Saturday, August 18, 2007

Heights I'll never reach

Some pictures from my afternoon in Jackson Heights, NY

I spent the afternoon in Jackson Heights, Queens, also known as Little India. It is a few blocks of Indian grocers, music stores, jewelry stores, restaurants, dvd/video stores, vendors selling kulfi (rich, creamy Indian ice cream) and paan (gross leaves filled with gross stuff that stain your mouth red that Indians like to eat as a breath freshener or something.... I ask why not chewing gum?) line the streets. Women in shilwar khameezes, saris, and various versions of Indian influenced Western dressed fill the sidewalks, stores and crosswalks. Men in kurtas, wearing kufis, open toe sandals (with eternally ashy feet!), Bryl cream or tayl (oil) styled in their hair, potbellies gently spilling over waistbands and belt loops. Some English mixed with Hindi, Urdu and other languages I didn't recognize peppered the air. Store windows laden with gold, glitter, sparkle, bling and gaudy triflings fought with the loud remix music thumping out of shotgun hallway stores hawking the latest masala hit
songs for my senses. Leering male eyes along with disapproving female pairs followed me on tarmac, in store and restaurant. My mom chafed at the leering eyes while I notice the disapproving ones; a reflex action ingrained after an adolescence spent as a black sheep.

I hadn't been to Jackson Heights in years, at least three, if not more. I was pleasantly surprised i remembered my way around. I was amazed at how many more desi folks seemed to be around- there were way less non brown folks walking around. The last time I had been to JH, many non desi folks filled the stores, sidewalks and restaurants. My mom & I spent the day enjoying our brownness; we ate lunch at our favorite Afghani kebab house, savoring the tandoori cooked, wonderfully spiced chunks of meat, drowned in my favorite thick spiced yogurt sauce. We visited a large Indian grocery store, full of vegetables native to the dishes I ate growing up, spices that fill my home, brands I recognized from India, even snacks I enjoyed while stuck on insanely long train rides were there. We went into this grocery primarily to pick up tubes of mendhi, the paste made from the henna plant, for a woman who would be doing "henna tattoos" on Uconn students during Welcome Week. We ended up buying some spices, veggies and snacks that our pantry was low on. I had to ask for help in finding some products in the aisle and felt that familiar sense of not being "Indian" enough. I knew what I needed but not how to ask for it in Hindi. The employees at the store looked at me like I was an interloper. I almost had to check my skin tone, but no use. I felt the need to pepper my conversation with mom with stories from India, or the Hindi words I knew for things.

It didn't help me feel anymore comfortable. It was like a movie where you follow the lost, hapless protagonist as she bumbles around a place she doesnt belong, offending the locals and not getting the hint. I bumped into large old Sikh men whose "excuse mes" didn't make it through my haze of insecurity and displacement. This continued throughout the day. On our visit to a clamorous corridor that served as a masala music store, I was treated like an idiot. This despite knowingly exactly what i wanted and an inquiry into local bhangra events. After being rude and short with me, as I left the guy tried to make a sale and offered me his bhangra titles. No thanks, ya jerk! We went into a fancy bridal boutique to check out the latest formal Indian clothes. Treated like crap again by another brown male shopkeeper, I had had just about enough of this. Everyone on the street was acting as if the dog spoke when I tried to ask them for service, as if i was the strangest thing they had come across. Me, with my non-accented English, full sentences and proper grasp on pronoun use and verb conjugation. We walked to the other side of Little India near the movie theater. We sat down in Jackson Heights Diner for a drink and were treated rudest of all. This waiter put my mom's chai down so abruptly and turned away so quickly that her tea spilled all over the saucer and the table. As we called to him to come back and clean up, he didn't even turn around. Bastard. No tip for him. (Don't go there if you're ever in the neighborhood! It's very hyped among the non-desi set, but as you can see, the service is HORRIBLE! Don't give them your business)

We went to Kebab King after to get some delicious chicken kebabs. There was a large enough mix of desis that I didn't feel singly different. As I was waiting in line for the bathroom, I realized that I'll never fit in. A year in India didn't help me relate to this Indian cultural experience closely tied to the Motherland. I can no sooner relate to the immigrants that populate this neighborhood as the Indian girls I met while in the country could relate to my independence or educational career. Different worlds, different lives. I have a bigger clue into what the Indian cultural experience is, knowing the brands of the products most used and most popular, the Indian business families, the Bollywood titles, even the tv shows everyone watches. I can understand enough basic Hindi to follow along a conversation or some tv shows. My life and ideals fly in the face of these cultural trappings though. I am Indian through my ethnic ancestry and my cultural upbringing, but that is not all I am.

I am not against equality of human beings, I do not believe money, education or status makes you any better a person, I do not believe in having servants to do household chores, I do not believe that lighter skin is better or more beautiful, I do not believe in increased militarism or proving a country's growing international power by building a nuclear program, I do not believe in sectarian violence or discord. I do not believe in vapid pop culture that pushes messages of consumerism on its brainwashed, often impoverished citizens. I do not believe in patriarchy, or that my role as a woman is biologically determined. I do not believe in racism, colorism, sexism, classism or denying education to those who aren't in the highest social class. I hope these things do not take away from my Indian-ness. But after a lifetime of being cast out of whatever brown community I encounter because of my difference, after a year spent in the Motherland, I don't feel like my ideals have much of a place in this community. I know amongst the diaspora, there is room for the grass roots, ideals driven activism and lifestyles that some are working towards. It just feels like there isn't much.

Below is a link for a beautiful song that Juan sent me- its all about loving and missing the Patria, of Fatherland. The lyrics are translated in the clip, check it out. When I heard it, I felt an intense sadness that I don't have that connection to the Motherland. I do feel an intense love and patriotism towards my homeland, America, but it isn't an ethnic connection. Certainly not in a country that seems to constantly tell brown folks we don't belong, aren't wanted and are a security threat. Eff those folks. Enjoy the song. "Patria" by Ruben Blades and Robi Draco Rosa.


Passionista said...

Love this entry! I felt like I was in Jackson Heights even though I've never been there. I'm sorry you feel out of place there, maybe its not that "place" that you want to be a part of. I think the culture is more than the ideals that the society has adapted like sexism and classism, and you know this too, but the particulars you are familiar with are the food, clothes, art, and music. All beautiful and worthy aspects to embrace and love. Nothing can take away the things you experienced in India and if those persons feel like they can slight you for what you don't know, then that's not something worthy of your membership. You will find your niche in your culture, I'm sure of it. You have so much of your lifetime ahead of you to find where you belong but cast aside what you don't need on the way and enjoy the journey.

ace said...

The desis must have come from devon since it is practically empty. And the jerk behavior its probably from them being jealous that you have fully mastered the language and the accent. obviously they have yet not got the polite behavior thing about america.Hey do u now the number to ins they might want to check out some of the people there

ace said...

it is supposed to be know not now

Shreeny Pants said...

hi love, great post! stories of isolation and personal reflection- THE NEXT JHUMPA LAHIRI or CHITRA BANERJEE DIVAKARUNI ! keep writing, inshallah it will take you very far :) i love you puttling

Passionista said...

Aww no new post...yet?