Thursday, March 12, 2009

INDIA

Dear India,

I love you. I love your culture. I love your people. They have a deep and influential place in my life. I can not, and would not want to, imagine growing up without Indians near and dear to me. My second friend of all time was Daljit. I was four, he was older. We were friends when I lived on William Street in East Vancouver. He lived a block away. We kicked a soccer ball around lots. Daljit had a red pleather jacket with tons of zippers and I was so impressed that he could Beat It. I ate laddu at Daljit's. He was an early buddy. I'm talking '82, '83. At that time, the plot of land next to my house was being built upon by Indian house-builders. They didn't speak English, my mom didn't speak English, and I could hardly speak anything intelligible. My mom made Chinese lunches for them and we would all sit in the sun eating dumplings together, talking in smiles. And then I moved to another neighbourhood in East Vancouver where I became buddies with Sunny. Now, he was a pal. He lived up the alley and if you total up the amount of hours we spent together, we're talking months on end. The trio was me, Sunny, and Nick. Sunny was way ahead of everyone 'cause he had a Commodore 64. He introduced us to California Games and taught us that in order to erase a 5 1/4" floppy disk, you could stomp on it. His grandfather didn't speak English but he welcomed us into his basement workshop where we watched him make gold jewelery. His grandfather served us chai from a pot, so deliciously authentic and untainted by the words "bar" or "ista". We boys would watch Beverly Hills Teens together. Sunny played for us a wicked bhangra tape called Beat the Rap by Dal. He taught us how to say "come here" in Punjabi. Our friendship was based on camaraderie and torment. Nick and I ceaselessly did dumb shit to Sunny, like sneaking up the back stairs to his bathroom window, which was open a crack while he showered, and we'd throw garbage in. One time, Sunny's relatives were visiting and parked their car in the back driveway. The hood ornament was hooked up to the horn to prevent theft, so Nick and I tied super-long twine to the shiny chrome piece, unraveled the twine across the intersection and half a block down our alley, and pulled. Nick and I did way more dumb shit -- both to Sunny and with Sunny -- but if I recounted all that dumb shit I'd be writing more pages than Paradise Lost. My only excuse is that we were young. Sorry, Sunny. You were a great pal. We were pals for years.

I had tons more Indian buddies after Sunny. I had crushes on Indian girls. Up my block are tons of Indian businesses: jewelers, grocery stores, restaurants, clothing shops, video stores. I played pinball under images of Ganesh and a cloud of incense. I was always impressed that the only Vancouverites I'd see wearing traditional clothing were Indians. I grew up among a whirlwind of saris. One of my favourite filmmakers is Satyajit Ray. One of my favourite accents is Indians speaking English. India, I love you.

But you're making my arms go akimbo and I'm grumbling hmmmm... You see, many years ago I started seeing change. When I was watching In Living Color, Martin, Roc, Living Single, and Arsenio in the same season, my adolescent heart cried out, "Yes! The Blacks have made it!" Then I watched House of Buggin' and I was all, "Yes! The Latinos have made it!" Then I watched All-American Girl and I was like, "YES! The Asians have made it!" ...Okay, I might have fudged the details a bit there 'cause Margaret Cho's show aired before John Leguizamo's, but nonetheless, Nielsen ratings and open eyes support my argument: in terms of prevalence in mainstream American and Canadian media, the list goes White, Black, Latino... then maybe Asian. Maybe.

True, that hierarchy might not be so accurate with Canadian media because we don't have the same Hispanic population as America, but since we're fed so much American stuff, I'll work with that list and continue... SO, the Latinos started looking familiar on screens. That is, I stopped noticing that many actors in movies and on T.V. were in fact Hispanic. It's now a non-issue. From my Chinese-North American perspective, the Latinos have made it. Who's next? Asians? Maybe. Maybe I mean East Asians. I'm not so sure anymore.

From unbiased observation, I noticed an East Asian presence sprouting up substantially in the mainstream. Thanks, Lucy Liu and Ming-Na Wen. If East Asians hadn't yet made it in the mid-late-'90s, I could sense those sprouts getting ready to bloom. Now, ten years later, we can add Sandra Oh to that mainstream echelon (all women, but we can talk about exotification, fetishisation, and emasculation of Asians another time), but still, East Asians on screens are not a non-issue. They are noticeable: "Hey, lookit her on screen: She's Chinese." We probably don't say that out loud anymore, but we make note, even if briefly. No, ethnic invisibility is not a mark of making it, but East Asians certainly haven't made it as ubiquitously as the Latinos have. Not yet. I've been waiting... waiting for a Chinese J.Lo... waiting for a Japanese Denzel... waiting for a Korean The Wire... waiting... small... steps... yellow... head... hurting... glass... ceiling...

...and now: INDIA! You're EVERYWHERE! Since when how hmmmm... I don't see a Little Shinto Temple on the Prairie. Where's the Taiwanese Russell Peters? Beijing has slums, some dogs, and plenty of millionaires. Remember "China Rising"? That was the headline across the world everywhere a few years ago. The CBC made a documentary called China Rising. Now it's got one called India Reborn. What gives? We Chinese have been patiently pushing the boulder up the hill, the rise no longer so steep, nearer and nearer the top, but I have a feeling you're already there on lunch break eating the world's biggest democratic roti. We will ask you, "How'd you get here so fast?" And you will reply, "We worked smarter, not harder. We have tech support. Would you like a hand, China? Or should I say... Sisyphus?" India, you're turning me into a big wonton ball of chagrin and I don't want to roll backward.

The lightning had etched it into the sky: China Rising. Thunder was nigh, a boom so mighty to rumble away the giant's slumber. Just as the Middle Kingdom was to wrap up its last R.E.M., the thunder will be reported missing. At that moment, the world will say, "So... What's up with China?" And at that moment, a billionaire IT mogul riding his private Learjet from Beijing to Mumbai -- to check up on his latest pet project blockbuster movie -- before his final destination in Delhi to deliver a powerful package, will whip out his BlackBerry and text to the world: "I've got the thunder." Then he will go vote.

India, I should have seen it coming once you guys reached one billion. Your people at home and abroad make amazing art, film, and theatre. Your authors are incredible. Your music is sublime. I've seen Indians on Coronation Street. You've made it. ...Well, almost. I now see South Asians all the time on American and Canadian mainstream media, but you are as noticeable as East Asians: "Hey, lookit her on screen: She's Indian." It would be a shame for your ethnicity to become invisible, but wouldn't it be nice to have a South Asian Sean Penn -- in America -- and no one remarks that he's brown? No, America does not yet have an Indian In Living Color, but neither does it have a Chinese. We both have to get our House of Buggin' first.

As much as China and you, India, are the world's most popular kids and everyone wants to be our friends, and though our economic thunder is shaking up the globe, we are but mere shouts on American and Canadian screens. We are still only lightning to the western mainstream, our presence comes in flashes, and I am waiting for our rumble.

We are 1/3 of the world. Let's join our billions of hands together, teach each other how to say "superpower" in Hindi and Mandarin. I'll remind myself that it's not a competition. Our cultures are older than hell. We've both been "inconvenienced" by the British. We have similar struggles. In America and Canada, your success is my success. I love you, India. I love your people. You've been a good friend all my life. I shake my head at you not in dismay, but in amazement. How do I say "I am jealous" in Punjabi? Does it sound anything like "I am intimidated" in Urdu?

No comments: