Friday, January 18, 2008

Can our love for ethnic food bring peace?

I had lunch at Pho75 along Rockville Pike several weeks ago. In a Vietnamese noodle house, there were Hispanics, Caucasians, African Americans, Asians, and I even detected some Eastern European accents. I wondered, can our love of pho bring about peace among different races?

Idealistic as it is, this of course, would not happen. Even as we eat at the same places, we're not eating together. In Malaysia, the word that is used is muhibbah. I find it to be an elusive word - one that evokes visions of everyone living together in peace and harmony. When we were in Kuala Lumpur this past summer, we were at a restaurant with that very name. Yet the scene was deceptive. It was a Chinese restaurant (with a Chinese owner and possibly, cook) that had all Malay waiters as a way to attract different races. Yes, we were all sitting in the same restaurant eating but not really eating together. We sat separately at different tables, not really intermingling.

Of course, strangers would not do that and at that restaurant in KL there was nothing to indicate that there were socializing among races. So in a way, the scene at Pho 75 was a little bit more optimistic in that there was some mixing of races -- Asian customers with their Caucasian or African American friends and so forth. So perhaps, there is still hope?

So thinks Andy Shallal whose venture, Busboys and Poets in Adams Morgan, Washington DC is an attempt to bring races together.

With his new restaurant, Andy Shallal is taking on the problems of race and class on U Street. But for some, the solution itself is a problem. ... It cuts both ways, this social engineering. Later that night, Shallal watched with dismay as a loud, thumping club atmosphere overtook the space, the result of an overzealous DJ he'd hired. The music was "more hip-hoppy" than he'd expected. In streamed the black clubgoers with "their leopard-skin prints and little purses." Out streamed his white customers. Shallal was sympathetic to their discomfort. "As hard as it is for black folks to walk into a room of white people," he said, "it's harder for white folks to walk into a room of black people."

As we plowed into our food--chicken wings and crab cakes for him, catfish and collard greens for me--he talked about the coming months like a campaign manager looking to cobble together a constituency of disparate parts: Howard University students attracted to the notion of a coffeehouse/lounge/restaurant that embraced social action; older, churchgoing black folks stirred by his invocations of the U Street past; and condo-dwelling whites longing to belong to "something larger than themselves." Getting all these different people in the door was half the battle. The other half was knitting them together after they got there. "I think you have to help people to visualize it," he said. "I think they aspire to it. They want to live among their neighbors. But they don't always know what it looks like. They need to be shown." And he was the one to show them.

Perhaps there's hope?

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