I’ve been spending a lot of time with my colleague, another newbie; let’s call her Shasti. We're sharing a service apartment until we find more permanent accommodation. We went for a walkabout the other day, which was fucking hilarious. She wanted to open a bank account and I think we damn near scandalised the whole bank looking like the oddest couple. Me in my shorts and yellow t-shirt, contrasting with my dark brown skin. She in her turquoise salwar kameez. A glowing, youthful face juxtaposed with a significant number of snow-white locks. The looks on people’s faces suggested they were trying to figure out precisely what our relationship was: Sugar mama, wife, illicit lover?
We would joke about how people we encountered would appear to treat her as though she were my handler. People would look to Shasti whenever I asked a question, or address her about things concerning me. Too funny. I figured it was because of the psychic energy required to make the effort to communicate in a language they perhaps are not entirely comfortable using – especially the doormen and street vendors we sometimes disturbed to ask for directions. One of the funniest moments was the look of elation on the faces of two older men I’d accosted when they discovered that Shasti could speak Tamil, their native language.
We also survived our first scam – of sorts. We went to a supermarket and tried to buy a 10 litre bottle of water. There were a bunch of old-looking dusty bottles outside the store entrance. We asked for a new bottle, and the manager said that the shop assistant was heading down to the store room to get one. However I saw the assistant take a rag, and one of the old bottles. Common-sense… Tingling. I ask the manager, what’s going on:
“He’s getting a bottle from the store.”
“So why did he take a bottle?”
“Those bottles are for display only”
“Ok. But I saw him take a display bottle. Why would he do that if he’s getting a bottle from the store room?”
I was getting some straight “me, or your lying eyes?” ish from this fellow. So Shasti and I had to peace out.
Another experience we had that cracked us up was when in the supermarket, which was just like any other South Asian supermarket I’d been to in the US, (we were walking around the store asking the names of vegetables, and I was asking Shasti stupid questions about how one would go about preparing them. I figure that if I’m going to be here for a while it will be much more economical to use ingredients available locally.) Shasti was looking for quinoa, so she asked what grains they had in stock other than rice and wheat. The manager gave her a puzzled look and asked “for dinner?” In a way that suggested, “what the fuck else would you eat other than rice or parottas or what not?” He shot me a brief glance/our eyes met briefly. I perceived a micro-expression of pity, like: oh lawd, please don’t tell me this dude’s madam doesn’t know how to cook! Shit, Son! You married an idiot.
Old Japan-hands will have analogous stories to tell. Asian Americans in Japan, especially those who had some proficiency in Japanese, would discombobulate the locals in a similar manner. To outside observers, Shasti and I are a man and woman together, so people tend to assume we are married (at the time we were shopping together, so that assumption is not at all strange), she also looks Indian, so why on earth wouldn’t a married Indian woman know how to cook with rice and wheat? Head asplode!