Daily Prompt: Teaching The Art of Being an Other
On a dark, gray rainy day on a train platform in the small town of Ripoll, Spain I awaited the delayed RENFE (train) that would take me back to Barcelona. I had just had a fabulous time in this small town where I hung out with fellow 17 year olds, when I spent the weekend at a host family’s house. It’s a sleepy town nestled in the mountains, where surprisingly there are several cool nightclubs. It has a famous Benedictine monastery built ages ago in 879. I didn’t really go there to enjoy the history of the town that is shrouded in a bit of mystery. It was a small town and I stood out, a lot! There I was on the platform waiting and waiting when an older couple approached me. They asked me “what I was?” Ever since I had moved to Barcelona for the year, I faced that question repeatedly on a daily basis. I answered the woman by stating that I was American. She looked at me and shook her head. She asked me again. I answered that I was from New York. She shook her head and turned to her husband and noted to him that I claimed to be American but she knew I was from Tunisia. I smiled at her and just walked away to a further away spot on the platform. Days earlier a bakery owner claimed to not be able to tell me apart from two other women who looked completely different from me (and were of differing races) because we were not from Spain. Days and days later a man tapped me on the shoulder speaking a language I didn’t understand expecting me to be from Cape Verde. He was severely disappointed when I said I was from the US at which point he further inquired as to what I was and I noted my family was Puerto Rican. He then exclaimed “wow. Your English is very good.” Then I had the experience of being told, once I provided my background “you are so lucky to be tanned year long. I have to pay so much to go to the tanning salon.”
Through these and other such encounters, I have learned to deal with the question of “what are you?” Herein, I share some of those hard-earned tips.
1. Smile. If you smile, it will keep you from getting irritated at the 100th time being asked that question. Biofeedback works wonders.
2. Be obtuse. Although, I understand the “what are you” question, I sometimes play dumb just to have fun with the interaction. You can ask them in turn “what do you mean?” I only do this though if the individual asking is doing so in an ignorant, offensive way. Not everyone who asks this question is trying to be offensive. Many are just curious and really mean no harm by their question.
3. Acknowledge their confusion and note the rising stats of ambiguous looking people. Take the interaction to be a teachable moment. Take great pride in who you are and share and infect others with that pride.
4. Explain loudly for all to hear that you are the mommy and not the nanny –even though your son is white and you are brown. Other parents in the playground or other teachers at the school will hear the explanation and never ask you that question thereafter. While at it, take every opportunity to reinforce the mommy role. I do this by repeatedly hugging, kissing and calling my son “baby.” Such a move serves two purposes gets people to stop asking the question and just gives you a hundred more chances to just totally love your child
5. Lie or obfuscate. Ok. This won’t be popular to state. However, when I lived out in Berkeley, there was a housing shortage. The only apartment available when I was looking was a 250 square foot place that had a long line of people waiting to see it that somehow how 10,000 checks to cover the rent for a whole year’s worth. The realtor was Indian. I mentioned how much I loved korma and such and how I cook tikka masala once a week. He thought I was Indian. I did not dissuade him from that thought and I got the apartment. It may seem like I was taking advantage of the situation but considering that laughingly people were required to write essays to get some apartments in Berkeley I went along with his presumptions. I never said I was Indian, I just said I cooked Indian food.
6. Answer politely, move on and get a cocktail. Don’t dwell on the question. As I mentioned earlier many people do not mean anything bad by this question. Answer quickly and move on. I recommend an apple martini. It’s a brightly colored drink that will bring out the sparkle in your eyes.
7. Walk away and leave them hanging. Back in Spain, I often just walked away. Looking back I don’t think that was the wisest choice as I could have taken the opportunity to teach them about my heritage and how the world outside their bubble looked like. However, I was there to learn and I was so young that I didn’t want to have to be a teacher. More often than not, these days I do NOT do this option. However, there are times when obnoxiousness just deserves to be ignored.
Eventually I will share these ideas with my son. At the moment though I will let him relish in “ignorance” At five years old, he still doesn’t understand what is different between us. He just thinks that I have curly hair and am a girl; while he has straight hair and is a boy. You have got to love the simplicity of that world view.
Other thoughts on teaching