Rice Bowl Journals

You may have noticed a new link on the right sidebar to the Rice Bowl Journals. I found out about them when reading Paul’s blog http://www.paulark.blogspot.com and decided to submit my blog also. They accepted me! Yoopee! RBJ bills itself as “An Asian Online Journalling Community”: it’s an umbrella site for blogs of Asian-descent bloggers. (OK, so that’s not the most graceful sentence I’ve ever written.)

As part of the RBJ registration, you’re suppose to provide your “county of origin” and “location”. Location is easy enough, indisputably I’m in California. Country of origin is harder to pinpoint. As an offspring of Cantonese parents, born in North Carolina, raised in Bangkok, and now a long-term Californian . . . What do I pick? The choices offered are China, Hong Kong and Thailand. I pick Thailand. There’s fewer people listed under Thailand, so it’s easier to stand out of the crowd. Come to think of it, that’s why I joined the Thai student’s club at Cal, instead of any of the Chinese ones.

“Where are you from?” I’ve always hated that question, even though it’s such a typical question anyone asks when making polite conversation with a stranger. (Well I also hate the “What do you do for a living?” one also. I believe people are defined by more than just their jobs. Tell me about your stamp collection or why you never eat doughnuts before a Cal football game instead.)

At home, i.e. in California, when people ask you “Where are you from”, it’s another way of asking you your ethnic origins (they don’t say “You speak English so well”, unless they’re really unplugged).

When travelling outside of the US, we tell people we’re from the US, and as every non-white-looking-American-who’s-ever-travelled knows, your interlocutor won’t believe you at first. . . The following is excerpted from “Bharat Bliss, Bharat Blues”, an account of a trip in India with my cousin Tim. . .

An East Asian in a South Asian country is as exotic a spectacle as, well, a South Asian in an East Asian country. In India on the whole, the local people are pretty friendly. Lots of people, even school kids would give a shout out to us:

“Hello Japan!”
“We’re from America.”
“You look Japan.”

With our East Asian features, people usually assume that we are Japanese. After all the Japanese tourist is as global an ubiquity as Sony TVs. It’s absolutely understandable, but incorrect. We are merely two Cantonese, born in the US, bred in Hong Kong and Thailand respectively, now based in California. We may be many things, but we are NOT from the Land of the Rising Sun. This got to be very tiresome . . .

“Where you from?”
“No, America.”
“You not look America!”

Considering that there are over a thousand dialects, two thousand castes, 32 ethnicities, and six major religions in India, what does the representative face of India look like? The irony was always lost on the speaker.

To salvage a modicum of amusement value out of these endlessly repetitive exchanges, Tim and I engaged in a rotation of responses, based on OUR assumptions about our interrogator:

1) “I’m from Manipur. She’s from Nagaland.”
Manipur and Nagaland are northern states in India, where the people tend to be fairer-skinned. Tim was tanned enough to pass as a Manipurian, and often did so, when a financial transaction was imminent, i.e., negotiating for a rickshaw fare, since locals have a bargaining advantage. But when I showed up, his cover was often blown. (“It’s that dorky hat of yours. You’re a dead ringer for a Japanese tourist in it,” complained Tim.)

2) “Nepal! Tibet!”
Many Tibetans fled to India after the Chinese invasion. Many Nepalese work in India doing jobs that Indians consider too dirty or low-paying, i.e. in hotels and restaurants, just as many Mexicans work here in California doing jobs that Californians consider beneath them.

3) “China”
While we are descended from a line of folks who ate rice daily and mooncakes on August 15 annually, neither of us have ever resided in the Middle Kingdom.

4) “America”
This response causes the most confusion, since we aren’t loudly demanding for our diet Cokes to be charged on an American Express card and why can’t they put ice in it. Neither do we look like any of the people the speaker has seen in the movies or TV shows imported from the US

Hollywood needs to diversify casting, partly to provide more work to minority actors. But more importantly they need to do so so that when I’m travelling abroad, the people I encounter don’t think, “Whom does she think she’s trying to fool, passing herself off as an American? I’ve seen the Cosby Show. What a fake!”

5) “California”
Many Indians are beginning to think of California not just as the habitat of blond surfers, but as the roosting spot for many of their compatriots who have become software engineers in Silicon Valley. California is also home to parachute kids, vegan parents of adopted Chinese girl orphans, Afro-Korean taekwondo masters, Republican lesbians, and other stereotype-defying square pegs. It was rather ironic that I was reading Isabel Allende’s “Daughter of Fortune” on this trip. It’s set during the 1849 Gold Rush, which attracted fortune-seekers from all over the world.

In Udaipur, we were wandering around the streets on a quiet hot Sunday afternoon. A man came across the street to say hello to us. He lived in Fresno and worked for the EPA. He was in town to visit his grandmother. He thought we were Singaporean.

If we had been in China, and someone was surprised when I told them I was American, I would have said, “You know Michael Chang, the tennis player? He’s American.” Or if we were in Japan: “Well you know Kristi Yamaguchi, the skater? She’s American.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of any famous Indo-American sports figures. I could only come up with Vijay Singh, the golfer, and he’s Fijian.


2 thoughts on “Rice Bowl Journals

  1. That reminded me of my semilar experiences in Bali four years ago when I traveled with an American family (Jewish). They would say America and I would say America. Of course mine answer was always questioned and corrected. “No, you Japan.” ” No, America.” ” No, you Singapore” ” No, America.” ” No, you Hong Kong.” I don’t remember if I had developed a cute answer for them. My friends would “rescue” me by saying I am from America. I actually liked to tease them.

  2. Hi,

    Read about your trip to India. Just some minor corrections.

    Manipur and Nagaand are in the North Eastern part of India and they are certainly not “Northern states in India” as you have mentioned.

    People from Manipur are called Manipuris and not “Manipurians”

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