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Freshly Baked: Ni Hao From Athens

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Like many other students, I spent this past week travelling with friends. But instead of going on a cruise or relaxing in some other warm, sunny region of the world, we ended up in Greece. A cold, windy, closed-for-off-season Greece. Not quite what we had envisioned when we made the impulse decision to buy tickets after watching a certain movie with Meryl Streep singing and dancing on Greek islands.

Despite the slightly uncooperative weather, it was a good trip. We rented cars and puttered around Santorini for a day, lazily exploring what was one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in my life. We sampled the Athens nightlife, where Sunday nights are apparently more hoppin’ than Friday nights. We rode donkeys, OD’ed on puff pastries, saw some pretty sweet ruins and I bought three big bags of Crispy M&Ms.

Oh, and we also heard lots of Chinese. Six out of the eight of us were Asian, so given that the Greece that we saw was about as white as the tasty, tasty tzatziki I kept having on my gyros, you might say we stood out a little. When we would pass by souvenir shops or tourist-trap restaurants, storeowners would yell “ni hao!” in their attempts to get us to enter. Some went above and beyond, knowing they had to differentiate themselves from everyone else yelling “ni hao” to get our business. “Kung fu!” earned one shop an extra second of consideration, another got points for showing off knowledge of other languages with a “konichiwa, sushi!” and one even broke out a classic “ching-chong.”

Now, many of the people walking around either just ignored us or gave us just one or two extra glances, and almost all of the shopkeepers and waiters we interacted with were friendly and helpful, so I don’t want to give the impression that Greece is overflowing with xenophobes or anything like that. Nor do I want to blow this out of proportion — if the worst experience I ever have with racism is a couple of errant “ni hao”s and “ching-chong”s, I’ll take it.

That said, it did start wearing on me by the end of the week. Although the lack of real malice behind the comments meant we just laughed at them instead of throwing down in fisticuffs, toward the end of the week, I was just about up to here with the whole thing and was comparing it unfavorably to the diversity of home.

If America’s multiculturalism is a soup (a much better metaphor than melting pot or salad bowl, I think), it’s not so much a smooth butternut squash soup as it is the depressing bowl of fish soup we had our first night in Santorini — just like how the fish soup looked good but tasted like chicken soup with random vegetables and fish chunks thrown in haphazardly, America’s multicultural soup might look good, but the components sometimes don’t come together like they should. Heck, just look at the ugliness on both sides of the recent “Asians in the library” controversy, which a) shouldn’t have happened and b) needn’t have become so overblown.

But even though our soup might not be perfect, it’s still pretty darn awesome. It’s always easy to look to other countries and imagine everything there to be better than here, and in all my travels and stays abroad, I’ve always been tempted to think that I would prefer to stay there rather than return home, but as soon as I get hungry again, I remember why America’s soup is pretty darn awesome.

Think about where we are. We’ve got pretty tasty Mexican food and legit Korean in Santa Clara. We’ve got Chinese in Cupertino and Ethiopian and Vietnamese in San Jose. There’s a bangin’ Caribbean place in Menlo Park and some great Indian restaurants in Sunnyvale. And we haven’t even mentioned SF yet. We’ve got all these different places nearby making authentic, delicious food because they’re catering to people wanting a reminder of home. And, obviously, the benefits of our multiculturalism extend far beyond having more awesome restaurants to eat at — I think it’ll be a while before I hear another “ni hao.”

Walking towards baggage claim at the end of an 18-hour day of travel, I was pretty happy to be back home and dreaming about my bed when an airport employee intercepted us on our way to our carousel and helpfully explained that the carousel for the flight from Tokyo was a different one.

…sigh.

Well, on the bright side, at least she didn’t say “ni hao”.

 

Tim is fighting a terrible case of jet lag. Send him tips to get over it at timmoon@stanford.edu.