, as the owner of a boutique in which more than 90% of the fair trade clothing and accessories were handmade by Black designers, mostly women, from around the globe, including artisans from Pittsburgh.
There were a select few in Pittsburgh who I felt understood me, and even helped me add to my soundtrack. What better friend to have in Pittsburgh than your favorite DJ? DJ Selecta introduced me to the music of DJ Spinna, and I updated my music library to include the likes of Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding, Maimouna Youssef. I vended my handmade jewelry at the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival where I was fortunate enough to see live and even meet a few of these artists.
I really was enjoying myself and growing more as a person while back “home.” But I also finally embraced the harsh reality that for me, Pittsburgh would never truly be home. This gave me closure to an internal battle fought with Pittsburgh for far too long.
Pittsburgh could not give me something it does not have--diversity, open-mindedness, and tolerance.
I felt my growth was stagnant in Pittsburgh. The city could not give me something it does not have–diversity, open-mindedness, and tolerance. It was time for me to move on. Pittsburgh was changing and so was I. Pittsburgh was gentrifying and whitewashing. I was embracing and exploring. We were moving in two different directions. I said my final goodbye to Pittsburgh as a resident in July of 2014. I closed my boutique and moved my family to Bali, Indonesia where I will be opening Culture Cloz Boutique again this year in Ubud Center. For now, we are home.
My relationship with Indonesia started in 2007 in Jakarta when I taught English as a Second Language for a year. Jakarta was only a 2 hour flight from Bali, so I was able to visit during my time there. I always knew I would return to Indonesia to live, although I wasn’t sure where. However, it was during later visits to Bali over the years since then that I decided Ubud, Bali was the place for me and my family.
Bali is better for me as a mother because it’s family-friendly and safe. As an entrepreneur, I find that Ubud is thriving with young business owners from around the world. The lifestyle in Ubud focuses on organic, healthy and handmade products–all passions of mine.
Another attractive aspect of living in Indonesia is the extremely low cost of living, compared to Pittsburgh. For instance, I have a two-bedroom, furnished home on a rice paddie, with a pool, for less than as the three-bedroom, unfurnished apartment I was renting on Mellon Street in East Liberty.
As a Black woman in Ubud, I feel safe and have built a small community of other Black people around me.
The latest additions to my soundtrack include Kendrick Lamar, The Internet, Rapsody and Oddisee. I’m sure there will be more along the way, and I know that Bali isn’t my last stop. I also know that I will be visiting Pittsburgh again one day. At the moment though, enjoying my family and business amongst the sunshine, culture, and peacefulness of this beautiful island is of the utmost importance.
*name has been changed