I often find myself in the middle of an experience and never really quite sure how I got there. Charlie would probably tell you it is because I have a significant inability to say “no” to any adventure presented to me here in India. With caution thrown to the wind (within reason), I will generally jump at the chance to see a new part of town, try a new food, or engage in a novel experience. Sunday afternoon was no different.
The opportunity to travel across town to have traditional food from Kerala was presented to me. So I took it. Unfortunately we chose the wrong day to try out the restaurant as more than half of their traditional Keralan dishes were not being served. However, we ordered a few fish dishes and enjoyed what was served regardless. The food was very good, but nothing to really write home about… so I won’t.
My guide, The Lone Cowboy, was not impressed with the food and was not about to waste a trip across town so he decided we would make our way to Tom’s Diner for cheesecake. I have to admit. I was a little dubious. This sounded like a game plan for a failed dinner attempt in my hometown. Tom’s Diner? Cheesecake? Really? Am I not in southern India? I was curious and, of course, agreeable to the plan.
Now The Lone Cowboy is not exactly a typical Indian. In fact, he is often confused for an American or foreigner and will sometimes shock locals when he responds to them in fluent Tamil. He has travel a few times to the USA (with specific ties to Texas) and even spent some of his childhood on the east coast (of USA). His English is fluent and stained with an unidentifiable, revolving accent—sometimes it is clearly Indian, other times it sounds British or… I can’t really tell. He doesn't seem to belong to any one place or people. He just is. And he likes cheesecake.
As my eyes adjusted to the lighting after walking into Tom’s Diner I began to see a plethora of three very familiar colors: red, white, and blue. Yes, the American flag had been the chosen motif for decoration at Tom’s Diner. Not only did my country’s flag have a dominate presence, but pennants of popular baseball stars, including Seattle’s own Ken Griffey, Jr., hung from the walls. Underlying the glass table tops were postcards from American cities and baseball cards from yesteryear. Signs of home were all around me and yet it all felt so foreign to me. And then a piece of strawberry cheesecake was slid onto the table. It looked like cheesecake. It felt like cheesecake when I cut into it. It tasted like cheesecake. Now I’m not a great cook, but I was always under the impression that cheesecake was called cheesecake because the key ingredient was cream cheese. Puzzled by how much this dessert tasted like cheesecake, I asked The Lone Cowboy if cream cheese was readily available in India (I hadn't ever seen it in the store or in any other dish). He shook his head “no” and took another bite. If that is the case than that cheesecake must have cost a small fortune or Tom’s Diner had succeeded in making a cream cheese-less cheesecake. Does make you wonder, doesn't it?
So there I was, sitting in a little American nook, eating a puzzling dessert with an ambiguous guide in the middle of southern India. Everything felt in a state of strange limbo— nothing was here, nothing was there. Everything was out of place. I was out of place; out of place and yet comfortable. This has become my new normal here; never truly fitting in (I’m white and can’t understand the local language, after all), but very comfortable with being just who I am in the current place and adventure.
“I'm not strange, weird, off, nor crazy; my reality is just different from yours.” – Alice, from Alice in Wonderland.