I’ve told this story before but I don’t think it’s here in this blog.  It’s probably worth storing somewhere. This one comes from my graduate school days and is the story of what it’s like to be a minority among minorities.

The year was 1985 or 1986.  The event was a physics conference at the San Antonio Convention Center.

I was raised as a racist by other racists and although popular culture taught me to be a better person in that sense, what really broke me of it was to be thrown into a graduate school where I was suddenly a minority myself.  Of course in that environment there is no majority but the entire time I was there, I was one of about four “real” Americans out of a grad student population of about 14.  The rest were from all over the world and for one semester, I was the only American.  It added to my sense of isolation that I didn’t like the other Americans very much. That has a way of washing away any racism that one has.  The meeting of so many cultures usually only affected me in the sense of having to translate American slang and give the occasional driving directions to various places.  But our trip to the physics convention was a bit different.

When one is in graduate school, one is expected to present ones results to other scientists and a big event like that is a good place to do it.  As a result, we all had papers and/or posters to present and the department decided to let us all go to San Antonio and even decided to pay for it.  The professors all drove their own cars but for us grad students, they rented a station wagon.  I didn’t really realize back then that they still made such things; after all, the minivan had been invented and had superceded the station wagon as the preferred family truxter but there it was.  I was the designated driver due to my assumed knowledge of driving intricacies of downtown San Antonio but I shared the duties with one of the Iranian students who was a really good driver with years of experience. There was another American student but he drove with our professor since he was older and had little regard for any of us.

They also rented hotel rooms for us.  Sort of. More on that later.

The station wagon had one of those fold-down seats in the rear which faced backwards.  We had in our department two students from what was then known as “mainland China” or “Communist China” to distingush it from Taiwan.  They usually dressed in the typical drab Mao outfits and kept to themselves.  Their english was abysmal and they could barely communicate with us.  As a result, I ignored them most of the time.  When it was time to go, I got behind the driver’s seat and let the pecking order sort itself out in the back.  The two Chinese students ended up in the rear facing backwards; a position they maintained for the rest of the trip.  We also had a student from Taiwan in the department but he chose to ride with his professor which was wise since each of them believed themselves to be from the “real” China. 

It is fairly typical of physics departments to ignore all cultural boundaries.  They will without hesitation assign a Palestinian grad student to a desk right next to the one with an Israeli grad student and assume that such intellectuals are above petty political differences.  When it comes to such diplomatic issues, you can usually count on the physics department to have its head firmly up its ass like that and to then be surprised when fights break out.

No fights broke out but there was a palpable silence back there which was made more awkward when a foul stench drifted up to the front seat.  The second seat was occupied by two students from India both of which were very proper.  As it was they were feeling uncomfortable at having to sit with someone who was not their spouse for so long.  I knew that the smell did not originate with them. My fellow front-seater was from Iran and he gave me a look that indicated he was aware of it but not the originator. I cracked the windows a bit.  The subject was pushed from my mind when we passed a funeral procession on a frontage road and I was called upon to explain what that was.  Later on, I learned from my friend from India what the odor was.  Apparently our friends from China had brought along all their food for the weekend in their backpacks and they had decided to break out the black boiled eggs.  I was told that these quite a delicacy and were prepared by burying them in the ground until they turned black and assumed the aforementioned aroma.  I don’t know if that’s accurate or not but it accounted for the fart-like smell.  My friend was totally disgusted with this; his face wore a disgusted frown as he told me this and he  kept the expression for the entire trip.  He was, and is, very proper with a very British demeanor and he was very offended by the aromatic emanations from the back seat.  We drove on and stopped in Austin to eat.

We all went in to whatever fast-food emporium it was and bellied up to the counter.  About halfway through the “meal”, we noticed that our Chinese cohorts were not with us.  We had accidently left them in the car and they didn’t know how to open the door.  It’s actually kind of sad to think of them sadly pecking on the glass like a dog scratching at a patio door but I shamelessly laughed at the time and I still laugh at the thought. Our friends from all over the world all claimed to have no knowledge of this oversight.

That diplomatic incident was resolved but the Chinese contingent refused to enter the restaurant. It appeared that they just didn’t want to spend the money since they brought food with them but the language barrier kept me from ever verifying this.  I basically didn’t care.  That is until the restaurant manager pointed out that he didn’t want strange looking people hanging out by his doors.  I sent the Iranian student (who was much more polite than I) to see to it and they moved out behind the dumpsters.  I can’t imagine why they chose that spot because I offered them the car keys so they could wait in the car.  Perhaps they didn’t know what to do with the keys. They stayed by the dumpster eating black eggs until we left. At least the smell was not noticeable there.

On to San Antonio.  Our professors had all secured accomodations at the Hyatt Regency on the riverwalk.  Us grad students were relegated to a cheap Holiday Inn out on I-410 somewhere.  The department head discovered once we got there that they had “family” rooms so he managed to cram three of us to a room instead of two.  That savings probably paid for another entire tank of liquid nitrogen for his experiments that year so he jumped on it and left us to all fend for ourselves like people in a hurricane relief center.  We decided to go down to the nearby Pizza Hut.  Because the Chinese students brought their own food along, we assumed they didn’t want to go so we left without them.  We were halfway down the block when we heard them running down the stairs and up behind us.  We tried to make them understand that they probably weren’t interested in this but they came along anyway and again ended up standing outside by the dumpster while we ate.

Later that night, we decided to go down on the riverwalk.  We managed to ditch the Chinese students; mostly due to the feelings of my friend from India who was rooming with the Chinese man.  He later shared with me some of the things that disgusted him so:  apparently the man flossed his teeth and spit on the floor instead of in the sink.  Or perhaps it was the fact that he had been gnawing on a bone like a dog.  I’m not sure but we left without them in any case.  I have a vague recollection of seeing them in the rear view mirror running after us as we left the parking lot but that may just be my memory embellishing the story.

The other American wanted to go to this bar called “Bwana Dik”, an African-themed place with loud rap music thumping inside.  I had been past the entrance before and had heard an Air Force guy come out the door and yell to his buddies “HEY! COME CHECK THIS OUT! THEY GOT CHICKS DANCING IN CAGES!”  This was definitely not my sort of place.

I didn’t want to go in but I tend to follow the herd most of the time so in we went past the bouncer with his purple tuxedo and top hat.  We were mercifully seated in the back and the other American and I found ourselves to be the only white guys in the place. The band was on a stage with gigantic elephant tusks framing it.  The waitresses saw the Indian and Iranian guys and apparently assumed that they were Arabic guys with money and began to treat them with great attention.  Nobody ever even made eye contact with me.  After I paid $5 for a juice-glass sized beer, I decided to slip out the back and go do my own thing.  I wasn’t worried – I had the car keys.

I wandered down the riverwalk to a place with a Dixieland jazz band playing and stayed there for a long time. I was about to go back to the Bwana Dik to retrieve my fellow students when I bumped into them as they were looking for me.  It was nice of them to be worried but then of course, I had the means to their transportation.   I just wanted out of there.  Apparently a couple of students had struck up some friendships with some ladies.  I won’t speculate as to their occupations but I will say that as soon as they found out that we were all grad students, they dissappeared.  I was grateful to get back to our seedy hotel and go to sleep.

The meetings were uneventful and uninteresting.  The interesting bits were occurring back in the crowded motel rooms and when we arose to head home on that Sunday morning, my friend from India was wearing an unpleasant sneer on his face.  He had had quite enough of the bone-gnawing and the floor-spitting.  The other woman, also from India, had had the exact same experience with the woman Chinese student and was quite fed up with the spitting. Our Iranian friend was a bit disgusted with the rest of us too for the fact that we blew our noses and then put the handkerchief in our pockets.  His take on this bit of biologica was that snot was disgusting – why on earth would we want to keep it and take it home?  No!  We should lay one finger aside our nose and snort everything out onto the ground like civilized people.  And we just don’t eat things that have been buried!  Oh, and how can we let those vermin the dogs lick our faces?  Didn’t we realize those animals were scavengers like the vultures and the crows?  Bah!  How dare we allow them in the house?

Due to the fatigue, the culturals were beginning to clash.

My fellow American was a boorish fellow who had ramrodded the trip to Bwana Dik and he offered the opinion that it was time to go, he wasn’t interested in any of their cross cultural bullshit, and if they didn’t want to get left by the roadside, they would get their sorry asses into the car and shut up.  Like all physics graduate students in the world, they all did exactly as he said and meekly shuffled into the car. The Chinese students made a brief protest at having to get into the tiny fold-up seat but they were given the evil eye and told “Get in the car!”. We drove back up I-35 in silence for the most part.  That was fine by me, I’m pretty quiet anyway and I was tired of explaining every little American oddity that we passed. 

There was one more stop in Austin for dinner and the Chinese students dissappeared.  They had walked down the street to get a better view of the Texas state capitol building but I didn’t know that due to the language barrier and we were on the verge of just driving away when they returned. At that point I was imagining the headlines:

“Diplomatic Wildfire in San Antonio: Chinese graduate students missing.  American student suspected.  The American is quoted as saying ‘They were being a pain in the ass.'”

We made it home in silence.  We met up with the department head back up in Fort Worth to give him the keys to the rental car and that was that.  I told this story to the secretary the next day and had her rolling in the aisle.  The story is so much better when told with the appropriate accents but I haven’t ever learned how to write that way. 

The irony is that this was a perfect melting pot for all of us to learn more about each other and yet we pretty much clung to all our own stereotypes for comfort.  But in the end, I think we all were better for it.  It was a turning point for me anyway; I’ve not been the racist that I was since that point.