Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sniffing Stereotypes

I often sit on the second floor of the Santa Clara Library. Here, tables with power outlets and Ethernet ports are set for people to use laptop computers. You are surrounded by books and connected to the world through the Internet--it really works out great. Where I sit, each table has six chairs but normally only four people sit at each one of them, one person at each corner. So, this particular day I was sitting at a table which had three corners taken (one by me of course). A young man comes in, looks around, does not find a place anywhere else and decides to take the fourth corner of our table. As soon as he comes closer to the table I can smell oil out of his clothes--it is the kind of smell you normally find in Desi, especially in Gujrati households. I am sure many in the Desi community like that smell, after all it is food smell--but there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that it is not a desirable odor for people outside the community. So this guy settles down in his chair and now the whole table is engulfed in this very powerful oil-and-masalah smell. I was not too happy about the situation but I was OK with it. A couple of minutes later I see a man sitting across me giving a piece of paper to the newcomer. Naturally, I got very curious and I peeped. In bold letters the note on the paper read, "YOU STINK REALLY BAD. CAN YOU PLEASE GO HOME, TAKE A SHOWER, AND THEN COME BACK HERE?" Wow! I could not wait to see what would happen next. The newcomer read the note a couple of times, appeared very confused, and looked at the person who had given him that message. That man, apparently to avoid any conversation on this topic, had gotten busy in his work. The newcomer got up, put his things back in the backpack and left. I thought about going after the newcomer and telling him, "No, you don't have to take a shower. Just change your clothes and put on good cologne. And next time before going to a public place sniff your clothes and make sure they are not giving off a strong kitchen smell, and you would have to do it outside your home, to differentiate better between odorless air and the oil-masalah smell. It is not only a matter of common courtesy but also a way to avoid negative stereotyping for the whole community." But I did not go after that man and now I wonder if he would really understand why that rude note was given to him.

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