AN INVIGORATING CHAOS : Seeking Out L.A.'s Ethnic Riches and Reaping the Rewards of the Unexpected

There scarcely seems to be a day that goes by that I don't hear somebody comparing some facet of the Bosnian conflict to Los Angeles, imagining the same sort of "ancient ethnic conflicts" stirred up by the increasingly cloistered press, fearing some well-armed, pan-ethnic assault on the comfortable Westside communities that have condescendingly become known as the Three Bs.

What hits home about Bosnia is that people can turn against one another anywhere, anytime, and we have learned here in Los Angeles just how quickly order can disintegrate into anarchy.

Chaos is what people fear most.

But maybe we're drawing the wrong conclusions. I like the chaos of Los Angeles, the infinite number of unfamiliar situations, the feeling of never knowing just what is going to happen next. Listen for a while to the banda radio station that you discover on your way to KROQ. Play along with the psychodrama that unfolds as you wait in line at the AM/PM Mini Mart.

Things might be better if certain people got out of the house more often, if they were confident in the fact no one is planning to declare ethnic war on the Simi Valley Elks Lodge.

I like cruising the vast expanses of L.A.'s African-American neighborhoods, getting lost in Little Saigon, shopping at the tiny East Hollywood strip malls where Thai restaurants crowd against Colombian travel agencies, Filipino snack shops and Salvadoran-owned video stores. Call me a tourist in my own hometown if you like, but I am rarely bored.

The first time you walk into, say, an Indian sweet shop in Artesia, the woman behind the counter may not know what to make of you, not know if you'll be put off by the milky tang of the burfi or the sulfury pungency of the spiced cashews; the third or fourth time, she smiles and reaches automatically for your favorite carrot fudge. The Korean CD-store owner who snickers when you walk into his shop asking for something by Mr. Lee--"There are a hundred singers named Lee," he says with a snort, indicating an entire aisle of his store--ends up a month later saving tapes for you. One time, a scowling guy, the kind a thousand movies have taught us to fear, strode purposefully toward me on Vernon near Vermont and handed me a flyer advertising a local barber shop before I could remember that I was supposed to be afraid.

Of course, there are knotty problems of etiquette: When I'm in line at my favorite taco truck in Pico-Union, I sometimes wonder if it's polite to place an order in my broken caveman Spanish, knowing full well that the man behind the counter will probably speak better English than I do Spanish. Will he infer that I assume he doesn't speak English and become insulted? Will he snicker when he calls out " diecisiete " when my tacos al pastor are ready, knowing that it will take me a few seconds to realize that it corresponds to the "17" on my ticket? If I use English, will he assume that I don't know what's in the tacos de sesos ? Will he pay any attention at all?

Do you kiss the Armenian flag when it comes up the aisle at a soccer game? Is it culturally patronizing to buy a handsome brass implement at a Pakistani market because it looks cool, even if you have no idea whether it is a coconut scraper or a coatrack? How about an amusing bottle of gripewater or a $2 tape called "Hilarious Jokes of Omar Sharif"?

If you're a white woman at a rap show and the guy on stage says to wave your hands in the air if you're proud to be black, do you wave your hands anyway, because you know you'd be proud if you were black?

I don't know; every situation is different, and you'll probably end up all right whether you do the correct thing or not. (I once heard a very '90s multicultural radio host ask his guest why all Indian records seemed to smell of curry . . . that's carrying stuff too far.) But eventually, confusion leads to knowledge, and knowledge leads to understanding, and chaos can be useful after all.

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