The Salad Bowl

My first years in Los Angeles, I admit I was a bit dismayed that it didn’t reflect the picture of the city I had in mind. I had expected L.A. to exemplify the epitome of what this country was supposedly founded upon. What that would be, of course, is a haven for immigrants insomuch as the fact that we’ve all moved here to “make it a better place for everyone.”

I pictured everyone getting along with everyone else.

Of course, that included preconceived notions of adults and children of all different colors – equal in proportion – in circles holding hands and playing Ring Around The Rosie on every lawn. (This was something I got cheated out of by being born an Asian American native of a predominantly white Wisconsin.) Blacks got along with latinos (because they’re not all Mexican), and the Asians loved the blacks equally, indiscriminately to the whites.

Shiah.

Because you know, if it’s any city that’s a melting pot, it should be New York and Los Angeles. It just made perfect sense to me. Of course, I qualify this with the naïveté that being age 17 affords. When the grass is greener on the other side, it’s not just greener in color – it’s lush and velvety to the touch.

While a Freshman in college, I was told by an upperclassman that the standard 1:30 AM last call time for the bar was only put in place after the L.A. riots. Prior to that, it was like every other major U.S. city, with more nighttime establishments open past until 3 AM or so than not.

The points of this being, of course, that: 1) It sucks a hard one that our nightlife has been cut short because Rodney King’s perpetrators got pardoned, and 2) Oh right, the L.A. riots of 1992 were indicative of racial tensions a mere 5 years before my arrival. So maybe 5 years isn’t quite enough time to smooth things over for 10 million people.

What was I thinking?

My naïveté was probably just stupidity. As has been clarified to me, “Los Angeles isn’t a melting pot – it’s more of a salad bowl.” You got your tomatoes and your lettuce. The avocado and turkey. But all the ingredients are just tossed into the bowl with little or no melding involved. Little Armenia is next to Thai Town, Koreatown (the largest Korean community outside Korea, itself) next to downtown and Little Tokyo south of that (what with the Japanese already in that area aiming to be purist). Little Ethiopia is south of the Fairfax district while the gay community shares West Hollywood with the Russians.

While I was disillusioned by it then, I’m ever thankful that I’ve been given the chance to live in a place where I can learn how getting to the melting pot requires understanding the salad bowl first. Besides – to meld, you’ve got to turn up the heat. You’ve gotta get the chunks and kinks out. Unfortunately (or fortunately), you’ve got to raise tensions before they can calm down. You need to honor the similarities before you can iron out the differences.

The old “us vs. them” politics of Geraldine Ferraro still exist. It’s salad bowl politics, not melting pot politics – but thankfully I think we’re reaching the boiling point where we notice the people who cling to that old ish instead of reaching for the new. And while I’ll stop the political references there, it’s been these concepts as relevant to my city that have been at the forefront of my mind lately. And I think we’re getting there. After all, all the aforementioned ethnic communities overlap at for least a block – maybe more. A funny yet heartwarming exchange I had at the Hollywood Bowl comes to mind.

My friends and I had brought wine and Chinese food to our seats – while friends who had already arrived were already seated. Across the aisles, they yelled, “What kind of food did you get?”

I responded, “Chinese food – because we’re Asian and all we eat is rice.”

Some black ladies nearby exploded into laughter, as they held up their fried chicken.

The common vein running through these efforts to simply get along? We simply don’t take ourselves too seriously. The melting pot mentality doesn’t mean you have to forget nor leave behind your identity – it simply means respecting others’ individuality. And the highest form of respect means empathy for the strengths as well as weaknesses of each community and individual. It’s not “their” problem anymore but “our” problem – just as we can learn from the strengths of others’. I think that’s something that we can strive for.