Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Totally Ganeshed Out, Catching All The Ladies

This one time, when my brother and I were teenagers, we wore our clothes backwards like Kris Kross and went around calling each other "nigga." We were (and are) both white.

As weird and embarassing as this behavior is, what makes it even more weird and embarassing is that very soon afterwards I met somebody who basically did the same thing to me. My parents are English; this person was an Anglophile. They came up to me telling me they knew all the rules of afternoon tea. They knew how to fake the accent and they knew more about the geography of London than I did. They knew the Scottish origins of my first name. They knew the history of William the Conqueror, or whoever, and they could pinpoint the exact location of my parents' home villages on a map of England. They had never been outside the Chicagoland area in their lives. It was very weird.

What made it even weirder is that there's no such thing as afternoon tea - at least, not in my family. I honestly wondered if this person had made it up or seen it in a movie or something. My great-aunt Jackie actually observes the tradition, and my great-aunt Dorothy did as well until her death last year, but I didn't know that at the time. The vast majority of my relatives do not do any kind of afternoon tea thing. Among most of my relatives, including my own parents, the concept of afternoon tea is a contradiction in terms, because the idea of scheduling tea is as inherently absurd as scheduling gravity. Tea flows constantly. Such is the nature of tea.

And no, by the way, this Anglophile couldn't really do the accent. But they were doomed to spend their entire lives thinking they could. Americans are notoriously imprecise listeners, and the English are notorious for their excessive diplomacy. So nobody American could tell the difference, and nobody English who could tell actually ever would.

Going back to the Kris Kross thing, when a first-generation British-American meets an Anglophile, he gets a very precise (but probably less intense) simulation of what it must be like for African-Americans to encounter white kids pretending to be black. There's something utterly squirmy about the idea that somebody you've never met wants your cultural identity. I'm pretty sure this person, after they met my parents, went home and practiced their British accent so they could sound like my parents. That's flat-out weird.

And not just weird - inaccurate, too, when you consider that my parents sound American to English people these days, having lived here so long; and that my mother has always had a very slightly weird accent anyway, an amalgamation of Yorkshire, Berkshire, and Singapore which just doesn't happen that often. It's not just the wanting somebody else's cultural identity which is weird; it's also that culture, more than anything, consists entirely of what Hayek called tacit knowledge - the stuff nobody ever explicitly articulates, but just assumes you know. So cultural identity is almost inherently unknowable from the outside. Which means it's not really the identity that Anglophiles and wiggers are after - it's some weird hybrid of the identity and the image.

Anyway - I had a similar experience today, and if you're in the tech field, like most people who read this blog, then this whole story is, very slightly, very marginally, relevant.

I have a Ganesh, or possibly a Ganesha. I honestly don't know. It was designed by the New York graffiti artist Doze Green, and it is at once an homage to the classic early days of hip-hop - including breakdancing and graffiti - and an interpretation of an Indian religious icon.

I've had this in my home for a while, through a couple moves, and today I'm in a hotel, paid for by a consulting firm which brought me up to Silicon Valley to do some work for a local company, one of the bigger dot-com boom success stories. I'll say which company once I'm officially started - the point is, I've had this thing in my home through a couple of moves, today I'm in a hotel, and I have it here in my hotel.

So the consulting company is predominantly staffed by Indians and/or Indian-Americans. So I go over there today and I fill out some paperwork. I did not see one Ganesh in the building. I did see archetypal American corporate imagery, like a "Leadership" poster with a picture of a bald eagle.

So here's this American white guy, with an extremely stylized, Americanized Ganesh, and here's this office full of people from India, with all this American corporate stuff.

It's almost like, if the American culture was a person, and the Indian culture was another person, it's almost like these two people were trying on each other's clothes.

It's kind of weird.

1 comment:

  1. It's very nice to read and also knowledgeable.

    how to greet other in India? read this article



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