Monday, December 07, 2009

Honest Injun?

This post at Gaba's Notebook and the interview mentioned therein (with its banter about the term "Indian" in the current political climate) reminded me about a personal incident highlighting the utter ridiculousness of political correctness.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, I worked with an Indian - not what the British would call a "Red Indian" (American Indian) but rather a guy from the Indian Subcontinent. Prayag, a Hindu, was born in the black-tea-producing State of Assam and grew up in the exotic mountainous and Christian State of Meghalaya, where Khasi women practice archery and work while the men take their wives' names, stay home, drink beer, and raise the children. Prayag and I shared an office in Rye, New York, and became very close friends.

He shared a small apartment on the Upper East side of Manhattan with another non-Red Indian, a hilarious and sharp-as-a-tack Bengali Muslim guy named Bhaya. These two guys spoke more languages fluently than most people have fingers on one hand. Prayag's sister also lived in New York, after working in Belgium for a few years having learned French from tape recordings. My Indian friends loved everything from Pink Floyd to the the Jerky Boys from Japanese food to Times Square. A bunch of us from work (which included a Dane and a Finn for good measure) took ballroom dancing classes and used to try our hand Salsa dancing in Manhattan's Latin night clubs. That is another thing I learned that I am miserable at. But we all had a great time.

My Indian friends in particular were a lot of fun, and were quite remarkable. In hanging out with them, I learned to appreciate such things as Assam tea, fine sandalwood incense, and tandoori chicken - and I was imbibing and making chai long before you could buy it at the local Starbucks. Prayag and I once took a road trip together from New York to Jacksonville, Florida. On the way back, his car broke down in Lumberton, North Carolina. The tow truck operator was a Lumby Indian. I remarked at the irony that I was sitting in the middle between two guys who were both called "Indians," offering that I was a Cleveland Indian, and my maternal grandmother was part Cherokee. God has a sense of humor - especially when Prayag had to learn the hard way that there are places in America (such as Lumberton, North Carolina) that are "dry" - upon checking into a local motel while the car was being repaired and trying to order a beer at the restaurant.

Thanks to my friendship with my Indian friends, I also once got a free taxi ride in New York because I was able to chat a little with our driver in Hindi. Even knowing just a few conversational words was enough of a novelty to tickle the driver's funnybone. Then there was the road trip from Manhattan to West Virginia with five of us in my little Ford Escort after being rear-ended by a cab at 5:00 in the morning.

Good times...

Anyway, after a few years, Grace and I were living in Philadelphia, and Prayag was still in Manhattan. We both landed a consulting job halfway between the two of us near Princeton, New Jersey. We were having a blast working together yet again as subcontractors for EDS - which, if I remember correctly, was Ross Perot's old company.

We were programming on the IBM AS/400, and this was before anyone worked with the Internet and e-mail on their computers. But the AS/400 had a way to send messages (sort of like IM) to other people on the system. Prayag and I had a running joke about Indians. It involved General Custer's alleged last words: "Where did all those #$%^& Indians come from?" Needless to say, Indians dominated the IT scene at that time, and our project was no exception. Prayag, ever the card, sent me a private message of the punchline of the Custer joke. A couple hours later, we were both summoned into the boss's office. Our project manager was a rather dour and humorless blond-haired-blue-eyed young EDS exec. Not that he was in the Hitlerjugend or anything, but he could have posed for a period painting. He informed my dark-skinned colleague that he was fired, effective immediately. I don't know why I was in the office, maybe to send me a warning about being involved in such high-jinks in the future.

Prayag was stunned, and asked "Why?" Our Germanic-looking manager triumphantly produced a printout of the illicit communication. Now, he wasn't miffed that Prayag used the computer to send a private message, nor even about the profanity. The reason was that he used an "ethnic slur."

"You're firing me because I used the word Indian?" Prayag inquired wide-eyed. "Yes" the boss said authoritatively. "But, I'm an Indian." "It doesn't matter." And this exchange took place many years before Mike Judge's Office Space. But then again, Office Space worked so well because it was so true to life. Well, this was a pre-incarnate Office Space moment.

Prayag was immediately escorted from the building and state troopers even followed him out of the parking deck and for several miles along the highway.

That was a Friday, and so Mrs. H. and I took a trip to New York that evening to commiserate with our friend. We walked around Manhattan and visited several establishments with a group of Prayag's buddies and my former co-workers. Prayag continued to be baffled, but we all found a way to laugh at the preposterous situation. He would tell complete strangers: "I just got fired for asking where all the #$%^& Indians came from." "But you are a #$%^& Indian," was the inevitable New York reply.

I continued to work for the blond-haired-blue-eyed humorless Aryan for a few more weeks until the job ended. It just wasn't the same without my friend, the #$%^& Indian.

Ironically, the real Aryans were actually Indians. I wonder what ever happened to the Humor Nazi from New Jersey. EDS was eventually bought out by HP. I suspect his job was, at some point, outsourced to Mumbai.

That would have served him right.


Ariel said...

I am literally in my seat here applauding this guy. I don't know what completely hampers and ultimately obliterates clear, honest communication faster--corporate jargon-speak or political correctness. No, I don't really feel like "thinking out of the box", and I'd rather just talk to you rather than "touching base" on something.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Maybe someday you and I will get kicked out of the LCMS for claiming to be Lutheran. Our leadership seems to be around 20 years behind the cutting edge, so it could be coming soon.

Anonymous said...


As for the Aryans, they were an ancient people from what is now modern day Iran. Scholars are still divided over what role they played in the culture of India. Modern day Indians can range from very Caucasian looking Anglo-Indians to the darker more aboriginal peoples who have lived there for centuries. Purely a matter of history, nothing more.

As for blonde-haired, blue-eyed "Nazis" I don't think the Scandinavians, many of whom are blonder and more blue-eyed than many Germans (including one of my German grandmothers who had black hair and brown eyes) or those Britains of Anglo-Saxon heritage are going to take kindly to that description based on hair and eye color.

I lived on three continents before I was twelve years old and had the privilege of meeting many people from many lands. In fact, that last time I was home in Germany I made the acquaintence of an Indian family who enjoyed speaking with a German-born American in English. Whoever that corporate jerk was, he was wrong, wrong wrong.

But perpetuating stereotypes based on people's hair and eye color is also wrong. By the way, I have blue-grey eyes but am decidedly not blonde :)


Father Hollywood said...

Dear Christine:

No need to be offended. I was just having a little fun. The irony was simply irresistible. Part of my point in relating the story is that people really need to lighten up a bit. Political correctness is stifling - not only to commerce and culture but also to human relationships.

As Clint Eastwood lamented in an interview about his most recent film (Gran Torino), we are culturally the poorer now that ethnic humor has become taboo. It has actually driven us further apart rather than bringing us together.

I actually like Nordic people. I'm surprised Angelina Jolie hasn't added one to her collection yet. In fact, some of my best friends are Arian-Americans (see how sensitive I can be when I'm not trying to be funny?). ;-)

My melanin-deprived Danish buddy (alluded to in the post) responded on facebook:

"Great writing. Brought back a lot of great memories from when we worked together and more so hung out together."

Besides, my blond-haired-blue-eyed little boy is actually a Heinz-57 mutt who can't stand sauerkraut and has never shown any desire to invade Poland. But then again, he thinks he can turn into a dinosaur and wants to be a jumping spider when he grows up. Maybe that's a manifestation of my side of the family's Redneck-American heritage more so than my wife's European refinement.

Peter said...

Wow! What a story, told so well!
(And, I'm not simply trying to curry your favor. But, I am all of a sudden hungry.)

Peter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

we are culturally the poorer now that ethnic humor has become taboo. It has actually driven us further apart rather than bringing us together.

Oh, my American-born husband of Polish descent would very much agree with you. Being an ex-Marine and a retired police officer he's heard about every type of humor on the planet.

Actually, we joke quite a bit about how when Germany invades Poland again she is going to take back Gdansk and rename it Danzig, and he tells me that as long as there are even three members left of the Polish bathtub fleet it will never happen.

But yes, with my European-born sensibility I sometimes see things through a different lens than Americans do.


Father Hollywood said...

Dear Ariel:

I'll have my people dialogue with your people. :-)

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Eric:

You know, I think you're on to something. "Lutheran" is obviously some kind of "code word" - kind of like the DP a few years ago that threatened to discipline a group of guys who got together to study the Lutheran Confessions because they called themselves "confessional."

We can't have that, now can we?

I think I have a meeting with the Bobs...

Past Elder said...

Hellskis bellskis, I'm not German at all!

I just grew up around a ton of them in MN, got educated (if you want to call it that) in a school founded by money from King Ludwig of Bavaria, and now play a German in LCMS.

Well, full disclosure, I'm an Angle, and they were originally from Angeln in what is now northern modern Germany, until the English invited us to come settle in the lands recently vacated by the Iceni courtesy of the Romans.

However I didn't find that out until I was about 50 and the above experiences well in my past.

I think I'm gonna start an overture for Houston 2010 that conventions be held in German again.

Now, where'd I put my Nietzsche?