Cultural Mobility – by Steve RE Pereira

From Bent Street 1 – ‘2017’

I seem to have one of those odd physiognomies that defy easy cultural identification. I am of Indian extraction; my family originates from Goa; and though I was born and raised in Tanzania, we are now three generations down dispersed across several continents. I have the round face, bulbous nose, thick, kinky mop of hair (when I had any) of my South Indian antecedents. Not so usual though, but not uncommon in South Indians, is that my skin tone tends to fairness, what colour-conscious Indians approvingly call ‘wheatish’ – a milky coffee. I do however tan to a dark brown in the sun.

Given that I think I have a quite specific South Indianess to my features I am always rather surprised that I am so often mistaken for a person from other cultures.

Years ago, while I was living in Canada, I went back to Goa to attend a family wedding. I was flying out of Goa to Bombay when our flight was inexplicably cancelled and we were put up for the night in a hotel that I would not have otherwise been able to afford. That evening in the dining room I looked up from my solitary place at a solitary table and saw an ostentatiously well-dressed, smooth-skinned and pomaded, plumpish, youngish (my age at the time, the mid-twenties) Middle Eastern-looking man staring at me. He was seated at a table with another man of similar age, but of very different appearance. The other man was leaner, swarthier, and bearded, but was dressed in similar clothing to the first man that was both too short and too large for him. Hand-me-downs from the first man is what it looked like to me. By the time I had finished my observation, I had realised that they were both staring at me. Disconcerted, I smiled a noncommittal smile and went back to my book and coffee. A few minutes later I heard a rustle and looked up. The second man was at my table, the first one looking on from his. I looked at the man. Smiled.

He didn’t smile back. He said something to me in Arabic. I said, ‘I don’t speak Arabic.’ He looked surprised. ‘You are not Kuwaiti?’ he said in heavily accented English. I shook my head, ‘No I am not. I am an Indian. From Goa, here. But I live in Canada.’ A moment of silence then he said: ‘We thought you were Kuwaiti.’ I looked at him and then at the other man still seated at his table who was staring at me, fork full of cake suspended halfway to his open mouth. ‘Are you Kuwaiti?’ I asked. He shook his head no. ‘Qatar,’ he said. I nodded. Pause. I inclined my head towards the other man. ‘Is that your friend?’ placing just a bit more emphasis on friend to make it sound like something else, but not quite. He looked back at the man and then at me. ‘Boss,’ he said. ‘He is my boss.’ ‘Ok, I said.’ He stood at my table for a moment more then went back to his without another word.

As he sat down, I could see him shake his head at the other man and say ‘India’ then shrug and say ‘Canada’. He gestured upwards with both open palms to suggest he was confused. They both turned to look at me. I smiled, shrugged my shoulders and went back to my book which I couldn’t read anymore.

Five minutes later I decide to leave. As I am getting my stuff together, I glance across at their table. They are both staring at me. I look away. But I have to pass their table on the way to the door. My strategy is to approach, look at them, half smile, look away, exit. But I time the look too late and catch the first man’s eye just as I am close enough for him to say to me, ‘Do you want to come to my room to dance?’ I stop. ‘Sure,’ I say immediately and instinctively. ‘No’ would have required an explanation, and I had none to offer.

The three of us head up the stairs to the second floor. I’m not inclined to make any more conversation and neither, it seems, are they. We arrive at a large suite overlooking the expansive pool and with panoramic views of the ocean. Man One, the Boss, we still haven’t exchanged names, disappears into the bedroom. Man Two fiddles with a humongous ghetto blaster (this was the early 1990s). Was this in their carry-on luggage? I walk over and admire the view which is admirable. When the thump of a disco mix fills the room, Man One comes back. He has changed from a purple Lacoste polo top, sky blue Ralph Lauren madras checked shorts and purple Salvatore Ferragamo python-skin loafers to leather-look short shorts, a metallic mesh knit tank top, thick socks and yellow suede construction boots. International Male active wear is my not-uneducated guess. He starts gyrating to the music. Man Two joins in. They are both surprisingly smooth, unselfconscious, movers. They are self-contained. They aren’t dancing with each other. Neither of them says a word, nor do I. When Nomad’s ‘Devotion’ comes on about three songs in I start dancing too. We are all dancing. We are not dancing with each other. I dance to my reflection in the glass, watch the sun set and fret about returning to Canada. We dance for the next two hours without saying anything to each other.

Just before midnight I head to the door and wave good night to them. They wave back and use that as a way to segue into bhangra moves. I get myself to my room and bed. I fly out the next morning for Bombay.

I was in Havana in 1994 and was walking around town with Heinz, a German tourist who was staying at the same hotel and with whom I had joined up for an excursion into the city, because I was travelling alone and his wife was not feeling well. We were just wandering around killing time before we had to catch a bus back to the resort at Varadero when this tough-looking, complete with tats and scowl, Cuban guy approached us.

I recognised him with some alarm. He had eyed me off at a bar the night before. He had looked out of place there in a crowd of primed and preening queens and had been hard to miss. He had mistaken my look of curiosity for interest, and it had been difficult to shake him off. But eventually, I did and had forgotten all about him until now. And here he was. He was glaring at me. He ignored Heinz but grabbed me by the arm and said something rapidly in Spanish. I looked at him, looked at Heinz, who did speak a bit of Spanish, but who now just looked confused. I said to the Cuban guy in English, ‘I don’t speak Spanish.’ He looked surprised and then he went back to looking ferocious. He was still holding my arm by the bicep hard. He sucked on his teeth noisily, jerked his head dismissively at Heinz and whispered sibilantly in my ear, ‘Estás Cubana. Don’t forget your heritage!’ He let my arm go and then walked off without a look back. I looked at Heinz who just shrugged and said, ‘He thought you were Cuban.’ I just nodded at him then, but a few moments later when we had resumed walking, I said with an ever-so-slight laugh, ‘I think he thought you were my lover.’ Heinz stopped short and looked at me in what looked like horror. ‘But how is that possible?’ he said. No, not said, exclaimed! Loudly. He seemed really bothered. I wasn’t sure whether he was questioning the possibility of us being perceived as lovers; or the possibility of us being actual lovers; or the possibility that he of all people could be perceived as gay. So, I just widened my eyes at him and walked on. He never quite caught up with me, and we sat on the bus together but apart.

Later I recounted the story to his wife when we met at the pool. She looked at me intently and said, a deep frown furrowing her brow, ‘But Heinz is not homosexual.’ She seemed really, really bothered. I wasn’t sure by what exactly. I said nothing, again, but must have looked something. A beat of silence, and then she shot a look at me like an accusation of some sort. I belly flopped into the pool. It hurt. We stayed away from each other for the rest of the trip.

Almost exactly a year later I was in Melbourne, walking down La Trobe Street in the middle of the city when I lock glances with three Indigenous youths walking towards me. When we catch up to each other, we involuntarily pause.

‘Where are you from bro?’ said one.

‘Yeah,’ said the other. ‘Where are you from?’

They were friendly, but there was, or did I assume, an edge of aggression in their tone. I didn’t know how to respond. I don’t know how to respond at the best of times to where-are-you-from questions. Where do I say – Canada, Tanzania, India, Goa? I just say India, which is what I think I am most identifiably. So I said India. They looked at me in disbelief.

‘You’re a fucking Indian?’

I nod, seems safest. They laugh uproariously. One steps right up to me, right up. I can smell mint and bubblegum on his breath, feel the heat of his body. ‘You’re a bro, bro,’ he says clapping me on the shoulder. Then each of the others reach out and touch my hand, my arm. One winks at me with a very cheeky and yes, sexy grin.

I say, ‘Thank you,’ and watch them walk away still laughing. Catching a reflection of myself in a shop window, I realise I am smiling. The city feels less alien. For a while.

At University earlier this year I get lost looking for my supervisor’s office and end up in some sort of common room. There is a young man there. Quite beautiful in a classic British, Merchant-Ivory kind of way; all peaches and cream, foppish blond hair, oh-so-aquiline nose and strawberry lips. Not my type, but stare-worthy nonetheless. He notes my interest and rises with a smile. Over the course of a ten-minute conversation that is arguably mutually flirtatious, he tells me with great enthusiasm about his research project, which has to do with indigenous music and sounds fascinating. But about half-way through, something in the way he looks at me, his phrasing, his tone, makes me think that he thinks I am indigenous myself. I let him go on for a while, but then can’t help myself and interrupt saying, ‘I get the impression you think I’m indigenous.’ He stops short and blinks at me, but says nothing. ‘I’m not indigenous,’ I say, ‘I’m actually Indian.’ He still says nothing, so I add, ‘I get mistaken for being indigenous a lot, even by indigenous people.’ His look is grim. If he wasn’t so willowy, and I twice his size, I would think he wanted to hit me. ‘You know,’ he finally spits out, ‘that is a form of cultural appropriation. It’s fucking cultural appropriation.’ He jabs his finger at me. ‘Mate.’ Final finger jab and then he stalks off.

At a literary festival in Williamstown an elderly (white) woman, came up to me at a book table I was staffing. It was a quiet moment and we had a lovely chat about her life in Yorkshire and how her daughter loved living in Australia, and it wasn’t like anything she had been told to expect and that the country and land and people were so wonderful and how really progressive the country was that she could have a conversation with me at a literary festival. When her daughter came to collect her, she said goodbye, but then turned around and told me in somewhat of a whisper that ‘I was a credit to my community’. I said, ‘Thank you.’ I had no idea of which community she was talking about, or what else to say. She meant well.

Not so laudatory was a large group of (white) Australian ‘grey nomads’ at a hotel campsite in Central Australia. When I, very dark from ten days of camping in the unforgiving sun, dressed in shorts and thongs, very sweaty and very dusty after a long trek, entered the communal kitchen to fill a kettle for a much needed cup of tea. The group who were sitting around in a large circle reacted in shock. They literally tried to shoo me away with ‘shoo’ noises and ‘go away’ gestures, as you would a recalcitrant goat. No invitation to dance here. I, more bemused than anything, re-checked that I had read the ‘communal kitchen’ sign correctly and then looked at them blankly. I may have said, ‘What?’ I’m not entirely sure.

One of the women said slowly and emphatically, ‘The grounds are reserved for guests only.’ Then I twigged and in some outrage enquired, ‘What the fuck makes you think I am not a guest here?’

There was a collective silence and a lot of looking away, then one man stood up and said sternly, ‘No need for that. Move on mate.’

Steve R. E. Pereira is a Melbourne-based Creative Producer working on performance and art-related community engagement and community development projects.

Also:

Freddie and Me by Steve R.E. Pereira

A Place That Should Be Home: A Conversation with Steve RE Pereira

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