In March 2007, I went to the pinnacle of all college basketball competitions, the NCAA Final Four in Atlanta to watch my alma mater, Georgetown, play. This was a big deal for Georgetown students and alumni, as the school had not gone to the Final Four for over 20 years, not since Patrick Ewing bumped his head on the doorways of campus. For me, the plans came together very last minute when Georgetown managed to squeeze past the quarterfinal round. To avoid the expensive New York City to Atlanta airplane tickets, I flew down to Raleigh-Durham airport where my Chinese-American freshman year roommate, Jason, was living, and we road-tripped the six hours down to Atlanta from North Carolina. Besides saving on airfare, I like road-tripping, and it was a good time for us to catch up on each others’ lives.
The Hoyas lost, and we started on the long return trip to Durham. However, we were entertained by an episode that occurred along the way. We stopped for dinner at a Waffle House restaurant in a little hick town in South Carolina. Full disclosure: I honestly have nothing against hicks, or for that matter South Carolina, having spent many formative years in culturally similar Indiana, Missouri, and Ohio. In fact, I feel right at home amongst rural people, even though I’ve lived in New York City for the last six years.
This particular Waffle House was a capsule of much of Southern America today: blacks and whites self-segregated, not because a sign told them to sit separately, but because they wanted to. Several black tables on the left, and several white tables on the right, and a group of pimply white staff horsing around at the front counter because it wasn’t too busy. Viewing a “China-man” and an “Injun” roll into the place was easily an event for them all. Everyone eyed us, not a single one of them looked to me a lick above dirt-poor, sitting down to massive, greasy meals of waffles, eggs, bacon, sausage, and grits for somewhere between $3 and $5. Of course, we had to stop by to be a part of this wonderful southern experience.
The food was cheap, satisfyingly greasy and tasty. At the end of the meal, our middle-aged waitress came to the table to give us our check. And then it happened.
She said, “Um, there’s something I want to say to you, but I probably shouldn’t.”
Of course, at that point we wanted to hear it because the suspense was irresistible, even if she was about to say something tragic in a horror flick kind of way: “Come with me to the back, sir, I’ll show you where we make our sausages, and the walk-in freezer where we store them.”
We nodded, and she said, “You know we gave you names when you walked in.”
“What?” we asked, looking at each other nervously, hoping she wouldn’t say Dead and Deader.
“Harold and Kumar.” She started giggling.
I breathed a sigh of relief, at least on the inside while keeping up my brave facade on the outside. We ignored the racial stereotype in calling a random Indian guy and a random Chinese guy in their 20s the names of famous movie characters; there wasn’t even a thought of racism in her head—she was genuinely psyched. This wasn’t New York or San Francisco, where it would be common to see an Indian and an Asian chilling at a diner.
“So you’ve seen it?” I asked, glad to make conversation about a highly entertaining movie with an Indian lead, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, instead of inspecting the inside of a blood-covered walk-in freezer. Having brushed against both the real-life Harold and Kumar in New York, actors Kal Penn at a hookah bar (the night after I saw the movie in 2004) and John Cho (another night at a Korean film party), and having fancied ourselves as H & K during several adventures over a ten-year span, Jason and I connected to the film on several levels.
“Of course,” she smiled. “Many times.”
On the way out we passed by the cook, who himself seemed to be straight out of a movie: intense Southern accent, nasty apron, barrel chest, large hairy arms, wrinkled weather-beaten face. A real life version of the military cook from the comic strip Beetle Bailey. “It’s Harold and Kumar!” said the waitress when we passed by, to repeat the theme of the evening. “He and I were talking about you!”
The cook boomed a sincere and happy laugh: “Thayt’s rayt, Hayrold en Kyooomar!” It was all in good fun, all in good nature, and in a strange way Jason and I were connected to these two as fans of a film, even if we were worlds apart. I knew that they would be memorable to us for a lifetime, as we would be to them, if only because Jason was one of the 1.5 billion Chinese people out there, and I was one of the 1.5 billion Indians in the world, and they were two unremarkable Americans you would find a dime a dozen in Anytown, USA who just weren’t exposed to Asian people very often. That night we were special, dammit!
In a rare moment of near-inspiration, I said, “Harold and Kumar go to Waffle House.” Everyone laughed.
Mahanth Joishy is an official of the New York City Parks Department. Jason works in brand management in Pittsburg and is engaged to—you guessed it—a Bengali girl.