A little over a year ago, I joined a local organization of immigrants from a certain state of India (I won't reveal more than that). I'd come across this obscure group while web surfing. I'm a fan of the region's cuisine, they seemed to organize some cool events, and I figured it might be fun to join up and be a part of it all.
So I emailed the club's chairman and asked whether it would be permissible. He was surprised by the inquiry, but also touched - and impressed by our ensuing animated discussion of his home state's food and music. I was invited, with great warmth, to be the association's first-ever gringo member. Elated to receive my shiny cardboard membership card in the mail, I eagerly read the frequent newsletters, and boned up on the region's culture and politics.
Yes, there was a tinge of irony to it all, but I did feel some real sense of belonging, though I'd not met a single member or attended any events. I flashed my membership card in car service offices and spice shops for my 10% discount, taking secret pleasure in the bewildered reactions of dispatchers and clerks, and awaited with great anticipation the next club Feast.
One day, I received a club email about a concert scheduled for the following month. It would be a fundraiser featuring a sort of music that didn't interest me. I ignored it. A more persistent email followed. And then I received a voicemail from the chairman. "Jim, this is Vijay. Would you please ring me back at your earliest convenience? I hope all is well with you!". I called back, and Vijay reminded me that the fundraiser was coming up, and that he needed - no, he EXPECTED me - to buy a couple of VIP level tickets at $75 each. He laid it on quite thickly, phrasing it in a way that permitted no graceful escape, and I had to restrain a bit of pique. This fellow, who I hardly knew and had never met, seemed totally out of line with his pushiness! It felt, in the pit of my stomach, as if I'd somehow been conned.
And then I realized that surely every club member had received a similar call. And that I'd asked to join a tight-knit association of paisano families, and, hey, this is part of the deal! And this realization changed everything.
I'm more accustomed to fake family-joining. Ten thousand times I'd gone into restaurants, befriended the staff, and eventually been regarded as Hungarian or Ecuadorian (or at least as a hip gringo who "gets it"), departing with the warm feeling of having been accepted. But that acceptance was never reciprocal. I'd go home, while the restaurant remained a destination I could choose to revisit...or not. That's not a relationship, it's merely a consumer decision.
On the phone with Vijay, who I'd finessed into treating me like a brother, my instinctual flinch turned to shame as truth dawned. I'd joined as a pose, welcoming the feeling of belonging (and the promise of some good meals), but expecting, for my part, to remain totally aloof. I guess I'd hoped it would function like a restaurant, with open borders in one direction only. The con was mine!
I'd love to report that, upon recognizing my folly, I'd sighed, bought a couple of VIP tickets, and generally melted into my new family; that I'd done the converse of "go local", and had gone immigrant.
Instead, I told Vijay I'd think about it, never got back to him, and eventually let my membership lapse. I did drive a couple hours to one event, which turned out to feature several hours of stand-up comedy in an unfamiliar language. At last, they opened the buffet line, serving uninteresting grub from a local Indian restaurant. I gulped down my ven pongal and bolted, feeling confused and vaguely ashamed.
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