Thursday, June 26, 2008

Belonging

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.

------
Update
The best part of this story can be found in the comments, below. Don't miss them!

8 comments:

drooga said...

indians - like most asians - have a hard time saying no.

so they ignore the subject, become evasive, disappear, don't pick up the phone, say the check is in the mail etc.

as an evolutionary response, the pushiness has become very aggressive. and when that pushiness meets normal gringo politeness ... ouch.

btw - you did give us a hint which state it was.

Jim Leff said...

Sure, but no way he'd have felt comfortable enough to inflict me with that friends-and-relatives level of cultural pushiness unless he deemed me an insider. And I'd used a brute strength attack to attain insider-ship, using tactics learned from decades in restaurants. And it was highly inappropriate of me to use those skills on civilians. Every Indian or Hawaiian or Sichuan is not a restaurateur.

My mechanic (and buddy), Tony, a real wheeler-dealer, loves to tell people he "loves" them. Sometimes that means he likes them (a little), sometimes it means he wants to demonstrate how gentle he is, sometimes it means he needs to ask a favor. It's become his habit. But he doesn't watch reactions as closely as I do, and I see the fallout as people buy it a little.

drooga said...

i should point out that just as you got the friends and family get hard sell, what you gave back was a typical friends and family response by letting your membership lapse.

if you join up again, all you'll get is pure appreciation and warm fuzzy statements - till the NEXT hard sell. and so the wheel spins on ..

Jim Leff said...

Ah, excellent point! In a twisted sense, I actually proved myself one of the group by running away! Maybe I didn't betray anyone after all!

But it wasn't the pushiness that turned me off, per se. It was the disorienting realization that I hadn't pretend-joined, as usual, but, had found myself truly ensconced in someone else's family, warts and all. They were all blinking at me in paisano/clan-hood. Man, I could have probably borrowed money from any of them, the whole thing totally freaked me out, I wasn't really ready for that....which revealed me as a horrendous phony, after all my sanctimonious joy re: crossing borders and singing kumbaya with the united waiters of Benetton.

But, again, maybe that reaction was totally dead-on right. You know, I just remembered....while I spent 2.5 hours bored out of my skull watching that bad stand-up comedy in a foreign language, I peered around the audience and it was clear that about 90% of them were as bored as I was (and the kids weren't even hiding it). So maybe the only reaction to every single bit of this story is to nod one's head vigorously, saying "Very good! That's exactly right!!"

drooga said...

exactly! EVERYONE's bored at those things and the quality of food is guaranteed to be lousy (its been donated/discounted whatever). nobody really wants to be at those things - they are there because the hassle of showing up beat the hassle of ignoring the organizer.

everybody played their part - including the no shows.

fyi - indians can be relentless. i just had a friend visit from bombay who hassled me like crazy to change my plans so i could have a drink with him sunday evening. of course theres no sign of him sunday, but come monday morning he calls and starts swearing at me for ignoring him sunday. then he forgives me by arranging another date.

and i admit - i do this too.

Jim Leff said...

Yeah, ok, I totally get it. If I had been, like, FASCINATED by the awful stand-up comedy, if I had affably grabbed for my wallet to buy the tickets, if I had worked the room during the buffet, meeting everyone with bright big happy eyes and endless interest, I'd have been the biggest, most flagrant gringo EVER.

So I was belonging more than I ever imagined.

But the question is: do THEY know that? Or, in their minds, was I a gringo put off by their "foreign ways"?

drooga said...

they'll take a gringo excited by everything as a tribute to the depth of their own culture/cuisine etc and they'll be pointing said gringo out for the rest of the evening.

but a gringo who's just as bored as they are is news for about three minutes or however long it takes the collective grandpas/grandmas to understand that you haven't wandered in there by mistake.

after that, you're one of the crowd. hey its a billion+ people, we're used to differences in a crowd.

Jim Leff said...

Excited Gringo/Bored Gringo.

That'll be the title of my upcoming BBC series.

Blog Archive