Thursday, December 15, 2005

Representing Your Culture

Do you remember one of the lists that used to be the regular part of email forwards during the early days of the internet, one that had a title called "You Know You Are A Desi When ... "? That list, plus Sardar jokes, Bill Clinon jokes and 'Why Computers Are Female' used to form the staple diet of my inbox in those days (ah, 90s nostalgia). But one of my relatives who discovered the internet like yesterday sent me one such email.

"Hey look what I discovered on the net, pretty funny, ALL ARE SO TRUE!!" Ya, R--- Apu, thank you very much. Welcome to the 1995s. I would have pressed the 'Delete' button but one item on the list caught my eye.

"You know you are a desi when you speak to foreigners you act as if you represent your entire culture."

This is SO TRUE. OMG. I sound like R--- Apu.

I am taking this evening class called Advanced Database Design. It consists of mostly middle aged people who have suddenly decided Database Design is the way to go, even though they are like, in Marketing. The only guy below 25 is me. They are all pretty nice folks, and yesterday, after our evening class was over, everyone decided we should have an official Christmas party/dinner after our last class. We started to debate the nearby restaurants and where to go.

"Chinese? No, we have that too often. How about Greek? No, ok what about ... ?" and so on it went, until one guy suddenly blurted, "Hey, I KNOW!! Why don't we have INDIAN food?"

As if on cue, EVERYone turned to look at me. And I am not even Indian. Close enough, it would appear. Just because I was brown, I am expected to have a Top 10 review of all Indian restaurants within a 10 km radius.

There was the time I was with a few friends in Montreal and we went for Italian food. That restaurant seemed to have pork and alcohol in every dish, so I stuck to the seafood (yucky looking mussels, shrimps, some barely cooked salmon and oysters). My friend's girlfriend (they are Tamil) saw my plate and automatically concluded, "Oh fish? Ya, I heard you Bengalis have a thing for fish." In this instance I am not the regular Bong, I LOVE meat. Fish I can barely tolerate. Now, whenever I am invited to my friend's place, his girlfriend (now wife) cooks fish. And since they are Tamil, the fish tends to be really spicy. Trust me, you don't want to go there. Jhaal Bighead cooked in Telapia Style *shivers*.

Then there was one Irish electrical engineer at my last job for whom we were developing a computer system. He had to explain this mathematical chart called Dry Bulb Enthalpy to me. Instead he goes, "oh I don't have to explain the formula to you, I heard South Asians are good at mathematics." What was I supposed to say to him, "I'm sorry I'm the dumb one. But seeing you are Irish you are probably drunk anyways." I mean if someone is stereotyping you but in the GOOD way is that racism? Is there such a thing called 'affirmative racism'?

In that respect I let his good opinion of desis continue while I googled later for what I needed.

The biggest debacle is when someone picks up something you did and concludes its Muslim culture. I have a bad habit of separating caspicum from my rice in any dish. I hate caspicum. My Jewish buddy sees me do this and exclaims, "See? We Jews and you muslims have very similar laws. I cannot eat fish, milk and meat together, and you guys apparently cannot eat rice and caspicum together. We have a lot of similarities."

If the menu was the only problem in the Middle East we would be living in a better world.



Anisa said...

it's stressful for me because so often i am the only muslim a lot of people come in contact with in my circle, so i do represent islam to a lot of people. it's a huge responsibility...

it certainly seems unfair, but i do the best i can.

and i'm indian, but don't like indian i never get asked for my opinion on that! :)

great post.

Aisha said...

It's called the burden of the minority. All minorities have this burden that a bad encounter with you will lead to an assumption all of your race are similar.

I think that's why when I went to Turkey I felt so free. I was a Muslim amongst Muslims... no need to represent my faith to all who see. IT was an amazing thing.

Pakistan has been ages for me but my brother recently went and he said it felt like a burden lifting to just be you and not have to worry about representing all of your faith and culture.... though i guess we could give ABCD's a bad name:)

Masti-boy said...

I always tip 15% to wash the impression that "these f***ng Indians don't tip"

Anonymous said...

Yup. what you have said is just so true.
With respect to the "South Asians are smart anyways theory", its a conception that has been exaggerated a bit too much. Not all south asians are smart. Some of them have to be explained certain concepts and principles. I remember one time, I went for a job interview at a company and the interviewer asked me, "So, what do you know about wireless technology in data devices like Pocket PC, Blackberry etc". I told him that I knew some information with respect to the functionality and performance of the devide. His immediate response was "Yes, I am not surprised..Since you guyz make them anyways..Indians are smart"
At that time I knew that even if this guy hired me, he would be expecting quite a lot from me NOT BASED ON MY KNOWLEDGE or EDUCATION, but based on my Background Credential of BEING A BORN INDIAN.
While these types of things are good complements of the work Indians are doing in the world and the fact that you are being recognized, it also can turn to destroy you completely.

I tell people now-a-days, if you guys give Indians the "BRAINIAC" complement, then also give it to Chinese, Russians and Arab (esp from Jordan, Egypt) people as well as they too are geniuses.


Tea Biscuit said...

but wait! They say "Indians are smart". But they don't say "Bengalis are". And just make that correction, Bangladesh is an independent country! lol.. and yes, I have seen quite a big number of Egyptian and Jordanian genius.
But is that true that Jews can't eat "fish, milk and meat" together? I didn't know about that? Is that a "Jewish" thing or it's your friend's personal thing?

mezba said...

@anisa: I feel your pain. In Toronto there's lots of Muslims but where I work I am usually the only one they will meet. So I have to be 'good'.

@aisha: last time when I went to UAE I felt the same way. However going to Muslim countries brings other factors: now you are expected to do certain things that you forgot about while living here. Like not wear the Make-Povery-History bracelet. People think you are fruity.

@masti: ALL Canadians are supposedly bad tippers, so I am pretty insulated there!

@Behbood: maybe Indians should bring back the flying carpet technology :-) I know I would love it during the morning rush hour.

@Tea: Nah, when they lump us bengalis with Indians, I usually correct them. But when they praise South Asians as a whole, I let them be. About the Jews, yes it's true.

Nabeel said...

hahaha that was funny how everyone looked at your when "Indian food" came up. You're right, you're suddenly the ambassador of Indian Culture and food, i hate it too.

And yes you're right on the culture representation .. if we see a white guy rob a bank .. oh he has to feed his family, and he's intelligent that's why he dared to rob a bank and we end up making a movie about him. If a black guy robs a bank .. ahhh send him to jail that's where 'these people' belong. And if we see a Muslim guy rob a bank .. he's a god damnnnnnnn terrorist .. he will give this money to fund a terror training program or to buy WMD ..

that's how it is man
and yes .. one white tip and from the blue trip you right on the erased words. Everyone used to have it .. it became a necessity. It was a good excuse of cheating in exam. If you get caught talking, you can simply say "miss remover maang rehey they"

Panchappan said...

Your post is hilarious! I found some desi comic strips in the same vein of humor at Check it out!