Thursday, April 14, 2011

Stories Around a Dinner Table

"Be nice to whites, they need you to rediscover their humanity."

Desmond Tutu

The evening was grey and the clouds had already started giving a preview of things to come. I peered through the window into the yellow warmth within the Japanese vegetarian café and saw a monotony of whiteness. The patrons that is. There are Ku Klux Klan rallies that feature less white people than McLeod Ganj. It's the home away from home of the Dalai Lama, and if there's one thing that white people love, it's that guy. Almost all of them will never get the chance to meet the Buddhist rock star, but they enjoy milling about town on the one in a million bajillion sextillion chance that he'd walk into a restaurant they happen to be in for steaming bowl of thukpa.

Spotting an empty table, I walked gladly in to claim it for coloured people everywhere. A pair of laminated menu cards were submitted wordlessly to my purview by a Japanese man whose age I cannot place - at least not without a decade's margin of error. The neighboring table was colonised by the European union; its members conversing loudly and excitedly in broken English about how much Far Eastern mysticism they had swallowed hook, line and sinker today. Then, without saying a word or even making eye contact, the lady sitting closest to me turned and placed an empty bowl - recently denuded of vittles - on to my table. That was quickly followed by half a dozen more dirty dishes which her companions had recently supped from. The fact that there was an Asian man sitting there did not faze her the slightest. Several questions began a cage match for dominance in my head: Did she think that her behaviour was somehow acceptable in this part of the world? Am I so yellow that she can't see through my camouflage in this light? Can her looks be improved with a generous application of the heel of my boot to her pasty face?

I bore her trespass like a gentleman, politely called for a waitress to clear her mess and carefully explained why there were empty plates and bowls on my table when I hadn't even ordered anything yet without using words like stupid, white, and bitch. After telling her that I would like to have the vegetarian sushi dinner set, I returned to Sitka, Alaska, within the pages of my Michael Chabon novel but not for long. My set meal came after a few short moments and I noted, with the nip of slight disappointment, that half of it were kappamaki. The rest had tamago, tomato and some unidentified tsukemono in them, and they were served without wasabi so I was obliged to ask for some.

I proceeded to photograph my dinner because I'm a blogger par excellence and should anyone ask about my potentially embarrassing habit, I already had an excuse ready: I'd say I'm emulating Nakamatsu Yoshiro. I was persuading my miso soup to pull a more seductive pose for the camera when a pair of Belgians materialised and asked if it's okay for them to share my table.

"Please do! I don't mind at all!" I lied. I threw in a huuuge, borderline sarcastic smile just because I could.

"Good evening!" That was the indeterminately-aged Japanese restauranteur greeting the Belgian couple. Interesting. How come I didn't get such a warm welcome when he shoved the menu cards under my nose? I wondered but perished the thought. I began feigning great interest in my soulless sushi, adamant that I would not allow myself to be roped into another pointless conversation where white people tell me about all the awesome strange Asian stuff that they had been doing. After about a minute, I decided that I could no longer ignore the silently building pressure that my newly-found table mates were beaming onto the top of my head. I looked up and sure enough, the she-Belgian was wearing a 'Let's connect, magic oriental man!' expression on her face. I racked my brain for all things Belgian but all I remembered was that they speak French and that they are famous for chocolates and Poirot. I know a lot more about France and Sweden, but that's because I listen to their music and watch their films. But Belgium? Meh.

They began telling me about their volunteer work helping the poor, benighted Tibetans by teaching them French-accented English, and I had to forcefully stop my eyeballs from rolling upwards. They divulged that they were attending a seminar after dinner about how oppressed the natives in Tibet are, and asked me if I wanted to come along to help them pity the Tibetans more (I fibbed that I would swing by later). They also explained to me that they had carefully avoided all the "touristy" places in their travel through India - presumably because they think they are better than everyone else. I had an almost irresistible itch to reach out, grab them by the shoulders and shake them because they were in the middle of McLeod Fucking Ganj right that moment.

They mentioned that they had attended some religious talks, so I asked if they are Buddhists.

"We don't have a religion," explained the Belgian girl. "We mix and match. We take the best from all religions." My mind was shouting 'Fuck you' at the top of its voice at this point. All they need to do was tell me that they are also learning yoga and reiki to make it the Most Generic Conversation with White People Vacationing in McLeod Ganj I've Ever Had. I am not opposed to fraternising with foreigners, but I am certainly against engaging in the same dialogue over and over and over again like I'm in some sort of travellers' hell.

After what felt like several eternities stacked on top of one another like a layer cake of forever, they left and I was finally allowed to return my attention to my dinner - but like every crappy plot twist ever, a Slovak man and an American woman asked if I would mind them joining me.

"Not at all," I said with a practiced, simulated smile. "I'm done."

At that, I stood up, paid and left with my meal unfinished. I decided that I wasn't hungry enough for cucumber rolls after all.

P.S. That was a week-old entry in my travel journal. I had since left McLeod Ganj and visited Palampur, Baijnath, Bir (pronounced "beer") and Billing, Joginder Nagar, and Dalhousie - where I'm writing from at the moment. I have not seen a single white person in three days.

The occasional racist,
k0k s3n w4i


nicoletta said...

That was fucking rude. The whole affair with those dirty plates, that is. I'm half-surprised you didn't erupt.

tendol said...

I was cracking up through out that story. I know how that feels. I used to feel that way too, sometimes. You could have just said, "sorry, me no understand English" and they would have left you alone. :P

I used to think that the tourists would soon take over the town. I guess they do in the peak season, which is right about now. 70% tourists, 30% locals, go figure!

Are you visiting Mcleod solely for its scenic beauty and the mountains?

happy travels, always!

Liz said...

Wow. That IS rude. I would have been pissed. And I normally might not say anything, but this particular time, I think I would ! It's soooo RUDE. It's practically looking right through you like you don't exist !!! >.<

p.s: I feel like I'm reading some short story. Ahaha. Nice ! :D

Rewarp said...

I am just reading through all your entries from the beginning of April, and I must admit none has compelled me to add my two cents more than the what-is-this-I-don't-even bullshit manners on display by the dirty dishes lady, and the proprietor who lost his Japanese customer-service customs.

Were there any other empty tables around when those Belgians asked for places at the table?

k0k s3n w4i said...

nicoletta: i have a terribly dark temper, but i rarely lose it. it became even rarer after breaking up with the ex-grrrfriend™.

tendol: i do that quite often too, but i couldn't very well do that this time because i had an english novel with me. personally, i am interested in 3 things wherever i go: the food, the scenery, and really old buildings. mcleod ganj got the former two covered. i had to travel to the chamba valley region for the last one :)

Liz: maybe she thought i wait tables there. i sometimes write in my travel journal in the third person, so when i convert any of those entries into a first person perspective post in my blog (like this one), it tends to retain some of its narrative elements.

Rewarp: no, the restaurant was full - it's a very popular travellers' haunt. and i've always felt less than welcomed by the japanese man but considering the political clime of the region, i am inclined to write it off as mild sinophobia. or maybe, he simply doesn't like my face. i prefer the korean lady boss at a korean restaurant nearby (which has far superior eats anyway).