Thursday, March 29, 2007

Is that racist?

Holding up a "PC for Dummies" book, she approached me and said, "I should ask you because you obviously know more about this stuff than me."

This was the "excuse me, can you help?" that I got from a middle-aged white customer, looking for beginner's advice on digital conversion and imaging.

(OK, all you out there probably know what I'm going to say next.)

My gut reaction was to take the book from her and riffle through it -- fine.

My (split) second reaction was to wonder: Waaiiidaminit.Why should I obviously know more about computers than she would? THAT'S RACIST!

My third reaction was to admit to myself: But I do know about computers... I guess the stereotype is true that all Asians know more about computers than the general white population.

My fourth reaction was to admonish myself: That's silly, that whole statement could be false and conversely so as well.

My fifth reaction was to wonder if that's what she meant by her first statement in the first place. Maybe she actually meant "you young person" rather than "you Asian person." Perhaps??

My sixth reaction, and this was close to a millisecond before I reacted to her inquiry, was to give up my usual recursive thinking process and despair that every single thing said to me by any kind of person would be considered racist by me.

Do you ever get that feeling?

If someone asked me out of the blue, "where's the nearest Japanese restaurant?" is that racist? (true, I probably would have been able to give them an answer. . .)

If someone bowed their head in passing on the street to acknowledge me, is that racist? (true, I would have bowed my head back. . .)

If a touring Asian couple intentionally avoided asking me about map directions and went to ask a white employee instead, is that racist? (true, I probably would have directed them to the same white employee cause I'm clueless about my surroundings, never mind directions. . .)

Tell me if you do or don't, but I find myself scouring every input and output for any trace of even the slightest possibility of racism when none may exist at all. Or on the other suspicious hand, it may permeate all interactions. I've realized and forgotten over and over that there is a fine line between racism and altering behavior based on cultural background. All of those scenarios above define people I know. Is it worth getting angry about if there's no hostility intended? I suppose we get angry because there's a definite frustration that people aren't educated in our specific situation. "We aren't Asian, we're Asian American. Our native language is English, not Chinese. We are integrated into the American culture, not foreigners. So stop treating us like we are!"

The question we have to ask ourselves: How can someone tell if we're Asian or Asian American? African American or Haitian American? French or French American? Does the label really matter? Should it matter? Should there be an initial assumption that we are all, by default, acclimated Americans until proven otherwise?

And more importantly, should we be focusing so much of our attention on it? I'm getting all riled up and confused as we speak! This recursive thought loop has spun out of control.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Nerds because we choose it?

I was probably considered a nerd in high school.

At least, I considered myself one. . . and was slightly traumatized all my pubescent life thinking I was one. . . and idolized my sister who was a punk&grunge dude-person three years below me.

In a moment of needed quiet today, I read the first few pages of Hackers & Painters, by Paul Graham. His first idea is that nerds are unpopular because they are too busy being smart, or rather, striving to increase their arena of knowledge. Becoming popular, as he says, is a constant effort, a “following the consensus,” of which nerds don’t have as much passion for, as much as learning how to create things.

My moment of quiet eventually turned into a nice afternoon nap, of which I’ve just woken, but I remember thinking as I slid into peaceful oblivion that I didn’t quite agree with Paul the Nerd. Was I really not bothered enough to really want it? Was all the passionate hatred of sweatpants, obsession with scrunchies and facial hair, writing down and scrutinizing every outfit that Claudia from the Baby-sitters Club wore, not wearing my owl-eye glasses to the prom to look prettier (but a lot more blind -- let’s save that for another post, shall we?), stealing moon-eyed glances at Danny and Chris whenever I got the chance, and sheer desperateness to get any sort of acknowledgment from any of the girls in the in-crowd – was it all “not really wanting it”?

I agree with Graham that, eventually, it became more of a conscious choice not to keep trying, and to take it off the priority list and onto the wishful thinking list. But I don’t agree that it was because I was smart. I think it was more because I was naive. Believe it or not, I do recall being popular back in nursery school, all the way through 2nd or 3rd grade, which culminated in all its glory by going to a really popular student's house with a whole bunch of other popular students to film a science project.

That's when the trouble started happening. I wasn't allowed to go out until I had finished my homework and practiced piano, which oftentimes ended up being too late in the day, as my parents needed to check my stuff. I couldn't make or receive phone calls from boys. I couldn't attend social events that had boys in it. I couldn't sleep over a girl's house. But I could talk on the phone with "girls only!" to ask about homework, and get straight A+'s, and win piano competitions.

Being raised in America by conservative parents, who were raised in Eastern Asia until their early 20's, really affects the level of awareness that makes its way (or doesn't make it's way) into a developing child's mind, their idea of choice and control. The same family environment that I experienced may have propelled me into popular-dom in Asia, but there was a fear left exposed in American society that prevented me from getting farther than 2nd grade. Perhaps for Graham and other American nerds (OK, so this post isn't quite PC. . .), interest in constructive projects led the way to nerd-ity, but for me, it was fearful innocence that led me to fall behind in the "social" system, and choose to go for something easier and more predictable: the academic system.

And so, myself in my early 20's, a fresh awareness was wrenched out of me that has helped me determine the quirks of what we call life -- unlike the academic world, there's actually the concept that there is no wrong answer and there doesn't have to be any judgment.

So I'm not a nerd.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Try your mouth at soup




Ah... Mm-hmm!


Ah... This soup is so good, so warm...

I look up in the deserted room. No wait, it's not deserted, I recall, after seeing that the tables around me are filled with my fellow employees on their lunch break. It's amazing how quiet people can eat. As I look down to savor another delightful spoonful of Au Bon Pain chicken soup:


I look up again, just quickly enough to catch a number of pairs of eyes dart back to their own meals. They were looking at me because... huh? I scan my memory of how I dressed this morning, of how I was seated at the table. I happen to glance at my soup on my way down.

Ohhhh... oops.

The culture conundrum strikes again!

After learning how to fully savor the flavor of hot soup, while cooling it off by vacuuming it full speed into my mouth, thanks to Japanese tradition, I have remained faithful to that technique -- and it has served me well while eating hot ramen noodles, steaming nabeyaki udon, and yes, the occasional store-made reheated chicken soup. While previously unconscious of using this delectable skill, having only used it in Asian restaurants or at home with my culturally-educated ("imposed" may be a closer word) significant other, I had a sudden reverse culture shock after now almost three years back in the States. We don't slurp hot liquids in America. Duh. That goes for hot coffee and green tea as well, I remind myself now. Such a sad, sad thing. Americans are missing out on the fun, I must say.

Not only do you risk burning your tongue by directly pouring fundamentally undisturbed hot substances into your mouth, all the flavor is left undisturbed, still nestled within the liquid itself. Plus all the trouble of trying not to make any sounds -- that's a toughie. So how do you get to savor the aroma of the food?

OK, take wine tasting. Hear the sounds that experts and the gargles that amateurs make? Each one of those sounds has a purpose, which is to direct the scent molecules -- the essence of the food -- into the nasal cavity to make it a fuller, more enriching and distinguishing experience. That's the purpose, and it's not strange in that situation. In fact, it's weird if you don't make the slurping noises. (As chewing is a parallel for solid food.)

With practice, hot liquids also become aerated enough during the process to drop in temperature, adding another layer of satisfaction -- one of not having your tongue turned into rubber the next day.

A challenge: I recommend that this week, you try a bit of soup or tea "the Asian way" and see what you think. I've had the occasional splash-in-the-eye from a delinquent noodle, yes, but those of you who persevere will be richly rewarded. I was a doubter too, but here I am!

Monday, March 12, 2007

When will the noises end?

At last, there was something that happened unusual enough to spark me to write. I'm talking this time about the state of racism. Ironically, the "aggressors" in this case are often enough the purposeful victims in a majority of other cases, screaming their outrage on public TV.

I'm not trying to be hostile here, I'm just telling it like I see (and today, experienced) it. What happened was this. My sister and I were walking down Mt. Auburn Street, the main road that runs from Harvard Square in Cambridge to Watertown. Close to a main intersection, there was a bus that was parked off to the side chock-full of black kids, probably at the first or second grade level. There was a huge ruckus coming from them, a byproduct of high doses of Kool-Aid and the freshly minted just-got-out-of-school-yay!! rush, I would venture to guess.

As we approached, we started getting excited hellos and cat calls -- dozens of boys sticking their arms out the half-open windows and leaning to get our attention, "Hey!! You're beautiful!!!" (Though I would not consider this unusual from any race). I braced for it, because I just knew it was coming. I didn't have to wait long for that bitter mix of satisfaction, for being right, and disappointment, for what really did happen. It was as pure and as sword-slitting smooth as the first time Rosie O'Donnell uttered her own "Ching Chong" slur. As we passed the bus, we were followed by high-pitched Chinese-sounding noises, a continuous stream of shouts reminiscent of pop-culture TV desperately trying to mimic Chinese food stalls and dry-cleaning joints.

I knew it was coming, but I was astounded by the sudden, very sad realization that these kids are our next generation. Not to mention that they, the race that has withstood just as much obvious racism and perhaps more in its history, were being brought up, in current times, insensitive to the effects of "the word" -- or in this case, "the noises."

If these kids weren't so young, I would have labeled them hypocrites, but how could they know any better than what their own society and family values are teaching them every step of the way; every input they get, every role model they see? We say we the U.S. are so far along, we're so much better than we were 10, 20, 30 years ago. Then why am I not surprised anymore? Why have I begun, in my post-babied life, to need to learn how to take the racist slurs, noises, and cat calling, and just "deal with it"?

My grief is this: in one of the most liberal and intelligent places in the U.S. as Cambridge, how is it imaginable that even these children here are no different?

I am saddened by the thought, and there's no way out.