Tuesday, April 25, 2006

One of these things is not like the other

Malaysia is a simmering cultural stew. Just as rasam, dosha, and idli are inexorably linked to childhood memories - the clattering of aluminum dishes and endless tumblers of squash, so are bao, congee, the staccato of chopsticks and the watermelon flavor of soybean milk.

Dim sum is comfort food. The gathering of family around a giant table with an impressive lazy susan, each uncle making sure to order his favorites. For me, it's the original tapas - trying a little taste of something you're not too sure about, sampling all kinds of flavors and textures. Now, eating dim sum with those who are relatively new to it is an opportunity to teach: sesame balls, dumplings with chives, shrimp noodle, etc.

I was thrilled to get invited to the Hong Kong Flower Lounge for a dim sum birthday party. Scanning the eVite, I saw that I would be one of the few non 'Asian Asian' people attending. No biggie, I know my way around dim sum. I arrived and I asked for the birthday party. When that drew blank looks, I asked for the Shen party. The hostess started to lead me .... away from the main hall, upstairs and into a party room.

The room held about 5 large tables, perfectly set, including gift bags (in fuschia and aqua.) We're not in a dim sum restaurant anymore, thought I. Surveying the room, I found five women gathered at the far end finishing up the party favors. Oh, I'm definitely not in the right place. At this point, they had spotted me, so I had to say "Ha! Looks like I'm not at the right party!" One women asked, "Are you a Zeta??" Uh, no. And if I were, wouldn't I look less confused/bemused? That explained it, though: the perfect place settings, the elegantly flipped hair, twin sets, and pearl earrings. I wished them well, and then beat a hasty retreat.

As IF! Just because I'm not of the Chinese persuasion, I was lumped in with the OTHER non-Chinese people at the restaurant. Even after asking for a distinctly 'Asian Asian' name, I was still categorized that way.

I wasn't offended, I was amused. With a little more time, it's made me think. A friend and I had a "discussion" about race. His take on it was that race is such a small part of my experience - to which I responded that anything is small, depending on how you dice the pieces. Race, or how you are identified is more than your perception of yourself, it's also in the way that society perceives you. I could wake up tomorrow and decide that I'm absolutely 110% male, but that would not change how others interact with me (at least not without some very concerted effort, and even then, somewhat doubtful.)

I remember shopping in Madras with my mother when I was maybe 10, and hearing a child about my age remark (in Tamil) about the 'American' and knowing that he meant me. At the time, I thought of my elementary school classmates, one of whom regaled me by whooping and doing a war dance around me. I was too stunned by the ignorance to even try and explain the "dot not feathers" distinction. While to many (most?) Americans, I'll never quite be thought of as an American, I'm in no way considered Indian by Indians either. Where does that leave me?

14 comments:

CM said...

That last paragraph rings so true that a dozen encounters like that immediately sprang to mind. Especially on the school bus: "Do you worship cows? Do you live in a teepee? Where's the dot on your head?" Those were seriously confused kids.

Paperback Writer said...

Man, I worry about my poor future kids. Half Filipino and half Jewish. Oy vey!

I had a similiar experience as your's in Madras. Filipinos always referred to me as the American. And here? Well, you can guess that I'm categorized as the American.

terence said...

or the "nice to meet you terence...what's your indian name". i love that one...

maisnon said...

Mashup: terence, you should play off of CM and my experience. The next time someone asks for your Indian name, straight up say "Running Bear."

CM said...

That is a great idea. I should totally think up an "Indian name" for myself.

I wrote a brain-dump response to your post that could have gone on for pages and pages, but I cut myself off. On my blog.

And paperback writer, embrace the inevitable confusion by naming your kids things like "Hirofumi Guillaume."

Paperback Writer said...

CM: You know we already have our kids names picked out: Sylvan James, Hannah Lily, Maxwell Vincent and Katherine Rose. Eh, none of them sound particarly Jewish or Filipino. :)

However, I will keep Hirofumi Guillaume in mind.

TheBarmaid said...

In first grade someone asked me once if I lived in a teepee.

Chai said...

i love, "so you are gandhi lover?" and for some reason, that question is also asked with such hate and it causes me to be hateful, that it's just a weird question.

esp. when you are in sixth grade.

ashvin said...

maisnon:

1. I liked the way you spelt 'Dosha' (the mal way) despite wikipedia spelling it 'Dosai' (the tam way).

2. I did not know about congee before. Who knew that there were Korean words derived from Malayalam (atleast according to wikipedia) ! Though it should be spelt 'Kanyi' to be true to the mal pronunciation.

ashvin said...

I can't believe I misspelled spelled.

I'm embarassed.

maisnon said...

ashvin: I know, right? I was really surprised about the Mallu connection re: congee. I can't wait to tell my best friend (Taiwanese) about it.

Hey, at least you're embarassed and not embarassado! ;)

ashvin said...

I had to look it up to get the joke. Yeah it would be weird if I were embarassado :)

It turns out I even spelled embarrassed wrong. What this blogger comment thing needs is spell-check, or perhaps I need a new brain.

Paperback Writer said...

Naw, you don't need a new brain.:)

Venitha said...

Good for you for breaking through some of these cultural stereotypes. It's hard not to have them, though. I hope the dim sum was good. =)