More than thirty years ago on a very ordinary evening, a most extraordinary thing happened to a small town brown-skinned Indian child. While twilight lit the waters of Pennsylvania’s Sabula Lake and cooled the evening, the insides of a small waterside house warmed with cooking onions and masala. A table normally set for four added a fifth seat. The guest of honor was my friend and neighbor Katie. She was a lovely, light-haired girl who was all things American to me. She ate hotdogs, had fair skin, and went to church. I ate curry, had a thin black mustache and a statue of Krishna on my windowsill.
Until that night, I’d always felt the cultural divide between my Indian family and the Americans to be a fence I’d spend most of my life trying to climb. This was the 1980’s, when America was a melting pot and everyone wanted to jump in. I did too, but I was always painfully aware that I couldn’t never fully shed my skin.
So the fact that Katie - when so many others girls had entered my kitchen, plugged their noses and left – was not only willing to sit at my table but also try my family’s food didn’t just feel like a nice gesture. It felt like a friend on the other side of the barrier was prying a nail loose from one of the boards so she could stick out her hand.
My mother spooned curry chickpeas and chicken onto her plate. Katie smelled and raised a spoonful to her mouth. We all waited expectantly. I didn’t want her to just try everything. I wanted her to like it all, as much as my brother and I liked apple pie and hamburgers.
A bite went in. She chewed. She swallowed. Would she go in for another? “What do you think? “ I asked.
She moved the food a bit around on her plate. She looked puzzled for a moment, as if trying to decipher what was in it. Then she seemed to abandon the effort and smiled. “I like it!” By the end of dinner, her plate was clean.
After that, Katie always insisted we include our curry with the deviled eggs and fruit salads at neighborhood potlucks. We had one less difference between us and over time the list of what we had in common grew.
But I can’t say the fence between me and other Americans ever completely came down. I suspect this fish-out-of-water feeling is part of what compelled me to become an expat.
That journey brought me to another special dinner last week at an oceanside Indonesian warung. On the surface, it looked like any other evening in today’s Asia. The guests included my Aunt visiting from India, my Singaporean friends – a couple that is part Indonesian, part Chinese - and their extended Chinese family. We enjoyed a table full of Balinese dishes before heading to a theater show of the Ramayana, an epic Hindu tale also celebrated in India.
Then the twilight started to do just what it had once done in Pennsylvania – light the surface of the water and cool the evening. Something about the moment made me think of Katie.
In many ways, I’d become her at that moment. I may look Indian but really live as an American amongst Asians. I also felt a bit like what I imagine she’d felt at our table – different in a way that doesn’t necessarily need to be questioned or changed.
Which is perhaps why my head started to spin. While I’d like to believe I’ve developed an innate flexibility when amongst other cultures, this particular evening was even more eclectic than the norm. We had cuisine, languages and religions all mixing in the span of an hour. It unsettled me.
In my last post, I examined whether “Where Are You From?” is an outdated question. Now I find myself wondering why being confronted with another culture’s foods or words or beliefs can be so challenging? Why do we need to pause and think in these situations at all? What exactly are we trying to get our head around?
Conceptual artist Hetain Patel explores this in his own work. He’s of Indian heritage and was born and raised in Manchester, England. Amongst other works, he has delivered talks in made-up Mandarin with the use of a heavily accented Chinese translator. His creative cultural combinations are intentionally disconcerting and he says this is because they disrupt perceptions and expectations. Our understanding can always expand, but it will never cease to have boundaries. He tries to push these edges out as far as possible.
I agree but see the tension from a slightly different angle. I think newness shakes us up because it wakes our innate call to wonder and think. Some prefer not to heed it, which is fine. But for others, the unexpected breathes life into curiosity, which is a transformative force unto itself. This can be both exciting and frightening because the moment we start exploring is the moment we expose our own lives to examination.
Some new experiences will make us appreciate what we have. Others will make us question and even judge parts of our life. If I suddenly like spicy food, will everything else go bland? Can I be comfortable in Communist China and still be American? Can I be Christian and still see God in a Hindu story?
In this way, I asked myself that evening: if Americans, Indians, Indonesians and Chinese can all enjoy the same food, language, and religious epics, are there really any cultural differences than matter? If not, then why have I felt so aware of so many of them all of these years? I suspect the answers are steeped in a mixture of history and experience, topics for another day.
The end goal in all of this is quite simple – empathy for all of humanity – and I think the questions themselves carry us far in that direction. When Katie asked herself one day whether or not she could like Indian food, she took herself from cultural tourist – a mere observer – to culturally immersed – one willing to be live in another's culture and let it impact her. She risked her own comfort by opening her heart to me, and this made me feel accepted as I was. The act was seemingly small. But in reality, it was big enough for me to still remember and pass the experience forward.
(Photo above by Ravi K. Jolly)