January 21, 2011

When You’re in a Crazy Situation, Don’t React, Just Observe.

The Asian Peasants do New York.

On a normal weekday, I boarded the Q train in Brooklyn to take it into the city, not knowing what a show I would get. With the train almost empty – rush hour being long over – I settled into a seat with a good book.

The train made its stops, and rose up out of the ground to cross the bridge. I always like to look at the cityscape at this point, so I set down my book for a moment. Across from me I saw an old, Asian grande dame, who was neatly seated with her hands folded in her well-dressed lap. Her thin hair was carefully combed into a poufy bob. She returned my gaze over her red lacquered glasses. I quickly looked back down at my book.

Three or four stops later, I looked up again to see the doors open and three young, Asian people rush on, crowding each other like preschoolers eager to get out the school doors to recess. In their jostling, they knocked a young woman trying to exit so hard on her shoulder she spun around to face backwards. Two more were right behind. As soon as they sat down adjacent to me, and facing each other across the aisle, they began to screech and yell in Chinese. The whole train, which now had plenty of passengers, stared at the obtrusive fracas.

I watched as the grande dame rose, walked over to them, and tersely said something. They slowed for only a moment, and then continued to squabble as the grand dame walked back over to sit across from me.

“They are just Chinese peasants,” she explained to the four our five people within earshot, including me. “They don’t know any better.”

My eyes widened at this. Yeah, they were annoying, but it was a shock to hear class prejudice articulated so clearly, and so deadpan.

“They are from the country. They do not know how to act in the city. They are an embarrassment.”

The people around me tsk tsked in agreement, talking about how awful it all was. The Grande Dame got up again to lecture the young Asian maenad. As the GD talked, the young girl watched her impassively, and then as soon as the GD’s back was turned, took up the fight again. The GD sat, and continued to hold court on the sheer embarrassment of being caught on a train with such uncultured, indigent country peasants.

I buried my head in my book. I wanted no part of any of this. Perhaps she was right, that they “didn’t know any better,” but wasn’t that a reason to treat them compassionately, instead of judging them? I frankly didn’t even know the answer. Should I say something?

The doors slid open again, and a Hispanic performer with a guitar walked on. The train was crowded now, with plenty of people standing and almost everyone watching the five Asians hash out their differences.

Of course, the Hispanic man was there for one thing. He hefted his guitar up, and took off strumming with spirit. “Feliz Navidad!” Strum strum strum, “Feliz Navidad!”

Everyone’s head was now swiveling between the Chinese invectives being hurled by the Asians back and forth, and the cheerful guitarist singing with spunk. Smiles crept across faces, and the chuckles took ahold. Friends elbowed each other with glee. It was sheer insanity. The train stopped to let more passengers on, who found themselves agape in a boisterous, New York, multicultural melee, the Lingua Franca of New Yorkers.

The guitarist finished his song with a flourish and the whole car burst into raucous applause and whistles. He blushed with surprised happiness, and held out his cap to the passengers who chuckled and dropped dollar bills into it. The Asians had fallen silent, no doubt confused by what had just happened.

The train stopped once again, and the guitarist got off. The doors closed behind him, and the whole train fell completely silent, except for a few murmured comments between friends. Everyone was buried in his or her smart phone games and magazines. I noticed that the Grande Dame was gone.

Two young ladies standing in front of me looked at each other. “I love New York,” one said. The other just shook her head and laughed.

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