DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Before moving Downtown five years ago, my husband and I spent a year living in Bakersfield, a place that boasted sizable populations of both of our ethnicities. I am a U.S.-born Caucasian and he is a Punjabi Indian immigrant.
A casual survey of our social occasions in either community quickly revealed that the two ethnicities almost never mixed. When we realized we had a child on the way, I experienced some hormonally amplified anxiety about how our multiethnic offspring would fit in.
When I was offered a job in Downtown Los Angeles, we jumped at the opportunity to move. We bought a loft (alas, at the height of the real estate market) and started to learn about the demographics of our new neighborhood.
Downtown has always hosted a diverse mix of communities: There are geographically named sectors such as Little Tokyo and Chinatown. There are business-driven areas, among them the Persians and Jews (and sometimes Persian Jews) who work in the Jewelry District, and the Latino shoppers who for decades have flocked to Broadway. There are populations shaped by decades of economic and other trends, including the disproportionate number of African Americans in Skid Row and the heavily Caucasian community working in the towers of the Financial District and Bunker Hill.
People are often wary of talking about race, and Downtown has mixed more than many communities in the region. Still, while Downtown’s diverse groups have for at least a couple of generations bumped up against each other, like the compartments of a bento box, they could hardly be described as a melting pot of integration.
I realize I’m still a newcomer here, but in the elevators of my Downtown residential building, I am noticing something simmering. At first I viewed my neighbors as “the young and fabulous” crowd: 30-somethings, many eagerly trying their hand at home ownership, in a creative and slightly counter-culture fashion. But as I started to meet my ethnically and racially diverse neighbors, I realized that not only were we all living in the same building, a majority of us were living in mixed ethnicity households: Japanese, Indians, Armenians, African Americans, Caucasians, Mexicans, South Americans and anything else you might imagine. My own multi-culti coupling, an anomaly in Bakersfield, was practically the norm with the new Downtown Los Angeles residents.
Certainly, Downtown can’t claim a monopoly on mixing, and I don’t pretend to be breaking anthropological ground here. But since Downtown residents tend to have frequent interactions with each other, in the elevator, at the rooftop pool, out on the sidewalk, in our local watering holes and restaurants, the new Downtown generation’s ethnicity, or inter-ethnicity, multi-ethnicity, omni-ethnicity, whatever you want to call it, seems more apparent.
Inventory of Pairings
My anxiety about our new half-breed baby’s place in the ethnic mix eased as we began to swap stories with our neighbors about the specifics of their cultures and their parents’ reactions to their choices. We then enjoyed regaling our respective families with an inventory of the pairings in our building: a white New Yorker with a Korean immigrant; a Bengali born man with an African American woman from Louisiana; a recent Japanese transplant with an African American man; a Mexican with an American Jew; an Israeli with a Panamanian and so on. Several homosexual couples in our building further challenge the white-picket fence stereotype: African American and Latina lesbian couples, and a white gay couple who looked like transplants from West Hollywood.
I developed a particularly strong friendship with the African American girl from Louisiana whose Bengali husband looks strikingly similar to my Punjabi husband. In fact, our neighbors sometimes confuse the two. More than once someone has felt obligated to let me know when they mistook my husband for my friend’s and caught him kissing her in the elevator.
My experience hasn’t happened in a vacuum. In summer 2009, the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo mounted a show by Kip Fulbeck called Part Asian: 100% Hapa (hapa is a Hawaiian word for half, a pejorative term for children of mixed Japanese descent). Composed of a striking series of photo portraits of mixed ethnicity individuals, Fulbeck’s exhibition vividly displayed the intriguing composite look of this new generation. I proudly pushed my stroller to the end of the exhibit where the museum staff took our Polaroid to add to the interactive portion of the show. (Later another JANM Fulbeck show focused on mixed-race children.)
By the time we placed our little boy in a Downtown daycare center, we realized that his beige skin tone didn’t stand out as much as the china-doll white skin of the lone towheaded child in his age group. What prior generations have called miscegenation has become so prevalent in my own that I’ve begun referring to these combination kids as “the great mixie tribe.”
Perhaps most satisfying to me, this new generation of ethnic combinations has led me to experience my parents’ generation, where ethnic separation was the general rule rather than an eyebrow-raising exception, in a whole different way. Out on the street, my beige sons (the second arrived not long after the first) have made me something of an ambassador into other communities. People who look like me feel free to ask about my husband’s culture. People who look like my husband instinctively understand that I am a sympathetic outsider and people who look like neither of us are sometimes caught off guard enough to smile.
The ethnic ambiguity of my family proves to me a certain porosity in the boundaries between the traditional Downtown communities, the possibility of permeating into another’s experience. This makes me tremendously optimistic that our children’s generation, stewed in a collective cultural ethnicity, will be seasoned with more sympathy than suspicion for other’s differences, leaving the bento box for an excellent dinner out in Little Tokyo.
Anne Marie Ruff’s recently published first novel, Through These Veins, chronicles the development of a fictional cure for AIDS. All profits benefit Doctors Without Borders and the Ethiopian Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity.
page 5, 7/4/2011
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