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?”
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.
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.