Friday, June 22, 2018

My Ethnicity

If you know a culture's food and their music, you know the culture. I've milked a lot of mileage out of that truism. I've gone broad, but I also tried to go deep. Most food writers are aloofly inflexible types who behave the same and approach their meal the same wherever they go. They're anthropological astronauts landing, ingesting, and blasting back out again; immutable gaping mouths accepting a range of comestibles neatly taxonimized in their mental database. The Chewmaster 3000.

Even though I'm an influence for some of them, I can't relate at all, having started out as a musician whose manner, mindset, and performance were unrecognizable from gig to gig. My whole thing was always about fitting in like a chameleon, so I'd rather die than stride into a Ghanaian restaurant with the mindset of Whitey McWhitedude. Ecuadorian sopa de camarones isn't just Another Ethnic Soup for me. It's an utterly unique entity redolent of unimaginable joy, poverty and nostalgia. You need to really feel that, and bring it to the experience. You need some frickin' empathy (my smartphone app, Eat Everywhere, can help).

I mean, I am what I am, and I'm neither deluded nor patronizing, so, no, I'm not the asshole who strides into Jamaican places with a rasta hat bellowing "Yah, man!" But if I'm eating Jamaican, that's more than just "ethnic food" to me. It's important. I'm there to nourish my inner Jamaican and to merge. We all contain the cultural stem cells to be anything, and I live to channel this latent potential in every possible direction. I don't even care if anyone notices. I'm not putting on a show, I'm just doing what I need to do.

I've already written about this (see here). Now I want to expand on the idea by noting that there are many levels of blending in, of immersion, of identification with a given slice of the human cultural pie. Sure, I can put on a blazer and eat Crêpes Suzette with good posture (or play chamber music with uptight prigs for a frosty audience) and make it work. I can "pass" in lots of places and in lots of ways. But that's not the very deepest level.

There are a few cultures I identify so strongly with that I feel that I legitimately belong. Here's where I think I stand:

15% African American
10% Latino
10% Mexican
10% Spanish/Catalan
5% Indian
2% Japanese
.1% Newfoundlander

I may not talk or look or act like any of these groups. I may not dress like them or celebrate their holidays. That stuff's all external, and I grew bored with external diversity years ago. I'm interested in the deeper stuff. The mind frame; the perspective; the flavor. I think like them. I dream like them. My speech may not bear the accent, but my silent breath certainly does.

I know I'm really part of a culture (and vice versa) when I can play the music like a native, without the slightest accent. But the post-grad test is to make natives laugh. If I can hit their resonance points, making them laugh - not at universal observations but from their own unique native skew - then I know I'm there. And I can. I can crack up even the most sheltered, provincial person in any of those groups. Of course, the other groups I belong to would respond impassively to those same words, but that's natural. Different stem cells serve different contexts!

In case you missed it, here is the discombobulating tale of a cultural homecoming of my own not long ago.

A curious fact I don't understand, though something tells me it's related: I've had many loved - and liked - ones pass away. I was sorry to see them go, and wish they'd had more time, and remember them fondly, but, for varying reasons, I don't particularly miss the vast majority. I wouldn't use up a genie wish for one last dinner. All the dead people I sorely miss are, for some reason, black. Rest in peace - and come back soon - Walter Perkins, Gwen Cleveland (a bonus!), Major Holley, and Johnny Grimes.

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