A Muslim American’s Homecoming: Cowboys, Country Music, Chapatis
September 30, 2017 2:47 AM   Subscribe

What’s exotic to me isn’t food gilded with turmeric and six-day weddings — it’s grits and rodeos. How much time did I have left to experience them? I have a strong respect for choreographed mass dancing; I grew up with the understanding that seminal moments in Bollywood films must be commemorated with synchronized hip shaking. The Wildhorse was a divine revelation — white people, they’re just like us! There I was, a Yankee of Indian extraction who had always dismissed country music without a second listen, tearing through Nashville’s Lower Broadway — swaying along to cover bands at Tootsie’s and Robert’s Western World and perusing star-spangled cowboy gear at Boot Country.
posted by stillmoving (3 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I was born in the Philippines, raised in Canada, but my parents then moved to the US in 1991, I followed a year later to attend university, and I wound up sticking around. In my college years I would drive from New England to San Francisco, where my first glimpses of the Great Plains and the Southwest were from interstate rest stops and highway motels. I was young, furtive, not wanting attention, so I didn't linger in those places, but I still remember the gorgeous landscapes of New Mexico, the monotonous audio blanket of talk radio, and the camaraderie of long haul highway drivers passing each other and being passed across a shared 100 miles.

When I was 27, I decided to do a solo road trip into the South, to visit some friends between DC and Alabama. I stopped by Manhattan on my way down, to visit my sister in her New York studio apartment, and she gave me this book written by a journalist from New Orleans who had traveled through barbecue country and wrote about the regional differences of pork shoulder in the Carolinas and the rib joints along the Gulf. She sent me off the next morning, after getting breakfast at this Filipino restaurant in Soho -- beef tapa, garlic fried rice, scrambled eggs, the usual breakfast that our family would have before we would drive from Manila to the highland of Baguio to escape the dry season heat.

One thing to remember about the Philippines is that we too prize our spit smoked pig. Any party worth having has to have a lechon. We'll cook it all day and then afterwards, we shred the leftovers with vinegar, garlic, and soy sauce and eat it over rice. I still remember opening that barbecue book somewhere past the border between North and South Carolina, and I found a listing for a restaurant in Spartanburg that was not far from my original route. It had been over a decade since I'd eaten a proper lechon, but god, I remember the first pork sandwich that I had at that place, and it was like all of the old memories had reawakened. With the flourescents, the heat, the prevalence of trucker caps, and the plastic tablecloths, this place wasn't all that different from the karihans that I remembered.

I also remember visiting this friend in Tuscaloosa. She was born in Ohio, had also gone to school in New England, then did her masters in North Carolina and was pursuing a PhD in Alabama. We had dated once, and I was still fond of her, but I was just happy to sit on her porch and listen to her stories of taking day trips to the coast, to dive into the lush wildness of the South. There was a drive-in barbecue place in the book that I suggested trying, but she said, "oh, that's not a barbecue place. That's a rib joint."

She took me to another place, that was a slightly fancier establishment, where I had shrimp & grits for the first time. She would also split a bag of boiled peanuts with me on her porch, and that was also the first time that I'd had boiled peanuts since living Manila, and I'd tell her stories of eating my way through a bowl of these while visiting my grandparents in Pasig and reading my dad's old boyhood copies of White Fang, imagining what snow was like.

I was back in the South again for a week, volunteering in Biloxi to help dig people out of Katrina wreckage. I remember, spending my first afternoon, following a coordinator who was doing a needs assessment survey of a Vietnamese neighborhood, and going through the weird feeling of being useful just because I looked like the people that we were trying to help. There was another job on that trip, where we were helping a homeowner gut her house so that it could be remediated for mold and she asked me why I was there and I sort of shrugged and said, "I grew up in places that got mauled by typhoons every year. Every year we rebuild, and some years we get help from people in places like America. Well, I kinda feel like I needed to pay that back."

I did not expect to be drawn to the South. My community and my friends are all Yankees and liberal yuppies, deeply and truly, but the South has provoked more echoes of my upbringing than any place in the West that I've visited. The food, the religion, the toxic machoness, the continuous reminder that the sky can get grumpy and kill you -- all that I know, too, in my bones. I'm not even bothered by the guns. The Philippines is probably one of the few places on Earth that can, man for man, outgun the Deep South. It doesn't feel like a place that would have me, but only because we both feel separated by a weight of messages that say neither of us belongs in each other spaces, despite all the things we do share.

I wound up dating that friend again. It is its own long story, but we're married now, and some days, when I come back from camping, she'll make a casserole, which I do truly find exotic and fascinating, but other nights we'll walk down to the fancy, self styled "low country" kitchen in our neighborhood and split a bowl of boiled peanuts and trade stories until the stars come out.
posted by bl1nk at 6:14 AM on September 30, 2017 [194 favorites]

bl1nk, this is so beautiful, thank you so much for sharing. It could/should be published!
posted by stillmoving at 11:04 AM on September 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

blink: <3

As to the original post, the author is brave and big-hearted. I'm so glad she had a good time and a good experience. It gives me hope.
posted by Brain Sturgeon at 9:02 AM on October 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

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