Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Do you eat dog?

I was running errands in Little India on Sunday and found myself really frustrated with the traffic in the area. It’s usually crowded on weekends with the mass exodus of Indians from the suburbs who come to these parts to replenish their groceries for the week but that day was especially brutal. Pedestrians were constantly weaving in and out of traffic, and the drivers seemed to be operating under different traffic laws altogether. It was NOT pretty, and we weren’t getting anywhere. That’s when expletives flew out of my mouth, and along with them, these words, “Oh, these Indian drivers!”

Those words felt as dirty as those other R-rated ones I used. I couldn’t believe I was stereotyping my own people! As I looked shamefully at my daughter in the rearview mirror, herself a quarter Indian, I thought to myself, with my family in another continent, is this all she will ever know of her own background? The rich cultural heritage of two incredible civilizations condensed into a series of stereotypes? To that girl in the mirror, I wanted to apologize, and I wanted to say this:

I know you will undoubtedly encounter certain truths, and distortions of it, about your background that you won’t agree with, and you may even feel ashamed and try to disassociate yourself from your own history – and essentially from me. Your friends may tease you (do you eat dog?) or say hurtful things (you smell like curry!) but that’s only because they don’t know any better.

All they know of us are perpetuated by stereotypes, such as the Chinese produce cheap, bad-quality stuff, they eat everything under the sun (ok, this part is true – but don’t knock it till you try it), they always end their dinner of chop suey and moo goo gai pan with fortune cookies (all American inventions), they run laundromats (actually, many of them are Koreans, and yes, there is a difference), and they’re shrewd business people (what’s wrong with that?). As for the Indians, they’re bad drivers (again, I’m sorry) or taxi drivers (or both!), they’re usually owners of Subway, 7Eleven and Dunkin Donuts, programmers or doctors, they only eat hot and spicy foods (not all of them - mostly the Southern Indians as the Northerners are partial to heavier, creamier dishes conducive to colder climate), and they’re all Hindus (not really – there are Muslims, Buddhists and Christians among them too).

But I want you to know that you are not defined solely by these stereotypes. You are a descendant of people who gave us these:

Great WallChinese: chopsticks (duh!), fork (bet you didn’t see this one coming), lacquer, paper, printing and publishing, wheelbarrows, compass, seismometer, cast iron, the kite, noodles (contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t the Italians who invented pasta), the abacus (the world’s first calculator), gunpowder (if intentions are noble, it can be used for good?), and fireworks (where would America’s 4th of July celebrations be without these?), cultivation of rice (duh part 2), use of salt, silk, paper currency, high-alcohol beer (cheers to this!), toothbrush, recognition and treatment of diabetes (essential to us, considering our family history), restaurant menu, tea, toilet paper (bless them), etc.

taj-mahal Indians: buttons (the ones on your clothes, not on websites, although they probably created those too, I don’t know), chess (upholding the stereotype of the Indians’ mathematical prowess?), diamonds, furnace, hospitals, iron, muslin, optical fiber, ovens, plastic surgery (see gunpowder above), private bathrooms and toilets (probably my favorite invention of theirs), puppets and puppetry, shampoo, swimming pools (probably your favorite), urban planning, wind-powered device, etc.

See, we're not so bad are we? We're from resourceful, respectable stock after all. Be proud, my love. It is in our blood. In yours. So when you are made to doubt yourself, hold your head high and remember the blood that runs in your veins and with it, the thousands of years of history – you are all of that. And more.

Click for image sources: Great wall and Taj Mahal.