Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Minority Report

Re-reading my post yesterday and the comments, I'm starting to feel like I was unnecessarily harsh in my review of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. A reader of my review might never have guessed that I couldn't put the book down, that I laughed at Kingsolver's turkey tribulations, that I started to understand, more fully, why local eating is about more than merely reducing carbon emissions.

But for some reason, I didn't feel like cutting Kingsolver a ton of slack. Her world sounds like a lovely one, but it also feels like a world in which I have no place. I can't imagine living on a rural American farm, and not just because I love city life, or because I enjoy living five minutes away from grocery stores, bars, schools, parks, restaurants, and theatres, though those are good things. I can't imagine living in rural America because I can't imagine always feeling as if I was walking on eggshells wondering if someone was looking at me strange, or if that lady was rude to me because she had a bad day or because she hated brown people. And I really can't imagine living in an area where I was the only minority.

On the other hand, just two days ago I wrote about my love for Enid Blyton novels, and certainly, if I have no place in rural America, I really had no place as an Indian-American in 1950s upper-middle class Britain. Blyton's books make no mention of South Asians, though presumably there must have been SOME Indians living in Britain at the time. And Americans were always stereotyped as loud, rich, and not terribly smart. But as a child, I let this all wash off my back. I would imagine myself as another student at St. Clare's and just assume that I would show all the girls that their prejudices against Americans were invalid. I never let my race, nationality, or sex get in the way of my Blytonian fantasies of solving crimes and going to boarding school.

Why the disconnect between the way I treat the two authors? Is it the difference between approaching material as a idealistic young girl and a more cynical adult? It is because Blyton's dream world is fictional, whereas Kingsolver's world is all too real? Is it because I view Blyton as a product of her time, whereas Kingsolver lives in MY time? And what did I really expect from Kingsolver anyway? She likes living in the rural South. Isn't that okay? Did I really need her to write an apologia on behalf of the South? "Dear Minorities in America. I'm sorry you don't feel welcome here. Want some cheese? Love, Babs."

Actually, that might not have been so bad... I do like cheese.

It's an interesting thing being a blogger in what is presumed to be a predominantly white blogosphere. In real life, I never need to state that I'm not white. My name, my skin color, even the way I gesticulate telegraph my race for me. But on the blogosphere, it's easy for a casual reader to assume I must be white like everyone else. And thus, I often feel the need to signal, "Hey! It's me! Arduous! Not white! Wait, guys, it's me, again!! Still not white!!"

While I do think the minority viewpoint is an important one to bring to the table, and while I do see it as, somewhat, my responsibility to be that minority voice, I also recognize that that responsibility can sometimes work the other way. Because I sometimes feel like I'm not just representing myself, but all minorities, I can be over-sensitive in blogland in a way that I'm not in real life. I can read a book and become disgruntled over a small part of the book that I find exclusive and ignore the fact that the majority of the book is about a subject that unites all of humanity: food.

So while I think it's still important for me to provide my "minority perspective," I also think it's important that I pull back from time to time and remember, that in the end, there is more that unites us than divides us.


Green Bean said...

Thought provoking as usual, Arduous. You are right in the sense that I often assume everyone in blog land looks just like me - white, lives somewhere on the fringes of urban, a woman, lives near the coast. I don't assume that consciously but whenever I come across a mention in a post or comment of a different background or location, I'm always very interested in how their experience differs from mine. As I've said in some of my posts to Joyce, that is why the blogosphere is such a valuable and rich place and why we can truly effect change here.

That said, it's interesting that you feel you need to "represent". Even though I know you are Indian American, I rarely think about it. I've always valued your voice as representative of a younger (ahem, only very slightly) generation, people who live in a city un-like NY, and what the hip single folk must be thinking. When I come here, I think of what are those uber cool, single gals thinking about these days? Now make sure you represent that viewpoint too! Your blog is the only way I stay hip, yo.

ruchi said...

Jam, I think you bring up a good point. The banana thing kind of frustrated me too. Really? You are never going to allow your children a banana? Even organic, fair trade bananas? I totally agree that conventional bananas pose a lot of problems, but by buying fair trade bananas you are playing an important part in supporting South American economies. In fact, I'm not *convinced* local is superior to fair trade. I think if fair trade raises the standard of living in third world countries, it outweighs the transportation miles. (And hey, if anyone has been reading a book that discusses fair trade further that they recommend, please let me know. This is a subject I'm trying to learn more about.) But further to your point, I think she does come across as a little "perfect" and while I didn't find her preachy, she spends so much time explaining why are choices are the right choices that I think it can start to feel like her choices are the only right choices. I imagine she does this because the average reader knows much less about the local food movement etc than most of us on this blog, but it also results in people feeling like they don't measure up.

GB, well I think I represent several minority viewpoints on the eco-blogosphere, including being an Indian-American, and being a late twenties gal living on her own in the city. I do think that being (slightly) younger, having a time consuming career, living alone and being childless gives me a different viewpoint, which is why I write about things like not wanting to do everything by myself or not wanting to live off the grid and such. But to a certain extent, writing from the younger viewpoint is kinda ...obvious. I am going to pepper my posts with "dude." That's just how I talk/blog. Sorry, dudes. I think it's less obvious sometimes that I am an ethnic minority, so I sometimes feel a more conscious need to represent that.

Melissa said...

green bean, you made me snort tea out of my nose at the end there!

Arduous, I agree with what you are getting at with this post, in that unfortunately, in our society, the word "person" means a white, heterosexual, able bodied, christian, male (did I leave anything out there? :) only when we are told differently do most of us start to question any of these assumptions - for example, if we heard somebody talking about a "judge" we'd assume it was a straight white guy, unless told otherwise.

I enjoy reading your blog because of what we have in common, namely we're both urban women, of the same generation, with similar values and political views AND I enoy reading because of your unique experience, ie your Indian heritage, which enhances your perspective in a way I will never experience.

I haven't read the Blyton books but I wonder if you identified with those characters because they were children too? Children are sort of the ultimate disenfranchised group - so in some ways kids have more in common with all other kids than they do with any other adult. I think it's a question, often, of which identity trumps - as a child, it's age; as we get older, it's stuff like nationality or gender.

I can't believe how much you've made us think in the past two days!!

Anonymous said...

That's interesting arduous. When I first started reading your blog, I assumed you were white. Then I got to know that you were an Indian American. However that did not, absolutely did not change a thing for me when I continued to read your blog. I very rarely even think about it. Okay, once when you mentioned that you used to be an aspiring actress. There was a fleeting thought about the roles you might play in a movie.

Perhaps I am on the low-awareness end of the spectrum when it comes to noticing different races :)

WRT AVM, I did have similar misgivings about the book - most of us are just not able or want to live off the land on our own. However I don't think that was the intention of Kingsolver. It was an experiment for her and her family. Even though it is a non-fiction, I thought of read it as a fiction, in that I would not be able to copy what she and her family did.

BTW, I love the part about her visit to an agritourism in Italy. I was in Italy when I read AVM. Luckily I was able to visit an agritourism. To this day, I can't say enough great things about it :)

JABster said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ruchi said...

Jam, I did some research and it looks like maybe some Whole Foods sell fair trade bananas and some don't? You might want to talk to the produce manager of your Whole Foods and find out how you can get fair trade bananas in your store.

Melissa, you're right. I never thought about that. I totally identified with the kids in the Blyton books because they were children as well.

Cindy W, isn't it funny how we all start with the assumption that we're reading the blog of a white person. That's why I wrote that the blogosphere is presumed to be mainly white. Because it might be mostly white, but a lot of it is that we just ASSUME it is so. I didn't assume you were white, because I knew your last name, but generally speaking, I work under the assumption that a blogger is white unless I know otherwise. But yeah, I don't want people constantly thinking about how I'm Indian-American or how I'm DIFFERENT, I'd rather focus on what unites us, on what's the same. On the other hand, there are times when I do feel like I disagree with people due to a minority viewpoint, and then I feel like it's important for me to speak up.

JABster said...

I'm doing this again -- the typos were too embarrassing!

Take 2:
As with everything else, there is a darker side to food that is "fair trade." Much of the Peruvian asparagus is labeled "fair trade," and it sort of is. The US government sends millions of dollars to Peru to encourage Peruvian farmers to grow asparagus rather than cocaine. Meanwhile, American asparagus farmers cannot compete and are going bankrupt. I don't think this is very fair for the American farmers, and I am careful to buy American asparagus, at the farmers market if possible, and if at the grocery store then organic. I also grow my own(which I started after reading Animal,Vegetable, Miracle), but my plants are still too young to harvest heavily.

Having lived in Virginia, I think Ms. Kingsolver was dead-on for Virginians' general tendency to judge a person by whom his or her grandfather was. But I also found many, many Virginians who could care less about geneaology. I think the whole Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings deal had a large impact on that attitude.

On the same note, my husband and I are white; we have 2 biological daughters and one (adopted) Chinese daughter. We live in rural Texas, in a tiny town full of farmers of Czech and German descent. I was a little apprehensive when we first moved here, but I felt we could always move 15 miles into the larger town where there is a University and, I thought, more "culture." Now I feel silly about that, because every single one of my neighbors immediately accepted our Chinese daughter. In fact, when they first met us, many were anxious to tell us about their adopted children, or children of friends, or nieces, etc. There is a little boy at our school adopted from the Marshall Islands and there are many children adopted domestically and from Russia. Several of our neighbors now put up Chinese New Year decorations every year. You haven't lived until you've seen a paper dragon draped over an old John Deere tractor!

So I guess I'm saying that the American South isn't so bad after all.

Finally, somewhere in that book Ms. Kingsolver sort of makes fun of herself. At the end of the vignette where she visits the Amish family, she describes one of her friends asking, "What? No mosquitoes to ruin the lovely scene." I'm paraphrasing, but it is something like that. I think to some degree she caught the tone of the book getting too idyllic.

By the way, I really resisted the homemade pizza epiphany that occurs in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. But I gave it a try, and damn it's actually pretty fun and EASY to make your own pizza

Melissa said...

jabster, I also have concerns about fair trade BUT the US giving financial incentives to farmers in Peru (ostensibly whether or not they practice fair trade?) is a separate issue from what is right and wrong with fair trade, I think.

ruchi said...

Jabster, thanks for your comment. I really appreciate your "minority perspective." You make a great point about the asparagus. When I was talking about fair trade, I was mostly thinking about good that can't be grown in America like coffee, bananas, etc. It's a complicated thing. I guess my question would be, are the lives of those Peruvians demonstrably better for not growing cocaine and growing fair trade asparagus instead? If so, isn't that something our society should place value on? Why is the local American farmer more important or valuable than the Peruvian farmer? I'm not saying that there's a right answer here. I'm not sure what the answer is. In the case of asparagus, frankly, my answer would be that imported asparagus tastes like crap, which is why I personally stick to the local stuff, but I think the questions are still worth pondering.

And thank you very much for speaking up for the American South. My friend Honda actually yelled at me this morning telling me that in my own way I was being just as close-minded as anyone by making assumptions about the rural South. And it's a fair point. I think my issues with the rural South might have to do more with my own racial baggage as opposed to the reality on the ground. Just because I go to rural America and freak out that people are going to judge me and treat me as an outsider doesn't mean that that's what would happen. That's what I was trying (maybe sort of badly) to get at when I said I need to remember what unites us rather than what divides us. There's so much that can unite even me and an Appalachian farmer. That's one of the great things about the blogosphere. I read comments and blogs by people like you and Joyce and I realize that a lot of my fears are totally unfounded. So thank you again for your comment.

Joyce said...

Arduous, I think I somehow caught on early in reading your blog that you were of Indian extraction, but raised here (right?). I just thought it was fun to know that, because the town I've lived in my whole life is full of people who came from other countries to attend the university. It's just no biggie here.
The weird thing, though, is that now we have a contingent of Chinese people in our church, enough that we provide Mandarin interpretation for some of the older folks, and, though most of the kids were born and raised here, a lot of people assume they are "from China" (or Hong Kong, or Taiwan). They're not! They're from here! They are as American as I am. Why is that so hard to get through some people's heads? One college aged girl who is working as an intern at the church keeps having to tell people that she actually can't read the Mandarin signs we've put up around the building (to help people find the nursery, etc.) She and I laugh about this, and she's real easy going about it, but it's got to be frustrating to her from time to time. I'll bet you've had the same experience.

Green Bean said...

This is about the bananas. I'm one of those freaks who don't buy them for my kids - except in situatons where I cannot procure any local fruit for them (e.g. Disneyland). At first, it was because they are not locally grown. Now, its because we have so many other fruits to eat. In the fall and winter, there were apples that had been carefully stored or dried, persimmons, pomegrantes and citrus. Now, we are bursting with berries and stone fruit.

I am in a unique situation because I live somewhere where such fruit is readily accessible. You'd be surprised how little you miss bananas, though, when you are eating all that other fruit. On the rare occasions that we do eat a banana, we really really enjoy it.

JABster said...

Yeah, me too, Green Bean. We don't buy bananas. We have some fabulous Texas citrus, melons, and berries, so we do fine without the bananas. Plus, bananas have a fairly high glycemic index.

But......we were recently at a fancy restaurant which offered Bananas Foster, made at the table. I wilted under the sad faces of my kids (and husband!), and agreed to let us have it as a special treat. It was soooooo good!

Melissa said...

oooh...speaking of banana's foster, I have to admit to a special weakness of mine which is Ben & Jerry's "Banana's on the Rum" ice cream. I've honestly never had anything like it in my life.

hgg said...

I'm probably guilty of assuming everybody in the bloggosphere is like me (white, female, scientist, travelling all over the place), so I'm happy to have a reality check once in a while.

When you start looking for racism, sexism, agism, homophobia etc. you find it everywhere! It's important to point it out and try to make a change, but at times I find it very tiring and also very depressing. Just because it's everywhere and all the time.

ruchi said...

Joyce, yes I am of Indian origin, but born and raised in California (with a brief stint in the Land of Lincoln for college). I used to get a lot more of the assumptions that I was from another place. But frankly, maybe because California is SO diverse now? I don't get it as much anymore. It's nice. Where are you from now usually means, actually "where were you born and raised?" If people want to know my ethnicity they usually ask where my name is from. It's a nice distinction.

GB, you ARE a freak. Heh. My secret is that I actually can't really remember the last time I ate a banana. Aside from the fair trade/local questions, I personally like bananas, but I don't love them.

Mangoes, on the other hand, are the best fruit known to man.

These are all tough questions, and they're hard to navigate sometimes. I think ultimately, the most important thing is we're asking these questions, that we're thinking about them. And then we have to do what we think is best for ourselves and what makes most sense given our values. And for some of us that means bananas, and for others, no bananas. There really isn't a one size fits all approach, I don't think.

Anonymous said...

Darn it! I was pretending to be a non-racial world citizen :)

So much talk about bananas. My mother hates bananas. I get her DNA, albeit diluted - I just don't like them. It's a texture thing. Strangely my girls don't care for them either. So lucky me. I only have to convince my husband not to eat them. It's much easier denying the husband than denying the kids :)

ruchi said...

Jabster, ooooh, bananas foster CAN be hard to pass up! And your kids probably enjoyed the treat more for it being a rare treat, instead of an every day kinda thing.

Melissa, I've never tried that but I do love B&J. Maybe I should try it ... except who am I kidding. I never try new flavors with B&J, but just stick to my tried and true! ;)

HGG, you're really great at pointing out inequalities! It's one of the things I love about your site. But you're right, you can't do it too often because it does get really effin depressing.

Jam, heh you make a good point. Bananas are one of the few and proud braces-friendly fruits. Yet another reason why there's no one size fits all answer. We all have to weigh our choices and decide what's best for us and our family, and accept that what's best for us isn't necessarily right for others. I think I got cranky with Kingsolver for what I perceived as judging, but to tell the truth, she really was just talking about what worked for HER. And there's a good lesson here. Judginess is bad, but we also need to watch out and make sure we're not just perceiving judging. If that makes any non-judgemental sense. ;)

Cindy, it's mostly a texture thing for me too. But I like bananas in things. Like I like banana bread, and I loooooove Thai fried banana. When I was 11, we went to Thailand, and that's all I ate the whole time.

Mouse said...

Hey now, whites can be minorities too. I wasn't in the racial majority until I went to a farmer boy college.

And those rural folks ain't lookin' at you funny because you're a brown person, necessarily. I would get the exact same looks when I drove through Kansas. They look at you that way 'cause "You aren't from 'round there". They can smell urban, they don't have to see it.

Katy said...

arbuous - if it makes you feel better, I confess I don't think I could ever live in the rual south. I live in the south, (Texas) but I live in a large city that has an extreamly diverse population. On those occations when I find myself driving through the country side, I'm amazed at how different it is from the life that I know. In some places, there are churches, literaly every 10 feet.

Now, if I (a white southern Christian) feel like an outsider when I go to rual towns, there's no hope for you.

Donna said...

I agree -- it's funny how I just assume everyone in the blogosphere is white and I was surprised when I figured out somewhere along the way that you weren't. But, like GB, I appreciate your blog most for your perspective as a younger & single working person! The Indian heritage perspective is a bonus -- you should write more about it!

We used to eat tons of bananas, but just as I was reading AVM, my son's doctor said ixnay to bananas. It made it easy to get rid of them and my husband didn't argue because it was for "medical" reasons. :)

Green Bean said...

Jam: Then what can you do put send the bananas! I don't mean to imply that they are evil or forbidden. Here, I am again guilty of assuming everyone is like me. Not in the racial sense but in that I never considered any of the other fruits in the supermarket until I embraced local living. Truly, we lived on bananas and apples and the occasional grape and I never gave it another thought. I had no clue what a persimmon was and ate a pomegranate maybe once a year. Having tried all those other fruits now, I can't believe what I was missing. I also assume that everyone has kids the same age as mine - an age where you can still sucker them into eating most anything. Plus, we have no braces issues . . . yet. I wish you strawberries soon!

ruchi said...

Mouse, you're totally right. And I'm sure you were a minority on every damn bus you had to take in LA when your car was broken! ;)

Katy, thanks for the perspective.

Donna, I'll try to write more specifically about my Indian roots from time to time.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I'm gonna speak in defense of AVM, but only in a really mild way, since I totally get and respect the "outsider" feeling you're describing.

First point is about rural areas in general (not just the south). It's a truism in rural areas that there is often a running joke about how you're not a local unless your grandfather was born here. It's true in one sense, and that is to recognize the really long history that those families have of having spent generations in one place, and usually having contributed to the establishment of that place. As a rural dweller who's been in the Valley for 4 years and in the County for a decade or so, I can tell you that I feel no less welcome due to my not meeting the "official local" criteria. I haven't found that most rural communities use that standard to decide whether or not someone is welcome there, only as a way of assessing whether a person is a part of that place's long-term history or only of the moment. I certainly don't take offense at being counted in the "of the moment" category.

The other comment is about bananas and the whole "local vs. fair trade" thing. I don't generally eat bananas, even if they're fair trade. Fair trade is great, but my reasoning has more to do with acclimating myself to what will be available in the future. No matter how much I support fair trade stuff, I don't want to be hooked on bananas when they stop being shipped so far!

Thanks for the very thought-provoking discussions!

Anonymous said...

i haven't read the book, so i can't comment on what she has written. however, i'm not sure that i would agree with the stereotypes of the south being discussed here. i'm an iranian woman who travels down to the carolinas 3-4 times a year for personal reasons. i've never felt uncomfortable, nor have i felt like was the only minority. when i visit i go to a town of 23,000 where i haven't felt out of place or unaccepted. the south is certainly not all white. there is a huge african american population, as well as a sizeable population of hispanics and asian-americans. and considering that i'm damn proud of my iranian background, i couldn't be mistaken for another nationality. granted, it's not as awesome as toronto (where i'm from) but it really isn't all that bad... what you're describing sounds like a part of the looking-glass theory in regards to self identity.

ruchi said...

Sue, hey thanks to you and everyone else for the thought provoking discussion! Interesting point about bananas. I admit, my personal belief is that bananas will continue to be available in the future, because I believe in human ingenuity and I think that we will always find ways to transport things, but I see where you're coming from.

Kimberly, you make an excellent point. My comment to Jabster kind of got buried in all of these long, thoughtful awesome comments so I just want to reiterate what I wrote there:

And it's a fair point. I think my issues with the rural South might have to do more with my own racial baggage as opposed to the reality on the ground. Just because I go to rural America and freak out that people are going to judge me and treat me as an outsider doesn't mean that that's what would happen. That's what I was trying (maybe sort of badly) to get at when I said I need to remember what unites us rather than what divides us.

Thanks for bringing up your experience. Sometimes I need to be reminded that just because I feel uncomfortable doesn't mean that I necessarily have a valid reason to feel uncomfortable.

e4 said...

Personally, I didn't read Kingsolver as defending the rural "outsider" bias, but rather just describing it. The city mouse/country mouse dichotomy is probably nearly universal. I know of rural folks who don't want their town taken over by "yuppies," and I know city dwellers who mock "bumpkins", with no real thought to race or ethnic origin. I think that's just a common tendency of the human race. Not one that I'm a fan of, but just something you run into in life.

We've had a terrible time getting to know some of our rural neighbors. I don't know if they're just very cautious with new people, or they have to wait and see what kind of person you are, or they don't trust you if they don't see you at their particular church on Sunday, or if they figure you'll just move again in two years and be replaced by some other unknown quantity.

Once we do establish a relationship, they're usually very friendly and helpful, even going out of their way for you. I don't know if that's how it is in other places, but that's how it's been for us.

Interesting discussion in any case...

Melissa said...

I am reading these comments (about being a minority/outsider and living in rural areas) and keep wanting really badly to agree with the arguments that it's got more to do with being an outsider than it does to do with being a minority, but there is something nagging at me. Maybe it's because I grew up in a small town and have seen first hand how hateful people can be to those who are different.

Maybe it's because when I was living in a small town and got engaged to an Indian guy people would say some pretty hurtful things to me about the culture of the person I was going to marry, and that would therefore be a big part of my life going forward. It wouldn't be constructive to repeat those things, but trust me - they weren't nice.

Nobody's ever said anything like that to me since we've moved to the bay area. maybe it's a coincidence. Maybe the comments made to me were purely out of JUST ignorance, with no malice at all. but I find that all too often the two are linked rather closely.

Either way, I feel a lot more comfortable in the city than I would in a rural area. As much as I would love to say that I feel we'd feel safe enough to move anywhere in this country - I wouldn't, especially if we have children.

All that being said, that's just my take; it's neither right nor wrong, just a gut feeling based on my experience - what I do think is super important is that conversations like these are had. Thanks arduous for giving us lots to think about!

ruchi said...

e4, thanks for your perspective. I agree, that prejudices exist on both sides of the rural/city divide.

Melissa, that's interesting. This may not be something you feel like talking about, but have you encountered discrimination from any Indians while living in the Bay Area? I've known white people who have married Indians who have had a rough time with the Indian community, but I hope it's getting better.

Melissa said...

arduous, I'm happy to report that I haven't encountered any discrimination from the Indian community - I think the biggest thing is that I am more self-conscious, because I'm acutely aware of being an outsider (most especially since I often don't follow the conversation as it's frequently not in English). I think that's just part of the process that we have to go through as a couple though, learning how to integrate our cultures.

ruchi said...

Melissa, good to know that people are more welcoming and accepting than they used to be!!