Friday, July 24, 2015

Adventures with Mansplaining Americans in Berlin

In Berlin, I’m not meeting guys on the train anymore. But I am still meeting them at swing dances. At the Clärchens Ballhaus, which is purportedly the last original Weimar-era dancehall in Berlin, I met a jazz guitarist whom I’ve gotten pretty close with. I was hanging out with him last week and he needed to pick something up at a recording studio in the Holzmarkt, a really interesting cooperative on the banks of the Spree, right where East and West Berlin used to be divided.
When we arrived, the recording studio engineer was having a tête-a-tête with an older blues musician from Texas. My friend got down to business with the recording studio engineer, which left me in the company of the Texan.  Our conversation quickly devolved into a mystifying argument.
“I’ve been here for twenty years,” Tex kept insisting, “and most of my East German friends don’t speak English.”
When I suggested that they perhaps spoke Russian or Polish, he asserted that his friends don’t speak any other language besides German.
            This is, of course, different than any one else’s experience in Berlin, where it really is rare to find someone who doesn’t speak basic bread-and-butter English.  Well, the Turks in Neukölln don’t always speak English, but of course they speak Turkish since they're Turks. And they probably speak Arabic as well. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that most Europeans have language skills that Americans don’t. But the Texan purported that he’s acquainted with many Americans who speak more than one language, while his German friends only spoke German. He would not let this issue die either and kept bringing it back even after the conversation had taken another turn. Was this because I'm a woman? or I'm Asian? I have no idea why the Texan would be so adamant unless he just wanted to contradict me and be right, goddammit.

            That was the same day that we went to a party where we met another American who was equally baffling. He said that he’s a historian who writes novels. I told him that I was a writer too. He was interested in the subject of my essays, so I said something about how they’re first person so they’re mostly about being an Asian-American woman and how there are all these cultural expectations and stereotypes that you are constantly fighting. This seemed to rub him in all the wrong ways.
            “I only have three words to say to you,” he proclaimed, “Anna May Wong.” 
“But she’s a prime example of the way Asian-American women are stereotyped,” I countered.
            It turned out that he hadn’t seen any of her films and knew nothing about her except that one photograph where she is standing in between Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl at a party in 1928. To him, this somehow proved that there was no such thing as discrimination in Hollywood.

Hot picture, but does this mean Anna May Wong
was fully accepted in the Hollywood system?

          “Name one other Asian actor,” I challenged him and while he struggled to fish Sessue Hayakawa from the recesses of his memory, I told him about Anna May Wong’s fight to land the role of O-Lan in The Good Earth. The part went Luise Rainer, who was Austrian of all things. Wong had to go to Europe to play some less stereotypical characters. Her best film is Piccadilly, an amazingly progressive film for 1929, where she got to be a typical British wench who wore cloche hats and striped sweaters, ate bangers and mash at a greasy spoon, and was an object of desire for not one but TWO white men. If you’ve never seen the film, you are missing out on Wong shaking her sweet little thing on a kitchen table, one of the hottest moments ever recorded. Contrast this with all the Hollywood dreck where she played sultry dragon ladies who speak in the third person, “Lotus Flower commands you to peel her a grape or she will stab you in the eye with her extremely long green pinky nail.
            But according to this guy, discrimination in Hollywood didn’t exist.  And he's supposed to be a historian.
“What do you want me to do?” he suddenly exclaimed, upset, I suppose that I wasn't about to be mansplained, “What. Do. You. Want. Me. To. Do?!”
            “Well…” I replied, trying to take his question seriously, “it would help if you just recognize that this is just the shape of the world.”
            “You know, I hate to say it, but you're acting like a victim,” he suddenly declared, “just like one of those black people.”
            “Um, things are kind of stacked against them,” I ventured, rather amazed at his accusation, “I mean, like, one out of every three black men ends up in jail at some point in his life.”
            “That’s because they committed a crime,” he scoffed dismissively.
My jaw dropped. Does this guy actually think that out of every three black men, one is a criminal? I wanted to ask him what he would think if the statistics said that one out of three white guys were imprisoned in their lifetime, but our conversation was interrupted.
           So okay, there's all this attention in the media lately on white privilege and I hate to jump on the bandwagon, but talk about a textbook case. Here’s a guy completely sheltered in his own self-centered island where it's always warm and breezy. He has no inkling how things are stacked against Asian-Americans in the arts. He’s obviously never walked down a street with a black guy and experienced how they are treated differently. I don’t think he’s even read one article about the crazy racial disparities in the US. Racial profiling? Nah, all those black guys are just a bunch of criminals who deserve what they get. And mansplaining? I bet he's never heard of it.

It’s a bit of a running joke that my musician friend, who is American, pretends that he’s from a small Eastern European country so he doesn’t have to converse to stupid Americans. Maybe it’s because I’m from the East Village that I am surprised by idiocy. I expect everyone to have an interest in culture and some basic understanding of the world. But after that day with the two American blowhards, I’m about ready to tell everyone I’m Inuit. Except I’ll probably be dragged into dumb discussions about rubbing noses or how there are a hundred words for snow.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Manthropology in France

          “You just seem like you’re available,” a male friend of mine told me in France.
This is something that I’ve heard from two possessive ex-boyfriends as well and it always bugs the shit out of me. I have no idea what “available” means and no idea how I’m not suppose to seem “available.” After all, I’m just being me. Am I missing barriers that other people have?  Do other women act more aloof, suspicious, cautious? It’s not like I wear anything that provocative. It’s not like I throw my tits in a stranger’s face while talking. Ah, the burden of being female. Either you’re too “available” or not “available” enough.
And I think there are different behavior expectations in Europe. I remember going barhopping in NYC with a British girl who didn’t know at all that if you accept a drink from a guy, it means you’re going to at least have a conversation with him for the duration of that drink. Which means you don’t accept a drink from someone who is going to bore the hell out of you or offend you. Unless you are curious as to what makes him so moronic. I’ve been known to have drinks with white supremists and Bible thumpers just for anthropology’s sake. It’s like studying a six-legged creature with ten eyes. Really? You exist?

In Paris, I was totally not "available." My heart was still insisting on London for some annoying reason and I had no money to go out anyway. But then I had a Skype conversation with a friend one day, who chastised me for moping. I realized he was right. There are much worse things than being stranded in France. I should just enjoy it. He even lent me $200 just so I would stop worrying and learn to love the bomb.
So I picked my chin off the floor and researched where people go swing dancing in Paris. I learned 1) that swing dancing is called le Rock in France, which is weird since rock is definitely not swing, and 2) there seems to be only one place in Paris to dance le Rock and that’s Le Caveau de la Huchette. Which is even weirder since there is a huge scene in every other major city. A French friend later informed me that swing dancing is something everyone learns in middle school and it’s considered boring and bourgeois. Swing is not an alternative scene in Paris like it is in New York, London and Berlin.
            But I didn’t know this so I got a bit dolled up and went to Le Caveau. There were about a dozen people on the dance floor, most of them grey-haired, also unusual since everywhere else, the average age is around 30. A fantastic London hot jazz band was playing and I would have liked to talk to them but a small French guy who had lived in the Bronx immediately glued himself to my side. The only time I managed to escape him was when a Korean guy cut in and asked me to dance.
The French guy was a bit odd in his dance moves. He seemed to know the basic steps and swing outs, but he kept lifting me up in a way that my only possible response was to straddle his waist. Then, since there were no other physical possibilities, he would turn around and around in place. Awkward is not the word for this. And guys who are territorial totally turn me off. After about three dances with him, I was ready to split.
“Do you want a drink?” he asked.
“Okay, maybe one drink and then I’ll leave,” I said out of politeness.
We went upstairs for the drink and to my surprise, he asked the barman for a coffee. It was about 11pm. The bar didn’t have coffee so he asked if I would get a drink with him at another bar.
            “Okay,” I said, rather regretting that I’d agreed to have a drink with him, “As long as it’s on the way to the metro.”
So we walked along the pedestrian Rue de la Huchette where it seemed every other place was overflowing with packs of booze-infused 20-year olds desperate to find some fun. A few steps and he put his arm around me. It was rather perfunctory, so I wasn’t sure if he was just being friendly or if he had some other intention. Just in case, I very firmly took his arm off my shoulders and looked at him straight in the eyes: sorry buddy, no dice.
            We walked for a moment in silence and then he said, “I live in Arrondissement 10.”
            “That’s nice. I’m in Arrondissement 14 at a friend’s place.”
             We passed by an okay-looking café where two men quietly smoked at small separate tables.
            “Should we sit here?” I asked, wanting to get this drink over with. 
            “I really need woman tonight,” he replied, “We have drink at my place?”
“Sorry,” I said, rather astonished at his frankness, “I’m not interested in going to your place.”
            “No?” he asked.
            “No,” I confirmed.
            “Okay,” he shrugged.
He accompanied me a few more yards to the metro and said goodbye. It was all very cut and dry, yes or no. I’ve had a more stimulating exchange with a vendor at a market stall over a bag of green beans.

I didn't have any more blatant propositions like that in Southern France. But I did have some mystifying encounters. They all took place on the train. Maybe since I wasn't hanging out in bars. But then France doesn't really have the kind of bars or pubs that there are in London or New York. People don't just sit around drinking and do nothing else. Drinking happens at restaurants or cafes or at clubs where something else like dancing or music is going on. So even if I wanted to, it wasn't really possible to just go sit somewhere and have a drink and talk to someone. Instead, guys would approach me on the train.
The first time this happened, it was that Turkish guy who struck up a conversation as we were both waiting for the train to pull up to Nice Ville. At the end of five minutes, he had offered me a couch in his apartment in Cannes. Weird, I thought, but maybe this is how things like this happen in France? I took him up on his offer since I was too broke for a pad in Cannes and he seemed harmless enough. I also immediately offered him a bit of dough so he wouldn’t expect anything else in exchange.  But within a day, I was regretting my decision. There was nothing to say the guy. And his apartment smelled like some feral animal had peed or died in a corner.
So the second time I was on the train to Nice and some Frenchie guy started to talk to me, I was not as surprised when at the end of five minutes he offered me a couch in his apartment in Nice. This time, however, I didn’t take him up on his offer, since I realized that he was just like the Turk and would also bore the hell out of me. He was some provincial French guy who travels through Europe for a company that produces olive oil. I couldn’t discern any common interest in history or art or film or literature or language or even a scrap of curiosity about my film. It was like trying to have a conversation with a Francophone Willie Loman and he didn’t even have a pair of silk stockings to show me.  

The weirdest encounter I had on the train was when I was lugging my two suitcases from Nice to Marseille. A round little African guy came up behind me and grabbed the biggest suitcase, nodding at me a few times. I hurried after him down the platform onto one of those old-fashioned trains with compartments. He made a beeline to a compartment in the middle of the train, stuck my suitcase on a shelf, and there I was, forced to share a private little room with him.  It turned out he was a cook in one of the hotels in Cannes and originally from Senegal. I had a rather tedious conversation with him in pigeon English and French with the help of Google translate. He showed me pictures of food on his iphone and a photo of a celebrity whom I didn't recognize on the red carpet. He was way interested me being a filmmaker. “You. Me. Movie?” he kept repeating excitedly, “You! Me! Movie!!!”
Then just before the train pulled up to Cannes, he suddenly declared, “I take taxi to hotel. You give me €8.”
“Umm,” I replied, utterly mystified, “I don’t have €8 to give you.”
“You give me €8. Taxi, hotel,” he demanded and wrote down “€8” on a napkin just in case I didn’t understand.
“No €8,” I shrugged helplessly, “I don’t have.”
He seemed perplexed and a bit offended. Some cultural thing was totally lost on me. I have no idea if it was an African cultural thing or a French cultural thing.  We both lapsed into silence pondering our vast cultural divide. I was relieved when the train arrived in Cannes and he left with barely a goodbye.