Thursday, January 22, 2009

On Bedrest, Pondering Race Relations

I am writing this post with my head cocked to the left, and with considerable distance between how high my left and right shoulders reach. For the first time in my life, I am seriously craving the services of a neck brace. While I'm not a medical doctor, I'm fairly certain I'm suffering from a pinched nerve. How did this happen?

Well, the answer is I'm not sure. I imagine it has something to do with sleeping on my back wrong, and maybe even being so elated during the Obama inauguration that, while weeping like a baby, I moved my head/back in a wonky way. (Just to pile on with the masses - how awesome was that speech? I didn't really think feeling inspired and moved by a politician was available to those born after JFK. And please, don't even mention Reagan.)

But as far as explanations for my pinched nerve go, I keep going back to a yoga class I recently attended in which the instructor doled out very forceful adjustments, alongside (unintentionally?) racist remarks. And it just might be due to the trauma sustained in this class that I now find myself in a state akin to Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot.

Let me explain. As in any group fitness class in Brussels, students in this class consisted of both local, French-speaking Bruxellois, as well as a sprinkling of foreigners. In this particular class, the instructor wasted no time singling out the étrangers: a Tunisian woman, a Brazilian man, a Chinese man, and me. His way of pointing out our otherness - which I realize may not have been his intention - was to pay us more attention. He wanted to know our names - mainly that of the Tunisian woman and me, as he already knew Paolo, the Brazilian, and Mr. Wong, the Chinese guy (who, for some reason, was the only student he referred to by his last name, à la Mr. Miyagi). Tempted to tell him my name was Suzy Wong, I settled for my real moniker.

But he wouldn't let things rest there. What language did I speak? English. Where was I from? The United States. No, no, that couldn't possibly be right, where was I really from? The United States. (J volunteered later that, in the future, I should just say Texas.) But you are really from China, no? Yes, my parents are. (Normally I am not a stickler on this issue, but come on. I was annoyed. And born in the United States!) All of this while we were supposedly in a calm and centered yoga class! After this exchange, he left me alone for a while, so he could go bug the Tunisian woman. He kept botching her name to the point of slaughter, replacing it with more commonly known Muslim men's names. Then he would go pester the Brazilian guy, announcing to the class that he was "traveling to Latin America."

Before long, he was "traveling back to Asia." (Mr. Wong's mat happened to be placed directly behind mine.) I think I was taking all of this in stride until he addressed Mr. Wong and me, collectively - because we're together, didn't you know? - in what could only be understood as very bad Chinese. I say this, because it sounded a lot like "Ching Chang Chong." Hilarious! Noting the look of disbelief on my face, he decided to clarify and asked me - heretofore established as an English speaker only, mind you - "How do you say 90 degrees in Chinese?" Since I was momentarily rendered deaf mute, Mr. Wong answered for me: "Jio shi du." (Which, of course, sounds nothing like Ching chang chong.) To which, with an insult comic dog's impeccable timing, the instructor replied, to the class, "Mais moi je ne peux pas parler chinois!" (But I can't speak Chinese!) To which, the Bruxellois crowd, on cue, responded by bursting out in roaring laughter.

Perhaps you can now appreciate how I might have acquired a pinched nerve. But the point is that, to me, incidents like this prove that the United States is light years ahead in terms of dealing with race relations. Rather than being purposefully offensive, this yoga instructor simply could not conceive of the fact that someone who is not Caucasian could actually be American - just as the Turkish and Moroccan immigrant populations, despite being here for more than a generation, are seldom considered Belgian. Hopefully our new President will be one of the forces that will help change such attitudes. Watching the beautiful, multi-ethnic extended Obama family sitting behind him at Inauguration, it was hard to imagine he won't.


Ann said...

Remember the sub optometrist whose first words during my visit were, "I am impressed by your English" and then proceeded to sexually harass me? He's going down.

catia said...

Wow babe. Amazing. I really don't know what to say abt that. I guess we can use reminding once and awhile that maybe we're not as bad off as it sometimes feels...Soldier on darling! (and I mean that in a truely affectionate, non-sexist, way)

Caryn said...

this story is ridiculous. i have had that same conversation many times. "no, but where are you really from." the unites states is never a good enough answer.

Alana said...

Surprisingly Maisie- I get these types of questions all the this country!! They come in a week randomly I'll get a grouping of "where are you from?" type inquiries. Then nothing for several months...It's pretty amazing- here I think it's more about needing to categorize and less about "foreign-ness" but it's still ridiculous- the non-caucasian look means you must not be from or of "here"