the only roundeyes in the room

We’re a family of cultural chameleons, hopping from ethnic branch to branch and sticking out like an NBA first draft pick at, well, pretty much anywhere. And by the way: if you know me, you realize how painful it was to make a sports analogy just then. I got a little pinprick right behind my left eye. Might be some sort of aneurism; let me go and check it out.

Ok, I’m back. Brain still working? Can I type? Wae feiak lajwoi fdaiw. Just kidding. Where am I? Oh, yes.

A bit o’ the short ‘n’ pithy: We live in a supposed cultural melting pot, but the cultures don’t melt. America is less a cheese fondue than a vinaigrette. Stop shaking the bottle and we all separate.

Case in point: I took Ben on Sunday to a Dim Sum restaurant in South San Francisco. Great big place with “Palace” in the name and terrific Yelp ratings. On the inside, it was opulent, cavernous and lit by incredibly bright and flat fluorescent lights. There were no shadows anywhere, just like Beijing when it’s full of smog (which is, apparently, 100% of the time). Home, crowded home. We had a great meal amid about a thousand other diners, most of whom spoke Chinese, and the rest of whom appeared to be close relatives of people who speak Chinese. We were the only roundeyes in the room. As I said, great meal. You know you’re having good Chinese food when you can’t understand a word anybody says.

Unless you’re at a deaf school. Their Chinese food is lame.

After we left our excellent Dim Sum lunch, we went to the grocery across the street, a good Latin American market full of south of the border awesomeness (that is to say, south of the Canadian border. There’s no shortage of good Mexican food ’round here). There, nearly everyone spoke Spanish. The rest of them appeared to be close relatives of people who speak Spanish. We were the only gringos in the room. This was just across the street, mind you. Plenty of Chinese diners probably needed to pick up some lemons on the way home, but none of them were stopping by the Latin American grocery store. And plenty of Hispanics on Grand Ave, but apparently none of them eat Dim Sum.

To cultural chameleons it happens all the time. Back in Texas B.C. (Before Children) we had yearly season tickets to the TITAS cultural events at SMU. Lots of wonderful concerts, dance events, and the like. Marci and I went to see Tito Puente with my BIL and SIL (Brother-In-Law And Sister-In-Law. Let’s just call them BASIL and be done with it). Anyway, we were at SMU for TITUS in the BC with BASIL. Clear?

Awesome event. I’m so glad I got to see Tito Puente bring down the house while he was still alive. Now that he’s dead, his concerts are nothing to write home about, but back then, man oh man! He had us dancing in the aisles. Couple thousand other people too. But again: we were the only gringos in the room. Hey, what’s up? Tito Puente, Oye Como Va. Who wouldn’t dig that? 

A month later, we went on the same concert series to see Sweet Honey In the Rock. Beautiful a capella harmonies, great and soulful. Very spiritual, uplifting, fun. And us? We were the only crackers in the room. Or should I say crackah? Maybe that’s less offensive to, uh, myself. Where were all the otha crackas?

Same concert series: The Klezmatics. Funky Klezmer music. And we were the only Yids in the house. No, just kidding. It was Hebrew Central, one of few times outside the walls of a synagogue where “Hello, Rabbi!” is something you might find yourself saying more than once in an evening. But no African-Americans in sight. And no Hispanics. And no Chinese. Just like there were no Hispanics in sight at Sweet Honey In The Rock, and no black people at Kodo Drummers, and no Asians hearing Buena Vista Social Club because they were all having lunch with us at Lucky Empress Jade Palace.

But here’s the thing: being a social chameleon doesn’t mean squat. Doesn’t mean I’m enlightened in the least. As you can tell. Doesn’t mean I’m racially balanced. Surely not. If I was, maybe I wouldn’t have noticed who was around me in the first place. Maybe I wouldn’t have written this story. Maybe it wouldn’t strike me as odd that almost everyone around me at the symphony was light skinned, and almost everybody at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles was dark skinned. And as an aside, if you’re in L.A., there are few things better than a warm plate of chicken and waffles. I kid you not.

Walk down the streets of San Francisco and you’ll see a bit of everybody. Sometimes quite literally. Hey, fella, put a towel over it! It’s not just economics: everyone goes to see basketball. Even, occasionally, me. Everyone eats (except anorexics. They get eaten). But look for Asians in a Taqueria, or Hispanics eating Dim Sum. Go have Indian food, then look for those same faces at a sushi restaurant.

Life’s too short. Why do we put ourselves in little ghettos for the parts of life that really bring us to life?