Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Ethnicity

I just finished reading my friend Kim's blog about people asking -her husband- where she's from.

I don't talk about Ethnicity very often (though I do speak of it occasionally).  But her question, "How would you have reacted?" got me thinking.

I realized that typically, my response is to laugh with what my husband calls my, "Oh, really?" face.  I'm going to blame it on shock and 'the laugh or cry' response. (Obviously, I'm a laugher.)

But unlike my friend, I'm not so 'obviously' any particular ethnicity.  Generally speaking, the speaker assumes I'm whatever 'tan' ethnicity they want to.

I remember the first time I was made aware of being 'different'.  I was 8 and had spent the summer getting as dark as I could just because I wasn't sure just how dark I might go. Turns out, I was almost as dark as my current chocolate colored couches, and my hair went flaming red.  And kids at school teased me about being half black (which was not well regarded at the time (remember:  Early 80s?), especially since my mother is white).

When I was 13, we were walking through a mall and when I stopped to admire the beautiful turquoise jewelry being sold by one of the vendors-- when I looked up at her to ask the price, she looked away like she was doing something wrong, blushed crimson and refused to make eye contact.  She was blonde with blue eyes with her hair in pigtail braids held in place with leather thongs-- and I recognized in that instant that with my naturally long black hair, she thought I was a Native American.

When I was 15 and my parents adopted my fair skinned youngest sister, we went to a company party-- and one of the wives of my father's co-workers, making small talk, said to me, "Your parents have so much love to give" (as she looked over at them cooing over my new little sister), "having adopted your sister (indicating my full birth sister) and you when they can actually have children of their own."  I know I must have had my Oh, really? face on when I responded, "THAT is -our- birth mother and -she- (indicating the baby) is the one that is adopted." as I walked away.  I still remember her face as she stared after me gape mouthed like a cod.  It's funny now, but I was fuming then.

It's not all bad stories though-- I actually considered it a boon when I grew up and got a job selling appliances at Sears.

Because it wasn't a case of being labeled as different--but from people going, "She's one of US!"  If they were ethnically tan-- they would make a b-line directly for me.  I was greeted excitedly in so many languages!  And although they were disappointed when I would tell them I didn't speak it, they were intrigued and excited when I would say 'one moment' and grab the phone.

See, Sears, like practically any company now a days, has customer service lines for people who do not speak English.  So I would dial up the 1-800 number, press the button for the proper language, and as soon as I got a live person who rattled their greeting in the proper language, I would say, "I have two questions: 1. Do you speak English? and 2. Do you have time to play translator?"  It turned out that invariably (and I mean -every- time!) the answer to both was an amused Yes.  Then I would explain that I had customers who didn't speak English wishing to buy an appliance--and we would use the customer service representative as our translator.  Being willing to take the initiative to figure that phone trick out, as opposed to just stopping with, "Sorry, but I don't understand you." got me a -lot- of repeat and word of mouth customers.

Now that I'm older, I tend to take it in stride.

But every now and then... I still find myself 'Oh, Really?' laughing.

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