The age at when you learn what’s what

Late last week I received a tip (on our Sepia Mutiny tipline) about an upcoming play in Seattle,Washington. The play, MOTHER IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE, by Taniya Hossain, is being performed by the Repertory Actors Theater and starts this weekend. The tipster Nitya is one of the actors and sent me the full press release with a detailed description: Mother in Another Language – Press Release.pdf (24 KB). Seattle area Mutineers, go check it out, and let us know how it is:

Tickets: Available online at http://www.acttheatre.org/Shows/OnStage/MotherInAnotherLanguage.

Adults: $15 Students: $12 Children 17 & Under: $12 Seniors 65+: $12

Groups (10 or more): $12 per person (available through the Ticket Office only, (206) 292-7676)

But merely informing you about this play is not what this post is actually about at all. Sorry Nitya! You see, on the first pass through her email tip I stopped reading as soon as I saw her name. The name was familiar to me. Nitya and I went to elementary school together in San Jose, CA in the 80s. I didn’t know her too well back then. In fact, I can’t remember a single interaction or conversation I had with her, although surely there were several. But I did remember her name and the fact that she had long braids and an even longer last name. When I mentioned the tip to them, my parents remembered her too! As memory serves, myself, Nitya, and another kid Sanjay (who is now someone I regularly meet up with in Los Angeles) were the only three brown kids in our school year. In the 80s all brown kids knew each other, even when they didn’t know each other. You know? When I replied to her tip and asked her which elementary school she went to, Nitya was as surprised as I was. What a small world! She says she can somewhat remember my 10-year-old face but not well enough to recognize me today. Even though Nitya and I did not really know each other well in elementary school, she indirectly played a part in a defining moment of my life (about which she has no idea…until now). It is a memory so strong I can replay it perfectly in my head 25 years later.

Fifth grade, late one afternoon (I recall that it was late spring and very sunny outside). Our teacher, a grumbly bear of a man, who was a Korean War veteran and had definitely killed enemy, declared that he was pleased with the great progress our class had made that week and decided we could have the 40 minutes until afternoon recess off. This was a surprise because he had a reputation of being the toughest teacher at the school. I once memorized the Gettysburg address in three hours on a Tuesday night because he said it was due Wednesday. He meant the following Wednesday. On this afternoon Mr. P decided we could do whatever we wanted for fun as long as it was inside the class. Some of the girls in the class, the pretty ones who could get away with anything, had an idea. Boys that age are too slow to come up with anything good when put on the spot. The idea these clever girls came up with was to play the Newlywed Game: Elementary School Edition. Amazingly, surprisingly, I was picked to be one of the 3 “husbands.” My wife was a girl named Juliet.

Keep in mind that I was not a popular kid. I was small and nerdy but well liked. You know that sound and feeling you experience when you get a rental car and turn on the radio and it is on full blast on some rap station that the previous renter was listening to and you awkwardly fumble to turn it down before the bass blows out the windows? That’s what my heart sounded like when I was picked to play this game.

So the girl playing the host asks all the “husbands” and “wives” to each write down the answer to several questions. I don’t remember all the other questions. They were lighthearted and we volleyed them with ease. I only remember one. It is the only one that mattered that day.

“Newlyweds, please write down your answer to this question. If you had not married your spouse, who would you have married?”

Yikes!!

Every 10 year old boy’s worst nightmare. Checkmate. You done son [shakes head sadly].

Oh my god, oh my god. What do I do what do I do.

All the boys in the fifth grade probably liked a handful of girls. They were the popular girls and some of them were running this very witch hunt. After a long minute I put down a name. Laura or Jenny or some girl I had a big 10-year-old boy crush on. I don’t remember. It isn’t important. What was important is that Juliet and I were the last couple that had to reveal our answers. At least if I was going down, I would watch others suffer an embarrassing indignity before me.

Finally, it was our turn. Juliet was called upon to guess what my answer to the question, “If you had not married your spouse, who would you have married?”…would be. Her answer would alter my reality. It was at that moment that I realized how others perceived me. To them I wasn’t just a small and nerdy kid. I was an Indian kid. And as an Indian kid, there could only be one logical answer to this question.

Nitya.

Just then (I can’t make this stuff up) the recess bell rings. Most of the class never learned what answer I had written to the same question as they leapt for the door.

Really? Nitya? But she wasn’t even in our class! I did not even know her. How could you think I’d have a crush on a girl I don’t even know just because we have the same skin color? What made it worse was that Juliet then explained it to me in an awkward manner that left it even clearer: She’s brown, you are brown.

So my whole class must believe this (because there is no way that the innocent little Juliet is the only one)!

And that is my moment. That’s when I first learned what’s what and about the fact that even children see things a certain way.

A Sepia Mutiny tip can take you back 25 years.

32 thoughts on “The age at when you learn what’s what

  1. Abhi: You do have amazing meemory – when it comes to girls! I have saved your class pictures from 1st grade thru 5th grade. Nitya is not in any of those pictures. Although Sanjay is in all of them. It seems that she may be a year behind or year ahead of you.

  2. dude you’re lucky her browniverse included someone in your own school! when i was in Detroit, a coworker who had recently started collaborating with our offshore center in India emailed me a picture of her liaison in our Hyderabad office asking me if I thought she was pretty & would consider her in my ‘arranged marriage’ process

  3. I laughed out loud! As I was reading the story I was like “What? I don’t remember playing this game!” I thought you had forgotten that I wasn’t in Mr. P’s class but in Mrs. R’s class! I loved the story-I’m going to have to remember it for posterity.

    And no worries about the story not being just about the play. Once we made the Simond’s school connection I had a feeling it would be about our reunion in cyberspace 25 years later.

    Thanks so much. And I love Sepia Mutiny!!

    Everyone, come check out the play and tell Abhi what I look like now!

    -Nitya

  4. didn’t have the exact same experience, there was just a brown girl who everyone always assumed was my sister. we barely even talked.

    also, not sure that it would happen the same way today. interracial marriage was more taboo even back in the 1980s. today a lot of the kids are the products of interracial marriages, and if not, they have friends that are. so it wouldn’t see that atypical. especially in a place like san jose.

  5. also, not sure that it would happen the same way today. interracial marriage was more taboo even back in the 1980s. today a lot of the kids are the products of interracial marriages, and if not, they have friends that are. so it wouldn’t see that atypical. especially in a place like san jose.

    I was born in 1990 and I saw the same thing happen growing up – I was raised on Long Island, in a town that’s about 93% WASP and Irish Catholic. The school nurse in elementary school was an Iranian woman and everyone asked if she was my mother/aunt. There was an Arab boy a year older than I am and everyone in elementary school thought he was my brother; in middle school and high school, lots of girls asked if I was interested in him. There was an Indian girl in my grade and people often got our names mixed up, although we don’t look alike at all.

    Another thing I’ve noticed – let’s say I’m in line somewhere (store, movie theatre, waiting to get seated somewhere, etc) and there’s a brown person in front of me or behind, the cashier/hostess will often assume we’re shopping/eating/whatever together.

    I think this is because people have a natural tendency to group things together or categorize people, often visually. I’ve caught myself ldoing the same thing to other people, too, but I didn’t realize it until recently. I think it’s an internal bias most people have.

  6. Another thing I’ve noticed – let’s say I’m in line somewhere (store, movie theatre, waiting to get seated somewhere, etc) and there’s a brown person in front of me or behind, the cashier/hostess will often assume we’re shopping/eating/whatever together

    this happens in strange ways inversely when you’re in a “mixed” relationship. though i have to say it has happened in major urban areas more often when the service employees are immigrants who seem relatively unassimilated (e.g., hosts at chinese buffets).

  7. this happens in strange ways inversely when you’re in a “mixed” relationship. though i have to say it has happened in major urban areas more often when the service employees are immigrants who seem relatively unassimilated (e.g., hosts at chinese buffets).

    I have noticed this too and am guilty of it myself. Once I ran into a (black) professor at a restaurant where I was with my family. Went over to say hello and he was seated with 2 women – one black, one white, and he introduced them as his “wife and an old friend”. Guess which woman I assumed was his wife? The black one, and it was the other way around. And this is coming from a young person, living in a diverse urban area, who typically is in a “mixed” relationship herself. So I think most people do have our internal biases whether or not we realize them, and that’s why when people make assumptions about me I don’t really get upset over it. Although it did bother me as a kid when everyone assumed I automatically liked the one brown guy in school, etc.

  8. I wonder whom they would have picked if you were the only Brown person at school ? The cynic in me says that probably an Asian girl, since they are hooked up with White, Black, Green guys in movies & tv all the time. But that’s another story.

  9. So I think most people do have our internal biases whether or not we realize them, and that’s why when people make assumptions about me I don’t really get upset over it. Although it did bother me as a kid when everyone assumed I automatically liked the one brown guy in school, etc.

    well, you’re just being bayesian. and i agree it’s natural. i added the modifier “atheist” on this weblog years ago because it was reasonable for people to assume i was muslim because of my name, from which they derived all sorts of implicit inferences about my beliefs. the statistical reality is there’s a 99% chance that anyone who has the surname khan and is NOT mongolian will be muslim or muslim-identified.

  10. Although it did bother me as a kid when everyone assumed I automatically liked the one brown guy in school, etc.,

    this is a common issue of frustration that i’ve heard. in my HS there was a black girl, and she once told me that she felt annoyance that of the few other black kids at the school (we’re talking 6 out of 900 students) some of the guys felt that they had an “in” with her ;-) she did not find them attractive, and resented the assumption from them that she was more open to them because of common race.

  11. Aren’t we getting a little too worked up over this? Razib, it’s possible that the black guys at your HS felt that they had better chances with the black girl due to common race because statistically it’s true and they felt more comfortable approaching her than they would girls of other races. I don’t see why there’s a need for resentment. She should just turn them down like she would anyone else she wasn’t attracted to.

  12. Well I can’t speak for Razib but personally I don’t feel resentful – I feel like we’re just sharing experiences and making observations here rather than playing the blame game or something.

    However, I did feel resentful sometimes when I was younger (and I’m only 20 now btw). I can understand Razib’s friend being annoyed in HS, because I think the real issue isn’t necessarily the black guys assuming she would like them, it’s that when you’re part of a very small minority anywhere, people tend to make assumptions about you. Each individual assumption isn’t a big deal at all, but having people constantly make those assumptions is tiresome. For example my name (Alina Mehmoor) is obviously Moslem and people often assume things about me consequently – typically that I’m very religious, uptight, that I’m forced to dress a certain way, that I abstain from socializing/dating/drinking etc, because that’s what they hear on TV about Moslem women so they assume it about me. I’ve also had some really strange comments (like people being surprised to see me eating meat – aren’t all brown people vegetarians?!) and while I’m used to it, it is a bit tiresome.

  13. “the statistical reality is there’s a 99% chance that anyone who has the surname khan and is NOT mongolian will be muslim or muslim-identified.”

    True. But the difficulty is what else can be discerned beyond that. Assumptions are weak and lazy..But I do it all the time. So does everyone I know…and if I may hazard an assumption..so do most of you.

    Generalizations are annoying and potentially dangerous… But we wouldn’t do it if there was a fair amount of validity behind them.

    Alina a question when you said “Although it did bother me as a kid when everyone assumed I automatically liked the one brown guy in school, etc”.

    what bothered you in retrospect..the fact that the boy was brown or the brown boy (perhaps) might have had limited social status and you did not want to be linked by association?

  14. Yeah, I had similar experiences in school as well – ie the only “appropriate” dudes for me were supposed to be the one or two brown ones. Sigh.

    I’m in Seattle and would love to check out this play.

    On another note, we have a lot of brownz here who hear my American accent and assume they can talk about me in while I’m still standing there. I guess they can, except for the dudes talking in Tamil. I’m onto you, dudes.

  15. Alina a question when you said “Although it did bother me as a kid when everyone assumed I automatically liked the one brown guy in school, etc”. what bothered you in retrospect..the fact that the boy was brown or the brown boy (perhaps) might have had limited social status and you did not want to be linked by association?

    haha hey, why are you assuming the brown guy was a nerd? :P

    Nope, he wasn’t unpopular or unattractive. What bothered me was that we literally didn’t know each other (he was in a different grade), had nothing in common, never interacted, but because I’m Desi and he’s of Arab descent, and we were 2 brown kids in a school dominated by WASPs, that we should automatically be interested in each other. That kind of thing just seems silly to me now, but 14 year old me sure didn’t like it.

  16. The comments are a disappointment. Lots of brown losers bragging about their romantic liaisons with whites.

  17. There is a BBC science documentary called “Child of Our Time” which follows children born in the year 2000 growing up. There was a test that children had to do – there are photographs of individual people of various ethnicities and ages etc on a board. The children were told to make a family out them. The researchers were really surprised that even the mixed-race children grouped people of the same ethnicities together.

  18. the comments are a disappointment. Lots of brown losers bragging about their romantic liaisons with whites.

    Haha literally no one here has done that, which leaves only 2 options: - Not so good with the Angrezi bro? - you’re a bitter virgin who spends his time trolling the internet for attention…i mean why would brown folk dare to date non-browns when there’s clearly indian stud machines like raj available? pshh must be losers! ;) better blame it on whitey, however irrelevant it may be here…

  19. Very different to the British experience where “culture” is much more operative than race. Frankly until I moved to Britain I had no understanding of what “Brown” meant. But what I love about Britain is that they’re so many Asians here I’m never home-sick for the Desh. Also “Asian” (which means Indian not Chinese here) culture being so dominant here that the Muzzers (Muslims) are divided into two cohorts. The Goodness Gracious Me generation, when we were all Asian (http://www.google.co.uk/search?client=opera&rls=en&q=goodness+graciousness+me&sourceid=opera&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&channel=suggest) and you know you were in because you knew what Chaddis meant.

    Then its the post 9-11 generation where now the anti-racism politics have been completely replaced, now we have Sikh Muslim violence being actively baited (when social workers and Brit govt policy was precisely to damp down that communal violence).

    Sorry for the rant but I love being British Asian; I find the condescending attitudes of elite peers from India & Pakistan looking down at the Diaspora to be super-annoying. As a person of Pakistani origin it is now the diaspora that’s the most exciting place to be.

  20. That’s a great story, and an even better telling of it. I can see why it was a watershed moment for you. Even as an adult though, people don’t stop playing out these assumptions. For example, I work in the financial services industry. Every place I have worked, I usually end up being friends with at least one Indian person, but that’s not the story. Regardless of how many other friends I make at this workplace, I better be ready to explain to every one of them why I don’t want to be married to my one co-worker who also happens to be Indian. People don’t even hesitate to ask any more. Weird.

  21. Awesome post! I do wish commenters will share their experiences in this context. I moved to the US when I was 21, so don’t have any similar experiences to share.

    But the take way seems to be that we are shaped by others view of us. Abhi was very shocked by the others associating him with brown when he was 10 – and is now an active participant on all things ‘brown’.

  22. I was born and raised in Singapore, and I too keep facing this pairing up of browns, whether it’s at school, work or social situations. Over here, it’s not just an innocent assumption that an indian would naturally have things in common with an indian. Rather, it’s a source of endless amusement (esp. for some of the Chinese*) to pair up random browns together; brown love is apparently that hilarious. (Actually, all things Indian are the object of ridicule here in Singapore.) Even though I have a preference for Indian men, this joke really gets on my nerves; there’s something very racist and juvenile about it. I don’t understand why this joke tickles their funny bones so much; all I know is, too many people here suffer from low EQ and lack of empathy. Thinking back, the random Indian dudes I was matchmade with had nothing in common with me and we barely spoke; usually, the matchmakers themselves only knew both parties on a very superficial level. I guess when you see two brown people within 5 metres of each other, the urge to snigger about them as a couple can be irresistably strong.

    There’s also a trend here where some Indians avoid socialising with other Indians, especially among the more educated males. It’s the exception rather than the norm, but I have a strong suspicion that it has something to do with wanting to avoid the usual pairing up jokes.

    (*To be fair, I’ve met plenty of gracious, intelligent, anti-racist Chinese people here; they’re not at all uncommon.)

    • Your story reminds me of what my Russian friend A did for my Indian friend S.

      A set S up with a colleague of her, who eventually became her husband.

      I asked A what made her think that the two would be suitable and she simply said “they’re both brown”.

      So sometimes I guess it does work.

  23. I forgot to add, they also love to pair up Indians with Malays. That is to say, they see an Indian within 5 metres of an opposite sex Malay, and start giggling and nudging you to be an item with the Malay. Yes, both Indians and Malays are brown, but then again, you could just as well say that both Malays and Chinese are yellowish. Culturally, I don’t see any strong similarities between the Indians and Malays here; the two ethnic groups are separate for the most part.

    This is the extent of their idiocy; it’s baffling and depressing.

  24. Tip from brown goldiggers anonymous : Find the [preferrably brown] rich dude and get him to bail you out.

  25. i think that is interesting story but the intent in story is qiuet simple and dull.I want the story have more funny.By all means,i felt so comforttable when i read this story.Thanh you so much