Oct 31, 2006

American Halloween

It's Halloween, and the kids are out all over the country. At least, in middle class suburbia, where the houses aren't too far from one another, and people still have some limited degree of trust for the person next-door, although it's hard to reconcile with all the nightmares of moral and psychological depravity that are hidden just behind some of the doors... after all, aren't most serial killers lurking there? And isn't drug use rampant behind door number two? And can you even trust the kids when you know that one of them may be plotting to take to the school in a final Rambo-like blaze of glory?

Anyway, when I was growing up in a small suburban town, Halloween was a pretty big deal. I didn't really get into it the same way as others - my costumes, when I had them, were store-bought and simple. But the candy was a big draw, as was the effort and wish to cover as much ground as I possibly could, and the inevitable fear of going to the "wrong" streets, where adolescents with eggs, shaving cream, and toilet paper made go at one another, the neighbor's car, and everything else. I remember walking home from school the next day, taking specific paths that would take me through the war-torn areas (there was at least one street whose name was synonymous with battles in the lore of my growing up), just so I could survey the damage.

I also remember taking my sister around trick-or-treating when I was older. She wasn't much of a sweet tooth, and was pretty timid while young, so she would dutifully give me most of the candy at the end of the night. But she enjoyed going out. But somehow, I also remember walking with her, and a pair of scissors in my pocket, in the hope that I'd be able to cut a hole in some unsuspecting kid's bag. Ah, the memories. I even remember some of the houses where we'd get the most loot (when I was growing up - there weren't as many kids around the quiet blocks, so people were fairly generous).

Later, I would spend a number of Halloweens in my house with the lights turned off and garden hose primed and ready in case anyone made the unfortunate mistake of targeting my house for a shelling. I never had to use it, happily, but I would have. The thing about Halloween, though, is that even though I didn't have a particularly good one any year that I can remember, we had our small customs and rituals that our family came up with, like the "traditional" meal of frozen ravioli that my mom would have ready for us upon our return. Somehow, we turned Halloween into a small holiday that was just about our little family, extended clan excluded.


Now, living in the city, Halloween seemed like less of a staple autumn activity for the kids. I'm sure there are some things that folks do at home or in school, but with kids' safety in mind, I wonder if they go around much at all. It's sad, really - because in my mind, it was one of the few times that kids are encouraged to step out of the closely guarded world in which they live, where even a neighbor is a stranger with whom you should not speak. Kids finally have the ability to peer into their neighbors' home, if even for a brief second. To know a little of what they normally don't get to see.

And I guess that's what makes Halloween such an interesting celebration for the United States, where personal privacy and the right to be left alone, and the prevailing concept is that "every man's home is his castle" (and he'll take great pains to build the moats and barriers he needs to keep everyone else out). For a few brief hours during this one night, it feels like kids are able to satisfy some of their curiosity, and some communities, at least, feel a little bit closer as many participate in the effort for the benefit of those children.

But what Americans who don't travel will likely not realize is that many places around the world are like that normally - where though they don't have much, the boundary of experience and contact extends for the kids beyond the four walls of their family's dwelling. And it's okay to admonish the neighbor's kid once in a while, because we're in this together, and the kids benefit from the collective knowledge and caring of the community. America, or at least white sub/urban America, has lost this element of community life. And while giving candy to kids for doing a few parlor tricks is not really reaching back into that tradition, it's an interesting throwback, when viewed through this perspective.

I wonder how immigrant families engage with this tradition now - I mean, my parents had their own feelings about it (Mom loves it - she wanted to give $1 per kid this year, to which I replied "you're going to see the same pirates again and again!"), but I know that some folks just don't want to deal with the hassle. I mean, what if the kids looked at them and said "and what are *you* supposed to be?"


Anyway, my favorite Halloween story has to be about a desi friend of mine who grew up in a small town in the MidWest. As a little boy, his parents dressed him up as "Man from India" for Halloween, wearing some of the clothes he had around as his outfit. That was strange enough for the neighbors, I guess.

Read More......

Oct 27, 2006

Striking up a Conversation about Metal.

On a recent expedition into the hinterland to visit a professor's house for an informal dinner with our seminar class, I broached the subject that forms the foundation of my easy relation to people: music. Generally, this is a winning conversation for me, because I have a pretty voracious appetite for new music, and no matter what your political or personal quirks, we'll probably have some common ground there.

In the past, I'd make a wry comment about how I listen to very disparate things, though nowadays, most people says that they listen to "everything." Perhaps as shorthand to avoid exposing too much about one's self. Or maybe it's the tipping of the hat to the pundits who claim that the advent of the digital age and Nintendo generation attention spans say that most formats of in-depth listening to music (artist-oriented or even non-single driven through the radio or tape trading) has disappeared and what's current is all that people care about. In a less cynical mood, I might have argued that genre-hopping suggests that the tall walls between rigid discourse of "right" and "wrong", "disco" and "rock", "black" and "white" are being shaken at their very foundation. I'm not in that mood right now.

I've written about music, and my personal tastes, a number of times before, including my formative experiences with different genres of metal while growing up. So lately, instead of just speaking with folks about the tastes or groups that they mention as their favorites, I have taken to exposing this facet of my personality with more wreckless abandon. It's not gone particularly well. While I don't expound with unbridled enthusiasm about how a good power riff can get me through a bad day, I have gotten defensive pretty quickly when challenged or questioned about my taste.

I guess the cognitive dissonance for many people remains in how something that seems so abrasive can actually be more forward thinking than most mainstream music. Many groups wrote about environmental issues, the cost of war, nihilism, literature (I love the Poe references out there in Maiden, Crimson Glory, and Annihilator to name a few), nuclear proliferation, and even racism before mainstream groups caught on (have they yet?). Part of the reason lies in the desire to write about things that are fairly grim, and while fantasy topics like J.R.R. Tolkien are still very popular, history is replete with many incredibly dark moments that fit quite well with the aggressive/dark music.

I guess this focus on the underside of civilization and human nature is unnerving for people who take the time to look at the lyrics. Before we get that far, the genre(s) are filled with outsiders - and their anger, or at least their disinterest in fitting in - is quite unnerving for people, especially in America. In other parts of the world, it is a legitimate protest against oppression and the normalization (and commodification) of youth culture. In Brazil, for example, Sepultura's music, which lives on the very border between thrash and death metal, was known and sung by protestors crying out against the oppressive government. They were one of the groups that caught the political moment - not unlike the way that Dylan did it in the 60s in the U.S.

Anyway, perhaps it's okay that people don't go crazy for this stuff. I mean, it's like underground hip-hop, in a lot of ways. There is precision and layering of skill in the MCs, the turntablists, and the producers (sometimes) that transcends the commodified, white-washed stuff that people hear on Z100 (sounds like underground metal, in contrast with... Metallica). They do it for their love of the music, and because that have something to say.

So I'll continue to listen to many genres, but I'll have to rethink approaching this question in a neutral social context. Because maybe this is one of those things that's not so well understood. And the questions of race and gender are also particularly interesting. I've found that a number of groups have spoken about racism, but classism is not really addressed, and there is a strong stream of homophobia that is more visible in some of the groups. Perhaps that has more to do with the socialization of men in general, but I'm a novice at this social science stuff.

Read More......

Oct 26, 2006


You know what really pisses me off? The way that some straight white men interact with public space - the sense of entitlement to dominion over shared or other public space is overwhelming sometimes. Let me give one example, though I (and I'm sure you, the intrepid reader) can think of many more.

The kicker for me has always been in the simple task of walking down the sidewalk, or even a crowded hallway. Most people that I know, from women, to men of color, usually yield a little when faced with someone walking towards them in a constricted passageway. When walking down a crowded sidewalk, I weave and lean, leading with one shoulder at a time, sometimes stepping briefly off the curb, sometimes falling straight behind the person I'm walking with, in the effort to do my part to make the public space work.

If we all walked with our shoulders squared, we would crash into one another all the time - specifically when there isn't enough space for people to walk abreast of one another in opposite directions (like in most of the City below 14th Street). So we do our small part, generally subconsciously (and it's an easy way to figure out who belongs in the City, and who is a spectator in a full-contact sport).

Anyway, I can't count how many times I've been walking along, either thinking to myself, or with a friend, when I've squared off, as it were, against some white guy, walking alone or with his own companions. As we're walking by, I do what I have to do to make room, but almost without fail, the white dude doesn't - his shoulders are squared, and he brushes against me, or sometimes even sends me spinning.

WTF? Is it that hard to just accommodate the other person and find a way to coexist on the busy streets? I'm not asking for a hug or something - I'm a New Yorker after all - but at least recognize that I exist, and that I have a claim to the same right of walking down the street without being knocked into. So therein lies my problem - more than anything else. I feel like at times, these people walk around like they own the joint - and we're just granted some license of use, but they can pull that whenever they feel like it.

The phenomenon is not limited to just a few men - I've gone through this over and over again, where someone will walk straight down the middle of the sidewalk like he owns it. He won't yield. I usually get angry as a result, but don't do anything (because it's usually too late, and it's not like I'm going to make a cogent argument to the back of someone's head anyway. And it's not as satisfying, or probably as seemingly safe, as road rage. But it just pisses me off that I, and many other people (women, people of color, etc) are expected to make the space around them (or in their shadows?) work for the rest of us.

I guess men in general are guilty of filling out more space than necessary on subway cars, spreading their legs like tsars in their own small domains, creating spatial inefficiencies for women, children, and non "guy-guys" who have to squeeze into the spaces that they leave for us.

But maybe the beleaguered white man feels like sidewalk is one of the last domains where he can still feel like the king of the jungle, after all, he's been beat down by all these -isms and hyphens in America. He is the new oppressed, the new minority, the vilified, the victim, the target of virulent attacks. Whatever. My solution? I don't yield to them. I keep my shoulders square when I walk down the street and face someone who doesn't seem like he sees me. Because this is about being visible, and being invisible. If you don't even respect me on the street, where we should all be equals, how will you respect me in a situation where there is a more obvious challenge of power? You won't. And we head south from there.

So I square my shoulders, and if you have to yield for once in your life, good. If not, you'd better be a helluva lot larger than me, because I have sharp shoulders.

Read More......

Oct 21, 2006

We Had to Believe.

Still recovering from the Mets' loss on Thursday. They kept us hanging on. One has to think, Willie's boys (or more appropriately, Omar's boys) would have made it fairly easily if El Duque or Pedro were healthy. But such is baseball, and as the commentators say ad naseum, such is the wonder and marvel of the game - you can't always just dominate the team that doesn't have the marquee players (not that the hated Cardinals don't have marquee players, but clearly, neither Pujols nor Rolens were the stars of this series). I know that it's somewhat passe to like baseball, but there's something about the game. It's a game of math and statistics, and clearly, one of the most diverse in American professional sports.

I guess there are a number of similarities between it and cricket that go beyond the "bat-and-ball"... American influence, while not always wholly colonial like the British, still came in visions of empire in the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific frontier. It's no surprise that baseball's popularity in Japan has surpassed its omni-presence as the most popular American pastime. I guess the same, or at least similar, could be said about cricket in the South Asian nations and their diasporas throughout the world, and certainly the same can be said about the West Indies. Though I guess England still has its rabid fans (is there some loss from cricket to futbol, I wonder out loud).

There has been a lot written about how the ballgame is no longer the preferred game in American urban communities, for African American youth, or even for suburban school kids. The swelling soccer rolls have to come from somewhere, and I guess we can hear the crickets chirping in some Little League fields. The baseball strike in the 90s, the lack of a salary caps and the whinny players who benefit from life without them, the steroids crisis, and the planting of stadiums on top of flourishing communities (ok, that's my issue) all have contributed to the turning of the collective American backs to the game.

But still, I like baseball. And I liked the Mets - though I have to admit that I am a recovering Yankee fan who just realizes that they *are* the Empire, and I was following the wrong team for a long time. Anyway, I feel like if there's anywhere that suburban desi kids are going to break through in a major way in professional sports, I think that they have the best chance in baseball. It's the most diverse sport, you don't have to be the most fit person in your school, and hell, there are just so many players. I wonder if there are any desis making their way up through the minor leagues. I'm sure there are (Single A, even), but I guess I should check.

Wouldn't it be funky fresh if a team imported a South Asian cricket bowling superstar to take a crack at relief pitching? But I guess that's not home-grown. And I don't really know as many 2nd generation desis who are fanatic about cricket...See, Mr. Average White Guy? We do assimilate in America.

Read More......

Oct 17, 2006

Today's Lesson.

Nearly two months of Criminal Procedure have taught me this critical lesson: Make sure you know every single traffic rule in the state/city in which you are driving. If the cops want to stop you for anything, a minor traffic violation - including keeping your left turn signal on when you're not turning at the next intersection, or stopping at a stop sign for too long - can start you on a path towards getting the car searched and who knows what else.


Read More......

Oct 13, 2006

New Red iPod Nano and HIV/AIDS in Africa

Clearly, I'm not going to be able to write about this in depth, given my track record lately, but check this new collaboration between Apple and Bono.

Basically, the new red nano will market at the same price as other nanos (199 USD). And Apple will give $10 of each sale to support research/anti-retroviral medicine.  The comments section of that link is interesting - a lot of Mac-heads actually talking (sorta) about global suffering and the best use of the money.  It's nice to see that there isn't a "forget the Africans" post on there, but I also haven't seen anything in there about how Steve Jobs has been a bit of a cheap bastard for a long time, and compared to Bill and Melinda Gates, this effort is laughable.

I guess I'm a little bitter because people who use Macs are cool, but the company isn't quite so cool, and the sheer consumer culturism of the place is making me sick.  While MS and Dell and the rest of them are boring, they're just in the computer business, really.  Apple puts itself out there as a big forward-thinker, but I have a hard time buying any of that at this point. Yeah they are a smaller company, but they have a lot of money in the bank, based on the iPod sales, and they have the ability to move more minds through innovative technology than the more traditional, older companies. 

But rather than talk about movement, techno-equity, or anything else that could actually make change, they resort to comodifying the images of great thinkers as part of their marketing strategy rather than anything more.  So yeah, I'm a bit skeptical.  That said, the red looks pretty cool. :)

Read More......

Oct 6, 2006

Tamil Cooking Podcast?

I've taken it upon myself to try to figure out how to cook. Our household is into it, but we're neither of us well-trained in even the basics. So in my search to find something useful online, I came across a few interesting podcasts, and then... this. I don't even know where to begin, but I wish this person would continue the podcasts - it's just more comforting to hear an auntie-type. Damn. I wish I understood Tamil. But regardless, her blog covers some of the same ground.

Now, to find a Gujarati analogue... anyone have any tips?

Read More......

Asian American Awards/Recognition Dinners.

When minority groups in the United States run out of "firsts" to recognize - like "first congressman of xyz origin" or "first Australian American to kick a soccer goal 3 times in a row," I wonder what we'll do at our award dinners and ceremonies? Will we become more creative about our selections, and less biased towards the celebrated "trailblazer" who we reimagine as a civil rights leader for her individual achievement, when really it could just be characterized as a personal triumph that wasn't done in view of advancing justice for the race at all?

Asian Americans are notorious for these dubious awards. Some folks really have done amazing things, and I'm not so put off in the recognition of their achievements and life work. But others have fallen into the spotlight very much by accident, or when one is less forgiving, mainly for some ulterior motive. The first CEO of a major corporation who happens to be Asian American suddenly makes the rounds as the honoree or award-winner from different organizations. I used to get tired of seeing the same old faces all the time, or seeing folks who I didn't recognize, and once I read their bio, really didn't care much about anyway.

Maybe we honor courage nowadays in people who were the first to do something, because, we reason, they must have faced some kind of difficulty as an outsider. Not to belittle that, but if you're different looking, but you do the same thing as everyone around you, you're not so extraordinary, as much as the people who make you suffer are subordinary. Maybe giving you an award for sticking it out (in the military, in a nontraditional occupation) is more sticking a thumb in that guy who tried to keep you down's eye than it really is a recognition of your particular achievements. I would be more impressed if they gave an award to that desi woman with PETA who keeps throwing tofu-cream pies in the faces of people with too much power and not enough humility.

Where is the creativity in these awards and accolades? Clearly some of the folks who are recognized deserve the recognition. Someone like Dalip Singh Saund, for all my questions and (I think, still valid) attention in past posts, still earns my respect as someone who should be recognized because of what he did, and when he did it. Maybe not as a champion of South Asians in the United States, but certainly as an American who happened to be of South Asian descent who broke through another barrier. I know the question will easily, and rightly, be "what's the line for so-called authenticity?" And I don't have an answer to that.

But I just feel so frustrated with most mainstream Asian American civil rights/policy/social service groups that award the same people over and over again, or the same kinds of people over and over again. If it's all about the money anyway, just make that clear and let firms and other companies compete for the recognitions directly with the amount of money that they donate. But back-dooring it, by honoring people who you think will buy a table at a "platinum" or "lotus" level, well, that's just boring, dishonest, and false advertising. Especially when the people sometimes don't know much about your organization or our community, and it's clear from their acceptance speech. I mean, I went to an event recently where the honoree spoke for 15 minutes about the work his group did, but each time he mentioned the sponsoring organization, he had a different variation of its name, until the reference degenerated completely into "[executive director]'s group."

I have to say, I've had much more fun and been less annoyed at arts organization events. At least there, even if I don't agree with the choices, it's clearer why they are being honored: they are artists, and it's an arts organization. Voila! Synergy between idea, mission, and execution! And if we're going to honor trailblazers - has anyone given Bruce Lee an Asian American award? That brother -- whose long-tarnished image as a stereotype/cliche was (I'm convinced) created by the white entertainment-industrial-political complex because he scared them all to death -- was off the scale. And he wasn't afraid to say "no, I'm not going to play that masked sidekick anymore."

Speaking of Bruce Lee, some groups still push for more Asian Americans to be on TV and in the movies. They're succeeding, but for each East Asian American woman I see as a news anchor, or increasingly, in commercials for everything from cell phones to cars, I see 2 South Asian or Arab American men portrayed as ignorant, illogical, unassimilable sight gags with bad accents - or even more likely now, swarthy terrorists. Thanks for the media advocacy. Can you do some screenwriting workshops too, while you're at it?


While I'm in the complaining mood... I am sick - absolutely sick to tears - of Asian American organizations having dinners and other events that don't recognize vegetarian or halal diets in their menu selection. Is it that hard to understand that everyone can eat vegetarian food, but vegetarians cannot eat all the meat that are featured front and center at these events? And if you're going to have meat, can you at least cut out the swine and cow? Oh no! But you can't do that! So I end up eating garnish and bread rolls. Sometimes I can't even do that, because the garnish has been sitting with the fish, or the beef, or whatever else. I can't believe I used to complain about the steamed (soggy) and paltry vegetarian "option" I used to get thrown together for me at some dinners. That was something, at least. Witness me now with 3 desserts at each of these events, and diabetes at the age of 45. When they say getting your just desserts, I didn't think they meant dinner for me would just be desserts.

Read More......