Monday, February 13, 2006

Diary of Not a Rice Person

After living with George for seven years, I decided it was an abomination that I haven't officially started studying Cantonese, since a) I'm a language junkie and b) George speaks it fluently, providing me the possibility of a 24-hour a day tutor and vocabulary sparring partner. So for the new year I decided I would look for an evening class in Cantonese & get busy with a new project.

Last weekend I spent several hours on the Internet looking for classes in New York, both for myself and for George, who wants to study Mandarin.

It's insane what they charge at universities like the New School, NYU and Columbia. I'm talking over $500 for 12 classes. Although at $40 a class it doesn't sound like much, and I wouldn't want to begrudge a struggling professor the money. Nonetheless, Barkis is just not willin' to shell out $500 for a general interest class. Not now, anyway.

After surfing for a while, I found this school which looked pretty cool, and the website invites you to sign up for classes online via PayPal at $288 a pop. Before deciding whether to shell out the money, however, I had a number of questions I wanted answered. So I decided to email them.

I sent an approximation of the following questions, clearly numbered so that it would be apparent what I was asking.

1. Are your classes live or online?

2. Does the class start Tuesday 2/21 or Thursday 2/23? (since the website says "Thursday 2/21" which is obviously incorrect.)

3. Where do I buy the required book?

4. Does the class include writing or is it just speaking?

I recevied the following reply from the school's director:

"The class starts Thursday 2/23, pending a minimum of 2-3 enrollment. There are textbooks assigned to the group classes. We do not offer online classes."

Ok, pet peeve #1: I asked four distinct questions. I even numbered them to be clear that there were four distinct questions. I do this all the time in business emails, and generally find it an effective way to get all my questions answered.

She answered questions 1 and 2.

She vaguely acknowledged question 3, although "there are textbooks assigned to the group classes" does not really answer the question "where do I buy the book?"

Question 4 she simply ignored.

Annoying. But anyway.

I didn't want to go paying them $288 on PayPal when I wasn't sure if the class was going to happen, since there was apparently a requirement that 2-3 people be enrolled. The director's inability to answer my questions did not inspire any confidence that I would receive a refund in case of a cancellation. And I certainly didn't have the impression that she'd be able to handle an additional question along the lines of "how many people are currently signed up?"

So I decided to call them.

"Hello, I'm interested in enrolling in Cantonese 1 which is supposed to start Thursday, February 23. I wanted to know if the class is going to take place because I understand you need at least two or three students."

A youngish sounding male voice with only a hint of an Asian accent answered, "Yes, the class will be taking place."

"The class that starts next Thursday?"

"Excuse me?"

"I understand the class starts next Thursday. Apparently there was a typo on the website, but the class is supposed to be for Thursday, February 23."

"Oh, right, the website says 'Monday.'"


"No, the website says there are two classes. One already started. The website also says there is a class that is supposed to start 'Thursday February 21' which is obviously incorrect because there is no 'Thursday February 21.' There is no mention of a Monday. I emailed your director, Julie, and she said the class is for Thursday, February 23. Is that what your records show?"

"I guess."

I guess? It was a yes or no question.

"Ok, well I do want to enroll in the class but I understand that you need at least two or three students before you decide if the class will take place."

"Yes, that is correct."

"So, I'm calling to find out if you have any other students signed up yet."

"Ok, can you please hold?"


I wait for about two minutes.

"Sir? Yes, we will have the class starting on Thursday, February 21."

Ok, this is not going well.

"Do you mean February 23?"

"Excuse me?"

"Well, as we reviewed a few minutes ago, there is no Thursday, February 21. So it's either Tuesday, February 21 or Thursday, February 23. Which is it?"


"February 23?"

"Excuse me?"

Get me a gun. I'd almost rather commit suicide than continue this conversation.

"The class starts Thursday, February 23?"


"And you have other students enrolled?"


Great. Now we're getting somewhere.

"Ok. I would like to register for the course."

"Ok. Would you have time sometime before the start of the class to come to the office and enroll for the class?"

Well, since email didn't work out so well and we were having telephone communication problems as well, I was not adverse to the idea.

"Certainly. When would you like me to come in?"

"What time is good for you?"

"Well, what time do you close?"


"Yes, how late would someone be there for me to drop by?"

"Can you hold again?"


I wait another two minutes.

"Sir, can you come down tonight?"

"Yes. How about 6:00?"

"Would 6:15 be ok?"


"Great, just ask for me, my name is Jimmy."

6:15? I'm wondering why Jimmy needs such an exact time for me to come sign up for a class and write a check. I'm starting to think that NYU would have been worth it even if I'd had to take out a student loan to pay for it.

I had a short conversation with my boss on my way out the door, and then jumped on the subway to Grand street. I made it to the school at 6:15 on the nose for which I was glad since showing up at any other time would have surely confused Jimmy.

Jimmy buzzed me in.

"Hi, I'm here to sign up for the class."

"Oh, yes, hi."

"Are you Jimmy?"

"Johnny." Ok, so I'm a little hard of hearing. But I'm reasonably certain this is the person I had the phone conversation with. He seems nice enough, although he looks like he's about 12.

He invited me to come sit at his desk.

"Ok, so you were interested in Cantonese 1?" Oh no, I'm thinking, do we have to go through this whole discussion again? He knows exactly why I'm there. Cantonese I. Starts Thursday. February 23. There are at least 2 people signed up. Which means the class will take place. $288.


"Great. So, why do you want to study Cantonese?"

Ok, now I'm getting annoyed again. Is my money not green enough for these people? Do I owe them an explanation on why I want to take the class?

"Because I know a lot of people who speak Cantonese and I would like to learn it."

"People? Like friends?"

"Yes, friends. This is just so I can learn social conversation. Nothing business related."

"So where do you live?"



"Oh really? Any chance you're anywhere near 18th Avenue?"

"No, Bay Ridge."

"Really, Bay Ridge?"


I'm starting to feel like he's stalling. It reminded me of how my friend Michael went to get his car from a garage and the guy in charge of the keys just kept chatting, chatting, chatting until Michael realized it was because they had lost his car and the guy was trying to buy some time before the cops were called.

"So do you know of a restaurant called 'Banana Leaf?'"

"Yes, it's Malaysian and it's really good. I've been there many times."

"So where is it exactly?"

"Right at the subway stop at Bay Ridge Avenue. You should go."

"I'll be sure to try it."

"Great. So what do you need to sign me up for this class?"

"Wow, so you want to study Cantonese?"

No, you *sshole, I want to study Irish Gaelic. That's why I came down to Chinatown to your office after spending thirty minutes having a maddening 'Who's on First' telephone discussion with you about class dates.

"Yes I do."

"So who will you be speaking Cantonese with?"

I could just tell him "my partner speaks fluent Cantonese along with the rest of his family, and I really feel it's a language I should know more about." But I'm starting to get pissed. It's really none of his God damned business who I want to speak Cantonese with. They offer language classes for a fee, I'm ready and able to pay. That should be the end of the story as far as I'm concerned. It's not like I'm going to take my new-found knowledge of the seven tones or whatever you call it and use it to fly planes into buildings. I'd like to get better at ordering Dim Sum and maybe learn to discuss the weather. Jesus Mary & Joseph already. I decide this kid has no need to be in my business.

"I live with several people who speak Cantonese, so I'd have people to practice with."



"So, do you like share a house or something?"


"Wow, that's great. That's something I should do."

Yes, and you should also just sign me up for this f*cking class. What is your problem?

It felt like he was interviewing me, trying to make sure I was going to be right for the school. I find this offensive. Geez Louise, I'm thinking that if I owned this school I'd be signing up anybody with a pulse and a checkbook. This is not a multimillion dollar enterprise here. An extra $288 could only help this organization.

Unless they're trying to keep out the riff-raff. Or government inspectors. Or something worse.

The rice queens.

It finally dawned on me. This kid is interviewing me to see if I'm a rice queen.

For those of you not up on your contemporary racist terminology, a "rice queen" is a Caucasian person who harbors a certain fondness for Asians. I didn't know much about this population until I met George, but apparently there is an abundance of gay rice queens, usually older men who hang out in bars frequented by younger Asian guys.

It's probably not unheard of for rice queens to sign up for Asian language courses to enhance their stalking skills, or perhaps to prepare themselves for lucrative careers in human trafficking. So I guess the schools maybe would like to know exactly who they're dealing with when random men with no apparent Asian ties (like a wife) come in off the street to sign up for classes.

The phenomenon of rice queens is a complicated one. There are certain people who are attracted to certain races, just like someone who would prefer blonds over brunettes, etc. Although that is not how I ever looked at my pool of potential dating partners, I suppose it's just a personal preference that each person is entitled to.

But then there is a kind of rice queen who sees a white-on-Asian relationship to be about power & control. These men view Asians as meek, submissive, a bit exotic, and they tend to go for recent immigrants who don't speak very good English and who don't currently enjoy positions of power and prestige in our society. This is where the rice queen thing gets a little creepy.

Needless to say, many Asians have a negative view of rice queens. Especially the latter kind, but sadly even a little bit of the more innocuous kind. There's a sense of inner conflict, from what I gather. On the one hand, who doesn't like to be admired? If someone likes me because of my race, well then at least they like me. On the other hand, and especially depending on the flavor of rice queen you're dealing with, it's not necessarily a great feeling to think that you're being fetishized like a pair of shoes. Or that someone likes you because they think you'll submit. Or because they want to take advantage of your lesser station of power in society.

And then it turns into a self-esteem issue. I've met my fair share of gay Asian men who on the one hand date rice queens because they like the admiration, but on the other hand feel scorn for the rice queen, as if to say "God, he's so pathetic that he preys on Asians - no one else will date him."

George is the first (and only) Asian-American I've ever dated. I don't particularly like or dislike Asians or any other race, thankfully. I just happened to like George. I didn't even know the term "rice queen" when I met George in 1997.

Sadly, during our first year together when I was getting to know his friends, I became more familiar with this whole rice queen issue because many of George's friends assumed I was one. At first I found it puzzling. Then it was amusing. But when I discovered how much contempt they hold for rice queens, I found it offensive.

Whenever someone makes a comment about my supposed preference for Asians, I usually try to correct them, gently, by explaining that George is the first Asian I've ever dated and that I was not targeting any particular race of men when I was still single. That usually clears up the confusion.

Occasionally, I have to use stronger language to make myself understood.

This all came to a head with a large group of George's friends at Gay Pride in NYC about five years ago. We were gathered on the lawn of a park in the Village waiting to see the fireworks, when someone brought up the subject of "the Web."

"What's the Web?" I asked. From the context I could tell they weren't discussing the Internet.

Brandon replied "you've never been to the Web?"

"No. What is it?"

"Hey guys, did you hear this? How could a rice queen like Tom not know what the Web is?"

Apparently, the Web is a bar favored by rice queens and their admirees. Needless to say, I was not happy with Brandon's rejoinder. I felt my face start to flush. I didn't know what to say.

In fact, I was starting to get mad.

Damn mad.

I'm talking Mommie Dearest mad.

I was so mad that I practically started spitting. I stuttered and stammered until I was finally able to blurt out the following sentence:

"I .... AM .... NOT ........... A RICE PERSON!"


Then laughter. A lot of it. Loud, hearty, belly laughing.

"Rice person? Did you hear that? Tom's not a rice person!"

"Rice person? Where'd he come up with that? Is he trying to be politically correct?"

"Tom, I believe the correct term is "rice queen."

Ok, ok, I told them and tried to explain that it makes me mad to be called a rice queen, that I hate the idea of it, and I even hate the terminology so much that I try not to use it. Which launched us into quite a discussion, one I'm glad we got to have.

Brandon, a self-avowed rice queen, was utterly confused. "But Tom, I thought you liked Asians! I don't understand! What is this thing with you and George for five years?"

"Well, I love George. But not because of his race. I just like him for who he is."

"So you're not a rice person? You're a George person?"

"Yeah, I guess so."

Brandon was just floored by this concept. Don't get me wrong - we adore Brandon. He's one of the nicest guys you'd ever meet. And, as far as I can tell, even his Asian friends don't begrudge him his fondness of their race. He's definitely a rice queen of the former variety.

Which brings us back to my "interview" at the Chinese school. I've decided I was being interviewed to ensure that I was not a creepy trollish rice queen signing up to learn Cantonese so that I can travel to Hong Kong and lure young girls back to the States with me. Their extensive questioning has put me on the defensive, and so I've decided they have no need to know anything about my personal life, my relationship with George or my living arrangements. The last thing I need is these people accusing me of being a rice queen.

Just the same, I might ask George how I would say "rice person" in Cantonese should the need ever arise. Or maybe I should phrase it as a question?


Tenacious S said...

I was rolling on the floor by the time I was done reading this. Parts of it are kind of sad, but the exchange with the school is priceless!

Anonymous said...

Sher Fan!

Dino aka Katy said...

wow I never heard of the term - I can imagine that you'd be pissed if people call you that. Why does everything have to be labeled?

Dale said...

I know! First people and now even blog posts. Will the labeling ever stop?! Hi Katy.

Hi not a Rice Queen!