Why Marmite?

Reza Aslan, Iranian-born author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam, was a keynote speaker at the National Association of Independent Schools’  People of Color Conference a couple of years ago. The POCC has begun to include Asian writers, journalists, performers, etc. in the last ten years or so, signaling a shift in the minority population in Independent Schools.  Since there is so much diversity within the Asian population – not just in terms of ethnicity and country of origin, but also in terms of ideology, one never knows what one will hear from these speakers. I’m sure they are pretty well vetted – Jean Batiste is a smart man – but still….

Reza Aslan is also a smart man. Often, smart men (and some smart women), when in a crowd that they need to impress, are quick to sell whoever is convenient at the moment for a laugh from the majority. In this case, he was speaking to a very large group of African-Americans, some White people, and a few scattered Asians. An easy way to get a laugh from African-Americans is to make fun of Asians who are just so helplessly caught up in the effects of their White colonization. The story is: we can’t see it, we have become White, we have taken up the ways of our colonizers and are proud of these ways, even though they are the cause of much ridicule from the rest of the world. Aslan used a funny throw-away line about Asians eating Marmite on their bread – a ridiculous affectation modeled after the more-ridiculous and also more powerful British colonizers of the Middle East.

Yes, yes, yes – I eat Marmite. I love the stuff. It’s true. I got the habit from my mother and her sisters, and they were brought up on British values and British goods. Yes, it’s all true and – I’m sure – funny – even to some Americans who don’t understand a word of all this, having never read an Enid Blyton novel nor spread evil looking, pungent smelling goop on their buttered slices. But, but, but – damn – we’re in the 21st century where everybody, as far as I can tell, eats everybody else’s food, and everybody has been colonized by somebody else, or highly influenced by some other commercial enterprise. And farmers in northern India who know what Kentucky Fried Chicken tastes like are more to be pitied than laughed at, and – in the end – the fact that I eat Marmite might be tragic, or interesting, or a fact of history (and my taste buds – it’s a VERY rarely acquired taste) – but it’s certainly not very funny.

So…Marmite it is. Symbol of all sorts of confusion about where I come from, what I like, why I like it, what I do, how I do it, and what it all says about me and about you and about this intricate dream-catcher – this layered, woven tapestry  – of exciting, complicated, and fascinatingly mundane connections.

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