ODDS & ENDS
From The Great Smokies To New Delhi in Thirty Minutes
Lessons learned in a multi-cultural kitchen.
by Michael H. Thomson
August 15, 2003
At fifteen I watched in fascination as the Ku Klux Klan had a public cross burning in the park adjacent to the Blount County Courthouse in nearby Maryville, Tennessee. The targets of their display I was later to learn were Jews, Catholics, and anyone who would advocate “mixing the races”. I didn’t know any Jews, the only Catholic I knew was my father, and the sharecropper children I played softball with were the only other race I mixed with. The affair provided great drama and entertainment. A few of the Klansmen would get hot and sweaty under their hoods and take them off. I would wave at the one’s I knew and they would wave back. You would be surprised who were Klansmen in the early sixties! I won’t go there…
At this same park, 50 years before, my grandmother attended the last public hanging in the county. On the other side of town from the park, John Birch Society meetings were regularly held. I only knew about the John Birch Society because my mother (a teacher) and my father (a journalist) were always in pitched battles with this organization over one topic or the other. My dad once sneaked me into a John Birch meeting at a local church and I got to hear my dad and mom branded as “left wing commies.” My dad sat beside me chuckling because no one in the crowd recognized him. That was one plucky Irish Catholic!
I had less than 100 people in my graduating class from high school. Almost half of them were engaged to be married. High school was very boring to me, only my English teacher inspired me to make good grades so I could get out of there. My mother had it set in her mind that I was to become a teacher like her. I didn’t really want to do this, but I wasn’t strong enough to say no. Before I could run away and enlist in the Air Force she had me enrolled in the 1963 summer session of The University of Tennessee. I lived at home that summer commuting the 15 miles to Knoxville and the University. It was like going to high school except for being a much larger school and a longer commute. By Fall I was restless and decided that I wanted to move to Knoxville and live closer to the campus. Mom and I had a major disagreement on that subject. She said that she would pay for my education, but if I wanted to live in Knoxville I would have to foot the bill. The University of Tennessee Graduate Library gave me a part-time job and I found a rooming house close to campus. Little did I know how my life was going to drastically change…
My landlord was from India. I didn’t know this at the time I contracted for the room, but I did wonder if he was one of those races the “Ku Kluxer’s” warned me about. The rent was thirty bucks a month. That’s a dinner for two at a really cheap restaurant today. My room was spacious, bathroom and showers were upstairs, and there was a communal kitchen. One of those where there are about six refrigerators, two stoves, and individualized cabinets to store your grub. I could make bacon, scrambled eggs, and toast, so I figured I could survive. It was perfect!
I moved in early in the afternoon of the following day. Like the day I contracted with the landlord, none of the other occupants of the rooming house were present. I was anxious to meet my new buddies. After stowing my clothes and meager belongings in the closet, making my bed, and arranging my desk, I promptly took a nap. I was awoken by a strange smell wafting across my nostrils. It was like no smell I had been exposed to in my short past. I wondered if it was healthy and if I should alert someone. In conjunction with the smell there seemed to be at least a hundred different conversations going on and in languages I didn’t understand. I became frightened. What had I gotten myself into? I pondered packing my clothes, loading the Volkswagen, driving back to the security of my mountain in the next county. Then someone knocked at my door…
The guy’s name was Rhandir Chopra. He was the white boy’s welcoming committee of one and he was wearing a skirt! He was one of the most polite people I had ever met. He said he would be happy to introduce me to the guys upstairs. I took him up on his offer and climbed the stairs with him to the room where the smell was coming from-the kitchen. By a slow process of Appalachian English dialect communicating with New Delhi English dialect I learned that I was the first American to live in that rooming house since students started occupying it. That evening I met Sikander, Sinha, another Chopra, and an Iranian named Darioush. I was told there were at least 22 guys living in the house. Most were from India, but there were also a Vietnamese, a former policeman from Bangkok, an Israeli who lived in the attic, an Indonesian with a prayer mat, and of course Darioush who became my life long friend. The smell, it turns out. was a bubbling brew of curried chicken in a rice soup. Out of politeness I sampled some. It is still an addiction. I also learned that the “skirts” were a type of male sarong that many of the Indian men wore in the evening after classes.
Almost without exception all the students in that house were graduate students majoring in different engineering subjects, public administration and economics. Many had held full time careers before coming to the U.S. I was the only undergraduate and I was also the “kid”. As the only American in the house I became the sounding board for political arguments dealing with U.S. foreign policy. These guys loved to argue. It was almost like being at home with a Roman Catholic father and a Baptist mother. After the first two weeks I got over my apprehension and decided to stay.
In conversations and activities over the course of the three and a half years I lived there, I learned that (1) Indians from the north of India and those from the south did not have very much in common-I could relate to that. (2) That Indonesians were Moslems. (3) The Thai policeman used to execute Communists every Monday morning when he lived in Bangkok. (4) That my friend Sikander Jain’s name was also his religion; (5) don’t ever wrestle with a Korean economics professor who has a black belt in Judo; and (6) Zoroastrians, particularly those from Iran don’t like to be mistaken for Moslems.
There were several funny incidents as a result of all these cultures stewing around in the same kitchen. One of the funniest took place about the time of my first year anniversary at the rooming house. Late one Friday evening after returning from a party, I wandered up to the kitchen to get a Coke. I was joined by one of the Chopras who told me that two new guys had moved into the house. They were Chinese. Before he could finish telling me about them, the newcomers entered the kitchen. The more gregarious of the two approached me and introduced himself. After some small talk this man looks me directly in the eye, puts his hand on my shoulder and asks, “Mr. Thomson what religion are you?” I explained that I was a Baptist. He immediately pulls his hand away like he had been scorched and in a shocked voice says, “You are not a Christian? I thought all Americans were Christians!” It seems the missionary in Taiwan where Mr. Lee had become a Presbyterian had failed to do a good orientation on the other denominations. I spent an already long night explaining the differences I knew at the time. I don’t think he ever got it.
Another funny incident happened during the confusing first month after I moved in. Mr. Sinha, a graduate student in electrical engineering invited me to dine with him. He had been working in the kitchen when I returned from class and whatever he was cooking sure smelled good. Still having a problem with the dialect, I was a little nervous in asking him what we were going to have for supper. Keep in mind, country-boy-from- off-the-mountain that I was, I had never seen very thin rice noodles before. I watched them swirling around in Mr. Sinha’s pot not noticing the other things swirling in the pot with them and finally I had to ask what it was. “It is hair”, replied Mr. Sinha. I gulped and told Mr. Sinha that I didn’t know that Indians ate hair. Seeing the distress on my 18 year old face, Sinha knew that there had been a breakdown in communication. Finally, very patiently, Mr. Sinha says, really emphasizing the word, “You know… Mr. Thomson, HARE, I think you Americans refer to it as rabbit.”
Six months after the two Chinese moved in, I took my friend Sikander Jain home to give him a taste of Tennessee mountain life. Sikhander was the son of a dentist in New Delhi and had never spent very much time in the countryside. My family had acquired its first chainsaw which we were using to cut up some trees that had blown over during a very bad storm. My dad gave Sikander a basic demonstration-performance lesson and voila! by the time I had finished my second coke, Sinha, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, had completed all my work for me. He was totally fascinated by the concept of the chainsaw. He stayed in Knoxville for a few years after he graduated, bought a house with a wooded lot, and had a couple of chainsaws of his own. Not as many trees as when he moved in, however.
When Sikander and I returned from our weekend in the hills, Darioush, my Iranian friend greeted me all excited about events that occurred over the weekend back in New Delhi (the rooming house). It was a sad story he related: It seems that for the previous few weeks dead crows had been found on the campus and side streets close to our rooming house. By all appearances it looked like they had been shot. On the weekend Sikander and I were cutting trees, Darioush said the second of the two Chinese started walking around the house carrying a 30.06 rifle and muttering to himself. The first Chinese, Mr. Lee was alerted and the authorities were called. The Chinese with the gun was admitted to a local mental health facility. A few weeks later the details of what happened were revealed to us. It seems that this gentleman was Mr. Lee’s cousin and while all of us assumed he was Taiwanese like Mr. Lee, it turns out that he had only been in Taiwan for a few short weeks before coming to the U.S. He and his family had lived on mainland China and had attempted to escape by boat. They were attacked by Chinese gunboats in the Formosa Straits. Only one eventually survived.
The shock of watching his family die in front of him and then the shock of American culture was too much for this young man. He became delusional and paranoid. He suspected all of us in the house of being spies who were watching him. He bought a 30.06 in a pawn shop and practiced by shooting low flying crows. He was going to kill us all following an “enemies list” he had prepared. The happy ending to this story is that the young gentleman fully recovered and by all accounts has gone on to have a very successful life as engineer in Taiwan.
I had many other experiences at the University of Tennessee not associated in any way with the rooming house, however I think I learned more in that multi-cultural kitchen than any of the lessons I brought away from my world history and world geography courses.
I traveled on the road for several years and I’ve seen the interiors of many motels across the country. There is only one type I stay away from, however, and that the one’s with the flashing yellow and red signs that say “American Owned.”
About the Author:
Mike Thomson lives on Merritt Island Florida within two miles of three great Indian restaurants where he pigs out on curried chicken soup.
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