Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Rice Inside The Box

It was an unlikely place for the same ugly idea to raise its head, and I did not expect it to happen here. But it happened again.

I was at a Korean restaurant in Kuwait City. I had been patronizing it for some time now, a few months actually, and as in many restaurants around the oil- rich Gulf, the waiter was a young Indian gentleman. He was nice and polite and performed his service well.

It so happened that one day I arrived at the restaurant and noticed that the Indian guy was gone and, in his place, a pretty Chinese waitress was taking care of the customers. As usual, all of the customers were Koreans.

The waitress approached me, I picked up the menu and asked her to bring me some barbecue and some rice on the side. She stared at me with amazement: “Can you eat it?”

“Can I eat what?”

“Can you eat...rice?”

Oh, no not again. Not in Kuwait! I was so happy that finally people would stop asking me such idiotic questions. I went to an Arabian restaurant and ordered rice pilaf; no one even looked at me in any strange way or asked me questions. I then went to a Pakistani restaurant and got some Biriani rice and again no one said a word. It had to be a Korean restaurant with a Chinese waitress where I would again be asked the accursed question. But in Kuwait City of all places? I thought I had left that problem when I left East and South East Asia. I guess you can run, but you can’t hide.

You see, to an average East and South East Asian the world is simple. They probably teach it in school that people with narrow eyes eat rice, while people with round eyes eat bread. It is a fact that has been passed on from generation to generation just like the fact that animals have lungs and fish have gills, or that women have breasts and men do not. Or that at night, the Moon comes out, but during the day, it is the Sun that shines on us. It is as simple as that. “White” people eat bread. “Yellow” people eat rice. How can white people eat rice? It is just as abnormal as horses flying in the air or chickens diving to get pearls from the bottom of the ocean.

In parts of Asia I had people cheer me when I was eating rice in public, and college professors asking me if I had ever seen rice in my life. They would then proceed to explain to me what rice looked like. Never mind that the US is the second biggest exporter of rice in the world. Never mind Uncle Ben’s Rice. Never mind that Spain and Portugal and France and Italy use rice in their diet almost as often and most Asian countries. Never mind millions of Chinese, Japanese and Indian restaurants all around the Western world. Never mind that in Africa, the Middle East and other such places people eat rice all the time. To some two billion East and SE Asians, you need to have “narrow” eyes to deserve the privilege of eating the white seeds.

I looked at the waitress again with my teeth gnashing only to encounter a good natured concern and curiosity in her eyes. All she wanted to know was if I were sure that what I was going to order would be an edible commodity. She had never seen a Westerner order rice.

I could not hold myself back: “Yes, I can eat rice. Yes. Can you use this?” I raised a fork in the air. “ This is from Europe. It was invented somewhere in the middle ages somewhere in Central Europe. Have you ever seen this? It is a watch. Can you use it? This is not originally from China. A watch was invented in Nuremberg, Germany. Can you wear one? Can you drink Coke? Have you ever seen Coke? Coca-Cola. The American drink. You are not American, so why do you know Coke? Have you seen a hamburger? Have you eaten one? Why did eat it? Can you eat it? It is not Chinese food. It is not Korean food.”

I was beginning to foam at the mouth and was sliding in my chair and trying to control myself. “Yes. I can eat rice. If I could not eat rice I would not be ordering it. Please bring me some rice”.

That was all she wanted to hear and, shrugging at my anger, she walked away. Soon she was back with a bowl of rice.

I do not want to tell you what happened when I asked her to bring a pair of chopsticks.

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