Sunday, October 14, 2012

Stories From the Together Empowering Asian-Americans Walk

For much of the morning and into the afternoon, the Together Empowering Asian-Americans Walk (henceforth TEA) reminded me of nothing so much as a high school cross-country meet. In both, you wake up at some horrendous hour (4:45 AM for TEA), climb into your van or bus, travel across a good part of your chosen metropolitan area, and spend most of your morning setting up tents, seeing to the distribution of water and food supplies and setting up parts of the course itself. The combination of the early morning, the desire to run and a crisp, bright fall day made me want to strip down to a checkerboard singlet, slip on my undersized running spikes and get ready for the day's five-kilometer adventure. (To avoid scandalizing the hundreds of people in attendance, I did not do this. Today.) 

It apparently takes a lot of behind-the-scenes logistics to set up such an event; I only ran in high school, while others did the hard work of making it possible for me to run. Water, soda, bananas, apples and various Asian lunch options must be prepared and put in their proper places, ready for fifteen hundred hungry marchers. Signs and banners must be manufactured and produced on time, bright pink "Rock the South!" T-shirts handed out, tents and chairs set up, trash picked up and a thousand other niggling details taken care of. My FEMA Corps team--wearing, for once, traditional NCCC grays instead of FEMA blue--were among the army of nearly two hundred volunteers who helped make the whole thing happen. 

I had a grand time, 4:45 AM wakeup be damned. Besides the sense of righteous accomplishment from performing a task early in the morning, I'd never volunteered at such an event before, so I just learned on the fly. While most of my team members were getting people registered or handing out food, I blundered into the purview of food czar Diana Lui, who put me to work moving supplies--32-packs of water, 12-packs of soda, giant umbrella tents, plastic tubs--down to the finish line. It was great fun. In short order, we set up a finish line and food tents, and I was inveigled into being part of the tofu-serving table, which deserves its own story because holy tofu, Batman.

Tofu is a culture all its own. I know it only as "the thing vegetarians eat instead of meat", but apparently tofu holds a place in Asian cultures comparable to hamburger among white Americans or chicken among black Americans. (That last comparison was made by my friend Shingarai, who can say that without getting pilloried, while I cannot... just so you know.) My table had a mini-assembly line putting tofu in tiny shot-size cups. There was an immense cauldron, large enough to fit a rolled-up sleeping bag, full of bubbling, gloopy, gelatinous white tofu, plus a normal-size pot full of sugary ginger syrup sitting next to the cauldron. Somebody would dump the tofu in the cup, someone else would drop some syrup on top and hand it to a third person, who would stick a spoon in it and arrange it in a tray. We must have made 450-500 cups that way and all of them got eaten. 

Here's what I'm saying about culture. Right after the walk ended, our assembly line was swarmed by scores of people wanting tofu. After the initial rush, I (and a couple of others) started peddling tofu by the tray to people sitting on the grass and eating lunch. Asian-Americans (henceforth Asian for brevity) my age typically turned down the tofu or took it under mild protest, but the older folk loved it. Everybody wanted a cup, and lots of people took three or four to share with their relatives. One woman who must have been in her eighties flagged me down from across the tent to get cups for her and her friend. Now, judging by accents or lack thereof, most of the older generations were born overseas, while most of the younger folk (who turned down tofu) were born in the U.S. I'm not trying to draw an overarching cultural conclusion from one serving of tofu, but I found the trend quite intriguing.

The TEA Walk in general seemed to lend itself quite well to cultural learning experiences, so much so that Service Learning Initiator Shingarai had us discuss it afterwards. It was certainly unusual to be almost entirely engulfed by Asian faces; I was probably part of the five percent or so of the crowd that did not claim Asian ancestry. And I definitely found the self-avowed "Pan-Asian" spirit of the event, sponsored by the Center for Pan-Asian Community Services (CPACS) intriguing. National and cultural divisions were downplayed in the crowd and in the speakers' remarks; people spoke to each other in a dozen languages, but everybody was wearing the same pink shirts. CPACS is apparently a place where people surrounded by difference--even in a community so heavily Korean the language is on every commercial sign, Asians of any background are still a relatively small minority--can go to be surrounded by similarity. 

I guess I can relate, in a small and different way, to the feeling of entering a space where people share feelings and beliefs similar to my own. Disclaimer time. Racially and sexually, I'm so pasty and straightlaced as to be a model of the dominant cultural ideal in this country, and have nothing to complain about on that score. Speaking as a Jew, though, I know what it's like to be surrounded by gentiles almost all the time. When I went to Israel, it felt like coming home, but it was also profoundly weird. Hell, just being on a bus full of Jews was weird, never mind an entire nation. I can definitely relate to the sense of wanting to be among your own, though. 

So that was the TEA walk. I got to do some volunteer work, I got six Individual Service Project hours, I got some exposure to cultures different from my own and I got some things to think about in the bargain. If this is a typical NCCC weekend, I'm down to keep it going.

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