multicultural miscommunications

As yesterday’s flight to San Francisco taxied to the gate, my Indian seatmate and I had a conversation that neither of us could really hear over the sounds of the plane, and the resulting miscommunications reminded me of my favorite bit from Lizzie Collingham’s Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors.

In the 1920s and 30s, tightening immigration and anti-miscegenation laws isolated the men of California’s Punjabi Sikh population. Many returned to the Punjab, but many who stayed married California Mexicanas–who made attractive wives not least for their legal entitlement to own property. And, at least materially, the spouses’ cultures were compatible. “They developed a harmoniously blended … cuisine” based on flatbreads and fresh ingredients, especially “freshly ground spices.” “The fried chicken or lamb of the Mexican women was not that dissimilar to the chicken curries of the Punjabi men.” Even their home remedies were compatible, with the quintessentially Mexican chiles figuring into Ayurvedic cures. To Collingham’s list of correspondences, I would add a reliance on beans and pulses, the use of quick pickles, rice pudding for dessert, and the similarities between lassis and atol.

Nevertheless, Collingham reports, “The Mexican-Punjabi marriages were characterized by a disproportionately high divorce rate.” I imagine that it centered around the home altars where the couples might also have expected to find common ground. Gazing on what she assumed to be a Virgin Mary, I can imagine the Mexican wife channeling Jack Shaftoe in The Confusion: “Yes, I see quite plainly that you were so good as to remove the elephant-trunk, and that the lady has a proper nose now, and for that you have my undying gratitude. …And as long as I am helping you with your self-esteem, sirrah, allow me to thank you for scraping off the blue paint. But! For! Christ’s! Sake! Do you know, sirrah, how to count? You do? Oh, excellent! Then will you be so good, sirrah, as to count the number of arms possessed by this Lady? I will patiently stand here while you take a full inventory–it may take a little while…”

Droring courtesy Liza Ferneyhough

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