Sunday, October 31, 2004

Pardon my (lack of / innocent use of) French

I can proudly say that I have never uttered the "F" word. No matter how angry I am, I cannot bring myself to use obscene words. I don't understand the humor in using abusive language that cracks people up, especially men. I used to flinch whenever someone used the "F" word in front of me. I don't do that anymore, but it still makes me uncomfortable. This word has become so prevalent that I sometimes think that I am prudish in my inability to use it myself. I have even started hearing the word at work now.

It's not just the "F" word, but any offensive words in either Hindi or English disturb me. To my recollection, the only two bad words I have ever used are "asshole" and "shit". I recently learnt quite a few bad Hindi words. It was surprising to my friends that after having lived in Delhi for so long I was unfamiliar with most of them. When I meet someone who speaks a language other than the two I know, I try to learn how to say "hello" or "thank you" in the new language. Men will generally exchange the bad words in their respective languages. Does gender play a role in use of abusive language?

My answer is a huge, resounding YES. As I learn more about the bad words in use nowadays, I find one aspect common in most of the vilifying words. Almost all of them are derogatory towards women. The simplest example would be the word "bitch." It means female dog, probably in heat, used to denote a sexually promiscuous woman. This word is used in a friendly manner amongst men like "dude" or "yaar". Standard greetings between my male friends are "what's up, bitch" and "hey, bong bitch?" (for a friend from Calcutta).

In the essay "Four Letter Words Can Hurt You" the writer refutes arguments made by her students that certain words are taboo “because of ‘sexual hang-ups’ (middle-class, middle-age feminist), or even as a result of class oppression (the contempt of the Norman conquerors for the language of their Anglo-Saxon serfs).” She does so by describing the origins and functions of some of these words –

The best known of the tabooed sexual verbs, for example, comes from the German ficken, meaning "to strike"; combined, according to Partridge's etymological dictionary Origins, with the Latin sexual verb futuere; associated in turn with the Latin fustis, “a staff or cudgel”; the Celtic buc, “a point, hence to pierce”; the Irish bot, “the male member”; the Latin battuere, “to beat”; the Gaelic batair, “a cudgeller”; the Early Irish bualaim, “I strike”; and so forth. It is one of what etymologists sometimes call “the sadistic group of words for the man’s part in copulation.”

The brutality of this word, then, and its equivalents (“screw,” “bang,” etc.), is not an illusion of the middle class or a crotchet of Women’s Liberation. In their origins and imagery these words carry undeniably painful, if not sadistic implications, the object of which is almost always female. Consider, for example, what a “screw” actually does to the wood it penetrates; what a painful, even mutilating, activity this kind of analogy suggests…

Tabooed male descriptives, when they are not openly denigrating to women, often serve to divorce a male organ or function from any significant interaction with the female. Take the word “testes,” for example, suggesting “witnesses” (from the Latin testis) to the sexual and procreative strengths of the male organ; and the obscene counterpart of this word, which suggests little more than a mechanical shape…

… [the female partner] is only a “skirt,” a “broad,” a “chick,” a “pussycat” or a “piece.” If she is, in other words, no more than her skirt, or what her skirt conceals; no more than a breeder, or the broadest part of her; no more than a piece of a human being or a “piece of tail.”

The most severely tabooed of all the female descriptives, incidentally, are those like a “piece of tail,” which suggest (either explicitly or through antecedents) that there is no significant difference between the female channel through which we are all conceived and born and the anal outlet common to both sexes- a distinction that pornographers have always enjoyed obscuring.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say something like “Dirty mouth, Dirty mind.” Most of the people who use these words probably don’t think of these words as described above. Sometimes it is a matter of personal taste. I find the term “coconut” used to describe people who are “brown outside, white inside” highly distasteful. However, some Indian friends used the term almost fondly to describe their American born daughter. Some words like “ABCD – American born confused desi,” “FOB – fresh of the boat” are in the middle; they offend some, but are harmless for the most part. Another word in general use that riles me up is “third world countries.”

On the flip side is the pervasive need to be "politically correct". Now it is politically incorrect to call people of African descent "black"; the new term to use is "African American." The logic being that color should not be used to describe a race, e.g. "yellow" is considered rude. Using the same reasoning, people of European descent should take offense at being referred to as "white". It is not the words, but the prejudiced notions associated with them that need to be refreshed. Eventually the stereotypes get affiliated with the terms, which attain negative connotations, resulting in the need for them to be replaced.

Here are some examples of neologism --

Negro -> black -> African-American
Spanish-American -> Hispanic -> Latino
Secretary -> Administrative assistant
Steward/Air hostess -> flight attendant
Toilet -> Bathroom -> Restroom -> lavatory
Garbage collection -> sanitation -> environmental services

A couple of months ago my sister got mad at her ex-boyfriend’s mother’s reference to her as “Oriental.” I pacified her reasoning that his mom was probably just unaware that the term is now considered offensive. Again the word got colored because it reflected the colonialist attitudes of West towards East and the idea that the East is exotic and effeminate in comparison to the West. I remember reading an excellent play dealing with this issue called “Madam Butterfly.” The correct term is Asian, which I learned doesn’t include people from India. This had me confused for the longest time. When I referred to myself as Asian, people would point out that according to American terminology I’m not Asian. I would say Indian then, but they would get it confused with the American Indians. Of course, now it is politically incorrect to use the words “American Indian”. The P.C. term is “Native American” to remind us “who was here first and to eschew the inaccurate European label.” So I refer to myself as South Asian or Indian from India. It works, for now.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Weekend realization

The nature of my weekend endeavors made me realize that at 25 I am getting old. On Friday night, I went for a 80's concert by a band named Tainted Love with an ex-coworker and her friends. I didn't have high expectations from it. It sounded a bit cheesy actually -- a group that plays 80's songs at a club called "Bimbo's". I had refused the last time she asked, but that night my friends were going to watch the cricket game so I went ahead. I was pleasantly surprised to see quite a crowd gather for the concert and it turned out to be a lot of fun.

I knew a lot of the songs the band played, mostly from listening to my parents' albums back home. We lived in England in the early 80's so my parents are huge fans of the popular bands of that time. I had taken my mom to see "Mama Mia" and she was the only one there singing along with the performers. People looked back at us and commented that it was remarkable that she remembered the lyrics of all songs. The 80's concert was like listening to a mixed cd; all good songs from different artists. It was more entertaining than a Bon Jovi concert I had gone to a while back, much cheaper too. We sat through the first couple of songs then spent the entire time on the dance floor, that too with almost no alcohol. I only had one drink (I was introduced to a new drink -- a shot of whisky with ginger ale). The music played included songs like "Video killed the radio star", "Take on Me", "Holiday", "Sweet Dreams" and of course "Tainted Love". I was disappointed that they didn't play Cindi Lauper or Bangles - two of my favorite 80's bands.

The people at the concert were a bit older than the usual clubbing crowd. At the last desi party I had gone to about 80% of the people were underage; I felt so old dancing among those youngsters. Although it is refreshing to hang out with new people, there were times during the concert when I wished that my own friends were there. All of us came to the US at about the same time and discovered the ways of the foreign country together. I am used to sharing new experiences with them. My friends are such cricket fanatics that they wouldn't miss the game for anything. My own knowledge of cricket is increasing due to the same.

Earlier at lunch the conversation somehow turned to cricket. Since I am Indian I felt it my duty to defend the sport. My manager said that he found it too complex. I argued that it's much simpler than American football, which I still don't understand. But that could because of my bias against it since I don't like watching contact sports. I was explaining that in a five day game they play continuously for five days and many times there is no outcome. An Indian guy at the table, who had been quiet so far, interrupted me saying that they do take a break after 3 days. I deferred to him just because he was male and I figured he must know more about cricket. I found out later that I was actually right -- I'm learning fast.

The 2 hour lunch conversation spanned other interesting subjects like Bollywood movies, cooking (or the lack thereof), spouses/kids (I had nothing to say there), and other coworkers. I was sitting next to someone who was visiting from our Tokyo office so I was questioning him about life in Tokyo. He was really surprised by the serving size in America. I used to feel the same when I first came here as an adult. Now my diet has increased to compensate for the huge meals and I feel that the portions are too small elsewhere. Later an American coworker asked me if I was happy that my mom was coming to visit me for 2 months. I gave her a surprised look and said that I was really excited about it. It seemed like a strange question to me and my coworker from Tokyo. I usually don't like to generalize, but Asians are closer to their families than North Americans. Some of my friends' parents live in India for half of the year and in the US with their children for the rest of the year. Unfortunately (for me) my parents have a life of their own in India that they cannot get away from for more than a couple of weeks. My father gets restless only after 2 weeks of being here and not working.

I made up for my relatively dry Friday night on Saturday. We went to the Oktoberfest. Earlier in the day I went to Berkeley to pick up my laptop from my sister. There was a Cal game so it was really crowded. The place was charged with energy with all the post teens partying on the streets. My sister asked me if I wanted to go to a tailgate party with her. She said that there won’t be any liquor because it was parents day but we could smoke pot. The parking (with bbq included) was really expensive at $60 (even the opportunity to smoke wasn't worth that much) so I refused to stay and chose to go to the Oktoberfest instead. I chose drinking German beer and eating hot dogs whose names I couldn't pronounce at the festival over smoking pot with college kids. It turned out to be a good decision; I was initially reluctant to drink beer, not being a huge beer fan. Eventually after sipping beers from friends, I found a beer called “Oktoberfest” that I liked and got drunk on soon. A friend pulled me on the dance floor and we danced for hours. We danced all kinds of dances including Swing and Ballroom, however, the most fun was Chicken dance, which was not very adult like; I feel the pain in my quadriceps today. Again being the kind of event it was, most people were in their late twenties/thirties. On our way back a friend remarked that I was the reason he enjoyed so much. Nothing could have made me happier, especially coming from someone I was always at odds with. We had gone to New York together and could never agree on what to see or visit.

Today I went to volunteer at the SF Film Festival. Most of the people there were British Indian; I just love that British accent. An organizer suggested that I should watch “Main hoon na.” I told him that that was the one movie I wasn’t planning on watching. He persisted that I should watch one Bollywood movie at Castro theatre just for the experience. He explained that everyone enjoys these movies at the Castro because they don't watch them seriously, everyone claps and laughs at the most ridiculous scenes. After the meeting, they screened a preview of “Holly-Bolly” which was hilarious. I’m looking forward to watching the whole movie.

Looking back at the weekend, I concluded that I have started gravitating towards activities for older people. Soon I will be going to those bars where you sit, drink and listen to jazz. Who knows, I might even learn to appreciate jazz soon.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Animal rights for non-vegetarians

I am non-vegetarian, but am sympathetic towards animals. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. I care about how animals are treated -- breeding hens in 1 by 1 pens, skinning cows while they're still conscious, testing on animals in laboratories and other atrocities against animals disgust me. My sister wanted to join an animal rights group in Berkeley, but was refused because she isn't vegetarian. This infuriated her and she decided to start her own group and call it "Animal Rights for Non-Vegetarians". Right now she's concentrating on her "Plants Rights" group, and yells at me whenever I accidently step on grass. I used to be an idealist like her, but somehow once you start earning, all the idealism seems to disappear. She recently commented when I picked up a plastic spoon at a restaurant instead of the regular cutlery -- "Didi, what happened to all the principles you taught me?" I guess I've sold out to "the man" and get paid well for it.

But then my sister goes to UC Berkeley, with all the leftist and liberal people who live there, she was bound to get bit by the activism bug. Which reminds me I am supposed to go to a Free Speech Movement Celebration this weekend in Berkeley with my sister. She was upset when I told her that I won't take off from work to attend the lectures.

However, I am particularly sympathetic towards animal rights causes, more than humans' sometimes. The reason could be that my parents used to take me to zoos and aquariums regularly. The interest has persisted in me and when I go to Southern California, I would prefer going to Sea World and San Diego Zoo, rather than Universal Studios and DisneyLand. I'm not sure where I stand in the whole debate about zoos. I firmly believe that going to zoos and interacting with animals makes children compassionate about animals and act in favor of animals when they grow up. In "Life of Pi" it was postulated that zoos are good for the animals, they don't mind being caged. It was argued that in their natural environment, animals confine themselves to a limited area and don't wander out of their territory. Hence, if they have restricted space, it does not bother them. They also get free food and water without any effort so zoos are the best thing on earth for animals. I couldn't disagree more. Animals in zoos display unnatural behavior like "escape reactions, self-mutilation, feeding disorders, overgrooming, abnormal sexual behavior, and repetitive behavior". I once saw a baby giraffe whose ear had been eaten by her mother who couldn't compulsively kept licking it. In the book, "The Human Zoo" Desmond Morris writes that the behavior exhibited by humans in cities is similar to what is displayed by animals in zoos. He went on to compare cities with zoos by indicating how the space is limited and humans are crowded together, almost caged in small spaces.

Living in cities, our animal encounters are not limited to zoos though. While I was cleaning up my previous apartment before moving out, a squirell came in through the balcony window. I chased it out and closed the window. The squirell did not leave and kept staring from the window. Then it started jumping and banging against the window. It freaked me out. If she was getting so desperate to get in, I thought she might have babies in my apartment. My apartment is empty most of the times, so it was quite possible. After this realization I opened the window, but she had left by then. I searched the whole apartment, but didn't find any babies. I did see some food hidden under my bed. I felt bad locking my apartment up before handing the keys back to the manager, but I had no choice.

Another species we coexist with in the city is pigeons. Once a friend of mine accidently ran over a pigeon while driving in the city. I was sitting in the passenger seat and we were both stunned for a moment. We had expected the pigeon to fly away as usual. It reminded me of the "Seinfeld" episode where George runs into a flock of pigeons expecting them to fly away, but one doesn't and dies. He rants to Seinfeld that we are supposed to have a pact with pigeons. We turn a blind eye when they dirty the statues and our cars; in return they fly out of our way. By not flying away, the pigeon broke the pact. The episode was funny, but our incident was not. My friend was feeling very bad for a long time, which was surprising for me. He is not the sensitive, caring kind and does not get serious easily.

It's not only animal rights causes I care about. For the past couple of days I had been noticing people on strike in front of some major hotels in downtown SF. I was on the bus all times so I couldn't tell what the signs said. The other day I had to attend a conference in one of these hotels. When I was entering I noticed the signs said something about health care. On that occassion, I wasn't able to connect health care problems with hotels. Yesterday, we had an IT party in another one of these hotels. I heard that some coworkers were not going to support the strike. I did go. I went to the party, hung out mostly with my lunch group, and had to leave early because a friend had asked me to go to his company's holiday party with him. While I was waiting for him to pick me up, I started talking to one of the people at strike, asking them what it was all about. He told me that the hotels had locked out the employees when they asked for health insurance coverage, which the hotels had discontinued when their contracts expired. I saw my friend arrive out of the corner of my eye, but chose to ignore him (I was tipsy enough because of the two glasses of wine I had drunk at the party) I asked the person on strike how I could help with the cause. He asked me to wait while he got someone who could give me more information, but my friend started calling me. I got yelled at for making him wait on the busy street, my fault. The party was nice; it was at BumBuddha, where I had been a couple of weeks ago. I had a good time and didn't give a second thought to the people on strike till I saw them again in the morning. And then all I did was read more about what has happening on the web.

All can't be lost though, my sister recently bought a button for me. She said that she instantly thought of me when she saw it. The button read - "No matter how hard I try, I just can't save the world."

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

The selfish parents

Parents are the most selfish people in the world. When it comes to their children's welfare, nothing else matters. Here are some examples that support my claim. A couple of months ago when I was looking for a job, my father asked me if I needed help financially, and I declined professing that it shouldn't take me more than a month to find a job I like. He seemed a bit apprehensive about me rejecting some offers. He claimed that due to outsourcing there are fewer jobs in the US and that I should not nitpick. I said that it doesn't seem to be making a big difference (I was getting tonns of interview calls), and even if there are fewer jobs, they are probably going to India, so it's for the larger good. I was taken aback when he replied that he doesn't care about jobs in India; his children are living in the US so he only cares about jobs here. I wanted to say that it's our country and we should care about its benefit, no matter where we live, but I kept quiet.

It's not just my parents, but parents everywhere seem to be extremely selfish when it comes to their children. One day at lunch a coworker, just for the sake of conversation, asked a hypothetical question - "If there was one last slice of pizza left and you wanted it, what would each of you do?" Almost all stuck to the standard, that is, ask if anyone else wanted the last piece. If not then take it, otherwise share it. However, one woman who was the only parent in the group said that if her daughter wanted it, she would just grab the slice for her without asking. I thought her response was quite interesting.

My mom is the same when it comes to her children. She is like a grizzly bear protecting her cubs. If anyone is not so nice to me, my mom hates that person's guts. And she doesn't forget if someone wrongs me. On the other hand, when people are nice to me, she takes very good care of them. Parents make huge sacrifices for their kids. My mom put her career on the backseat to raise her kids. My parents lived apart for almost 2 years for my brother and sister. I was recently opposing the idea of my brother buying a car, but my mom said that I should buy him a car and she won't get the new car she had been thinking about for the longest time. So that makes parents the most selfless people.

I don't think I could be as good a parent as my own parents. The main reason being that I would never be home for my kids. I am also not completely sold on the idea of having children at all. They seem to be a huge liability and entail a humungous change in lifestyle. Besides my maternal instincts could easily be satisfied by getting a dog. But this is another discussion.

The question that arises is - "Is parents' self-sacrifical behavior actually selfish?" I think the answer is yes. Their behavior is motivated by protection of their own kin. Now if they were making these sacrifices for somebody else's kids then it would probably be truly selfless. Or would it? According to biogical and psychological theories on altruism, altruistic behavior evenutally leads to natural selection of the group if not the individual, and hence it is eventually propagating their own gene pool. If that's true, does altruism exist at all?

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Girls' night out

I have only two girl friends and I met both today. One for lunch and the other for dinner/drinks. It was refreshing to hang out with women instead of men. When I am out with the guys, the conversation invariably revolves around sports or video games. Neither interest me much, so I'm usually quiet. Today, however, I talked incessantly with my women friends. We have the same profile - single, female, Indian, in our mid to late twenties, and the topics of discussion were pertinent to these conditions.

I am living alone now and really enjoyed it the first couple of weeks. Lately though, I've started feeling lonely. I was sitting at work the other day in the evening and did not feel like going home. There was nothing to go home to. I was curious to know how my other single friends felt about it. So I brought it up at dinner. One friend, who doesn't live alone anymore, said that she hated it. I argued that there are some advantages to it. I get more time for myself, I think more (which could go either way), I read/write more, in general I pursue my own hobbies in my time alone. My friend wasn't convinced though. I think I wasn't totally convinced myself.

The worst part about living alone is having to eat dinner alone. I have yet to go to a restaurant, and sit and eat dinner alone. I always end up calling a friend or get take-out and eat at home. My friend had done it many times, but always with a book, which she called an essential prop. I agreed with my friend when she said that the first step is to probably accept the fact that I'll be living alone for sometime now and make lifestyle changes accordingly. To this effect she recounted an episode of "Sex And The City" in which Carrie realized that she might never get married and decides to embrace singlehood. So she goes to a restaurant without any props (book or newspaper) and eats alone. Personally I am not particularly keen about solitary dining yet. Fortunately, my friends who live in the city told me that I should call them up whenever I feel lonely or don't feel like eating alone. So I kind of get best of both worlds.

As a consequence of living alone , I have started feeling the need for companionship, which is the reason why I've started searching for a "suitable boy." The first question that popped out of this was "what are you looking for in a guy?" I didn't have an answer to that so my friend answered it for me. She said I seem to find really smart guys attractive. The other woman at dinner thought that was the norm with Indian women. Somehow that doesn't narrow it down enough. Most of the people I meet, professionally and socially, are very brainy. A majority of my male friends are from IIT, which is a sufficient (not necessary) condition for being intelligent. I was faced with the same question a couple of years back. An acquaintance was trying to hook me up with one of the many guys who worked with her. She insisted on some specifics so she could somehow narrow it down. I just blurted that I don't like moustaches on guys. Incidentally, the guy she was thinking of did have a moustache and he wasn't about to shave. I did end up being friends with him, and he is one of the nicest, and smartest person I know.

Judging that I probably needed some help in figuring out the right guy, my evening companions started listing out qualities to look for in men. Then we somehow moved to relationships in general. Not surprisingly, the one advise that I've heard most, came up - you would be happiest with the person who loves you more than you love him. We all seemed to be in consensus that somehow we are always attracted to guys who do not love us as much and end up getting hurt. We women are such perverts.

Another thing common amongst all three of us at dinner was that we all felt quite patriotic towards India. We started talking about movies like Yuva and Lakshya that invoked such feelings in us. I mentioned that I generally don't like Pakistan bashing movies and that we've just been brought up to hate Pakistan. We don't give enough thought to the reasons why we hate Pakistan. I faced strong opposition as soon as I said that. The others were really passionate in their dislike for Pakistan. I have to admit that they did give good reasons for feeling the way they did. One made a good point that because I don't live in India and am not directly threatened by the terrorism, I have mellowed down. That could be true, but I have only started feeling this way after watching the India-Pakistan cricket match. I read so many places how they were hospitable to Indians who went to watch the game. They cannot be that bad. I also questioned their bias in not being against America since it has always supported Pakistan. They countered that they did not like American foreign policy; to which I replied that they should then hate Pakistan's foreign policy, not Pakistan.

Inevitably the conversation then drifted to religion. I feel that Hinduism is a very tolerant religion, though there are a lot of Hindu fanatics too. I still don't understand completely what happened in Gujurat. To me Christianity seems very extreme. I remember a coworker telling me that I will go to hell because I'm not Christian.

At this point we were interrupted by a drunk guy who came up to us and started blabbering about some conference he had come to attend in California. From what I could make out, he was talking about some non-profit organization that did some work in "third-world countries" like India. I get put-off by the term and was a bit rude to him. I don't know what the deal was with him. He seemed to have come with a group that was snickering at a distance, looking at him talk to us. He also kept saying something about beads. After he left I explained to the other women (they were a bit naive that way) the whole concept of beads and Mardi gras. I told them about my experience of Mardi Gras in New Orleans in which I asked guys to flash for beads instead. I totally scandalized them.

One of them reminded me of the way I used to be a couple of years ago. She didn't drink, had no clue what Mardi Gras meant, constantly worried about which neighborhoods were bad in Bay Area. I told her that Sunnyvale is one of the safest cities in the US. I attribute the fact to all the desis who live in Sunnyvale. My friend later scoffed me for telling her about our smoking/drinking experiences. My excuse was that she seemed like a non-judgemental person to me and I was a bit tipsy.

So the topics at dinner ranged from makeup to living alone, from dieting to anti-Pakistani feelings prevalent among Indians and of course the Presidential debate. The only thing I had to say about the debate was, these are the times I wish I could vote.

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