What are our expectations? Which of the things we desire are within reach? If not now, when? And will there be some left for me? –Anthony Bourdain
I wander in and out of sleep as Anthony Bourdain’s voice carries me through an aromatic dreamscape. As I recline on my parents’ red couch, he contrasts Shanghai’s bourgeoning wealthy class—a tomato, a potato, and Wagyu beef—with old China’s oysters found along Shouning Road. My dad sits in a reclining leather chair. He gets up, disappears, then returns when a commercial comes on. Bourdain sits with a local, “a hacker turned entrepreneur,” in a fancy bar drinking “China’s official cocktail,” the Moscow mule. That’s when Bourdain decides to crash a wedding.
Dad cups four small tangerines in his hand. He peels two for me. I don’t touch their skin chilled from the December air. Nor do I delight in digging my short unpolished nails into their delicate flesh. After Dad hands me the tangerines, he asks for the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times. The paper’s date reminds me that it is Christmas Eve, and the year is 2014. I’ve felt stuck since I moved home from San Francisco. Suburbia is like quicksand. Once you fall in, you can’t get out. As a high school educator, I can’t keep up with L.A.’s inflated rent. Without my living with my parents, I wouldn’t be able to afford to live in the city where I teach. Once I asked a colleague how she paid for her apartment. She reminded me that she was married: a reminder that I am not.
I examine the sports page in front of me. Leonard Williams stares back from the cover. The headline reads, “LAST WORD, EDGE-WISE.” My teeth break into one of the tangerine segments. I devour the bite. With each segmentation, I break apart the pair. Juice drips onto Williams’ face. I meditate on how much I resemble the USC football star: his thick muscular build and his wild, mid-length hair. His erect, dark brown areolas peer through his white muscle shirt. No matter what bra I wear, my nipples always protrude through tops. His facial hair screams: I am not a woman. I am a woman: I have a mustache I wax every six weeks.
One lonely, singular tangerine remains.
* * *
I look back up at the TV screen. I look nothing like the Shanghainese bride: her thin body, her long, straight hair, her seeming fragility. Because she has no arse, she can fit into the designer clothes found in the high-end, luxury shops filled, as Bourdain says, with “a sheer volume of things and services unimagined by the greediest, most bourgeois of capitalist imperialists.” The extraneous, puffy tulle on the bride’s wedding dress is the ultimate symbol of materialism. I yearn for a simple dress with a bateau neckline. I imagine an ethically sourced, rough diamond in an eighteen-karat gold setting surrounding my left ring finger. Other than that, she has the thing I dream about. I want to fall in love with someone who can help me move out of my parents’ house by paying half the rent. Maybe with our combined incomes, we could afford to buy a house.
* * *
My mind drifts with Bourdain’s voice: “Lots of food present. Booze. Whiskey. Smokes for guests.” I realize there is not much difference between a Chinese wedding and that of a Sikh Canadian. At Sikh weddings, there is always an abundance of food and booze. Strict Sikhs shouldn’t drink, and they aren’t supposed to smoke. Since I am not a proper Sikh woman, I sometimes do both. In high school, before I had even read Maxine Hong Kingston ask the question, “Isn’t a bad girl almost a boy?” I believed that being a bad girl would bring me closer to self-determination. When Indian relatives came to visit, the women cooked, cleaned, and did the dishes. I tried to stay with the men in the living room as they drank and watched TV. I imagine the Shanghai bride also having a gendered fate.
I can tell Bourdain understands the nuances of Asian culture when he eats at a table with wedding guests. After a woman challenges Bourdain to shots of clear grain alcohol, he wonders “who at this table is going to try really hard to get me drunk. I wouldn’t have guessed it was going to be her.” In the same scene, the camera pans to a toddler wearing pajamas sipping what looks like the same clear liquid from a wine glass. In Shanghai, there is no legal drinking age. In all cultures, socialization starts young.
The scenes from Bourdain’s wedding crashing remind me of the last Sikh wedding I attended in Calgary. It was my second cousin’s wedding. In Punjabi, the word “cousin” is synonymous with “sibling.” Cousins never felt like siblings. My Mexipina mother would refer to them as “the clan.” No matter how much my mom sacrificed for my dad’s family, we never belonged. I knew growing up that marriage could create more problems than it solved.
Knowing how much alcohol would be present at the wedding reception, my mom had told me on the plane, “You don’t need to do what the other female cousins are doing. Just be yourself. You’re not full Indian. They don’t see us that way.” Unlike at the Shanghainese wedding, Sikh women were not encouraged to imbibe. Instead of clear, fermented beverages being passed around, there was an open bar stocked with Royal Canadian, the Sikh relatives’ favorite drink.
* * *
“Ladies first,” a smiling, drunk, turbaned man said. He guided me to the front of the bar since I was the only woman waiting in line for alcohol. While the crowd of men looked amused, the Indian bartender didn’t look surprised when I ordered my whiskey straight. I ordered a couple more with Coke. If I brought my cousin’s married daughters drinks, their father wouldn’t notice the alcohol in the dark, bubbly liquid.
With alcohol, I could ease loneliness. Through alcohol, I could commune with my female cousins who were forbidden indulgence. As a half-Indian, I felt like an imposter, an imposition, in a culture that I felt I half-belonged to. Without knowing my father’s tongue, I learned to be silent. I shape-shifted to be invisible. I sat with my non-dancing cousins. My black sequined T-shirt blended into the background. I observed.
Other female members of “the clan” paraded like peacocks wearing bright pink, blue, or turquoise saris. Gold embroidery or delicate beadwork glistened on the silk. Henna-tattooed hands screwed in invisible lightbulbs as the young women danced bhangra to Punjabi MC’s “Mundian To Bach Ke.” The song translates to “Beware of the Boys.” In Punjabi, Rajinder Singh Rai compliments and warns the dancers. He acknowledges their good looks, their thin waists, their nice hair on top. He tells them not to give their love to just anyone. He tells them to beware of the boys. In Indian culture, a fine line exists between coy flirtation and expressing sexuality. To give dancing women privacy, men drinking whiskey gathered around the bar.
As I watch the multichromatic women dancing in a circle, I notice that their connection binds sexuality with unapproachability. To gain entrance, an outsider must interrupt their content. On the outside, it seems to gain entrance one must look like them.
I yearned to be like my cousins: svelte, tall, elegant.
There was no deviation from the Sikh rule of not cutting hair.
Their long hair swayed.
There were no flyaways.
I have the kind of hair that men like to pull during sex. They perceive curly hair as wild. It goes in different directions. It looks unkempt. It looks rough. They perceive curly hair as a signifier of a woman’s temperament. Men push curly hair away from their faces. It scratches their five-o’clock shadows. The dancing women are the type men want to marry. I imagine the dancing women alone with their husbands or boyfriends at the end of the night. When they get home, their drunk partners smile and brush loose strands of hair away from their faces. They tell them they are beautiful before gently kissing their lips.
Men can sense when a girl with curly hair wants straight hair, serious hair. They can sense when she wants to be the kind of woman who can dance all night in eight-inch stilettos. She wants to be the kind of woman who can’t handle her liquor. So, when she is drunk, she giggles like a hungry hyena. Hungry hyenas are deceptively strong. Like the dancing women, they travel in clans. They choose their mates. They chase their mark. If she were a hungry hyena, she would mark her territory and catch her prey. Men would think she’s cute because she would know how to play the game. And, instead of a rough diamond, she would land a shiny, blood one on her left hand.
* * *
After drinking more than a few whiskeys, my cousins and I decided to dance. I took off my shoes and left them at the side of the table. I never learned to dance in heels. I wore Pumas when I went to clubs. Wearing sneakers, a woman can run. I want to say that I never let anyone catch me, because I wanted my feet to take flight, or that I never wanted to be caught. Those are lies. In reality, what I wanted was a community of Brown women who taught me the rules, who linked me to their circle so that I wouldn’t fade into the background.
* * *
“Mundian To Bach Ke” pulsated through the air, through the dance floor, through the bodies of the dancing women: Look after your youth/This time won’t come again. Since youth is fleeting, since gender roles exist in and outside this space, it is appropriate for the song to be played at a wedding reception. This carefree moment will never exist again.
The dancing women’s lives might be different from this reality. Were their lives like the circular bubble that they formed on the dance floor? Did they maintain a singular, stereotypical existence? Were the college-aged ones good, virginal Sikhs who majored in biology or business? When graduate school applications wanted to know their ethnicity, they checked one box. I wanted to imagine simple, uncomplicated lives that revolved around attending temple and family meals. Nothing is ever as simple as that. If they ever got married, then divorced, they would have each other. This is something—due to distance and my mixed identity—that I would never have.
After dancing for a while, my cousins and I felt our stomachs growl. Perhaps this is why Indian weddings are rarely sit-down affairs, like the wedding in Shanghai that Bourdain crashes. With all the drinking and dancing, there needs to be a constant rotation of food. When we reached the buffet, we noticed that the dahls, curries, and saag had been removed. In their place were gulab jamuns, ras malai, and burfi alongside chaat. The perfect balance of sweet and salty existed side by side on separate dishes. Exhaustion began to replace inebriation. Even amongst kind relatives, I still felt alone. What I desired was a constant sense of community that comes from an understanding that we belonged to the same ancestry, especially in a society that values singular, definable identities. What I wanted was to feel linked in a circle of dancing women who would remind me that I was never alone.
* * *
At the end of the wedding crashing, Anthony Bourdain is alone. He communes with a bowl of Long Leg Noodles. The dish is named after the restaurant’s owner, because “the woman is tall.” This is the perfect segue into the last scene.
Bourdain’s voice wakes me from my internal voyage: “Where are we going? Who will drive us there? What will it be like when we get there? I think it will look like this.” The closing shot is filmed from a high-rise. Cars move through a Shanghai intersection. This is how life feels sometimes: disconnection in a much larger web. Our human experiences intersect at times, while we do not fully understand each other’s lives. Perhaps this is why people get married despite knowing that relationships are not perfect. They want to gather the people they love.
I imagine if I ever got married that I would have to choose between a buffet or served dinner at my wedding. Instead, I would have a taco cart, mango lassis, and cases of Royal Canadian. I would want all of my male and female guests to dance. Of course, I would play “Mandian To Bach Ke,” even knowing how misogynistic the lyrics sound. I used to imagine this moment would occur after a brief wedding ceremony, in the form of a reception. But what I really wanted most was to celebrate the people I love. We all want to be reminded that we are valued. I don’t want to be one of those people driving their car on a busy street not feeling connected to the world.
Natalie Mislang Mann is an educator who holds a master of arts in humanities from San Francisco State University. Before being selected as a 2018 PEN America Emerging Voices fellow, she attended VONA/Voices and Tin House Summer Workshops. Her writing has appeared in Angel City Review, The Rattling Wall, and the anthology Only Light Can Do That. She is currently working on a memoir based on her experiences growing up in a multiethnic family in the San Fernando Valley at the Bennington Writing Seminars.