Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Pardon My French

Pardon my French, but I am a d**khead. Pure and simple. Remember my little post a few days ago ranting about how the French were different and annoying? Well, I just got my prejudices served up to me on a silver platter and jammed down my throat in the worst comeuppance I’ve had in a long time.

I had it coming.

What was my point the other day? That I called the French consulate and got...a French person? A person who may have different cultural norms than me? A person who, let’s face it, works for a government and so may be no more or no less polite than someone who works for ANY government. In fact, if I take my mind back to 1980 at the American Embassy in London, where my family was getting our visas to move to the USA, I remember thinking about the woman behind the plexiglass, “she is being such a cow to us.” So—even American embassy people are rude, if I am honest. What did I expect would be different about a government worker in France?

The reason my slightly tongue-in-cheek but honestly felt rant is now bothering me is because of what I overheard in the office kitchen yesterday. Three women were talking about a recipe. That recipe called for an ingredient you’d find at an Asian market. One of them said, “Oh I’ve been to an Asian market in Arlington. It’s fine once you get past all of the Asian people.” To which the other replied, “I know! Those foreigners travel in packs and they just walk around aimlessly jibber-jabbering.”

As the current (soon to be legal) mother of a Chinese-born child, it was all I could do to not turn around and let ‘er rip on those women. I was standing there wondering what to say. In the end I walked out, certain that what I was feeling had less to do with wanting to educate those women so that my daughter will have an easier life, and more to do with being embarrassed that I myself have done the same thing about other cultures.

If I had wanted to make it a funny chastisement I could have said, “So let me get this straight. You went to an Asian market and found the people there to be Asian. You found their customs to be Asian. You found their cultural norms to be Asian, rather than just like your own, Mrs. White-Waspywoman. How shocking that must have been for you! I don’t blame you for thinking they’re all crazy.” But I skulked off back to my desk because I knew that that is what I had done about the consulate and the visa just days earlier. I had called France and then got offended and irritated that I had to deal with a French person who has a different sense of conversational style and social convention than my own. What was my problem?!

I have seen this happen more times than I can recall, on the Jewish-Gentile side. One woman I dealt with at a client site said, “My donors are all New York Jews, so they are really high maintenance, as you can imagine.” She said it like the three things just naturally and empirically go together: Jews, New York, high-maintenance. She failed to mention that she is from North Carolina, and all of her donors are over the age of 65. Notwithstanding the differing speech patterns and senses of propriety of New Yorkers vs. North Carolina, could it be that the high-maintenance issues were a result of perhaps another factor like age? Or a combination of all of the above? Again, it was a question of, “I know they are from a different culture, but why do they have to be SO different? If they could be just a little more like me, I’d feel much more comfortable.”

Perhaps what concerned me the most about the snap judgments those ladies made in the kitchen was that they definitely focused on the racial/nationality aspect of their experience. That woman had no idea whether all of “the Asians” or "foreigners" in that store had been born in Beijing, Bangkok, Boise or Boston. All she saw were many people with almond eyes--and they all just became “a bunch of Asians.” Not people. Not Americans who don’t happen to look like her. Just “Asians” as if that word even means anything substantive more than “Hispanic.” There are more than 50 distinct ethnicities in China alone; some Jewish, some Muslim, some Buddhist, some Christian, some not associated with any famous world religions at all. Some “Asians” look Russian. Some Russians look “Asian.” Some Chinese kids have curly hair. Some Asians are mistaken for Latinos (just ask my Vietnamese friend who is constantly chatted up by men in Spanish).

What’s my point? My point, I guess, is that people who judge people's ethnicity and/or race based on 1950's-era "appearance" benchmarks are going to be wildly wrong a majority of the time. How many anti-Jewish remarks do you think I've heard simply because I don't "look Jewish"? More than I'd like to remember.

Which means I have a job to do.

My job is to stop falling into the trap of lumping all French people or all Chinese or all Scottish people together, as if they don’t exist as individuals. And I’m going to try to do a better job of having a stock answer for incidents in the office kitchen that gently and humorously point out the essential absurdity of most race- or ethnicity-based stereotypes. Much the same way I have worked hard to get people to stop saying things like “what do the Jews think? What do Jews eat?” by reminding them of the old adage, “Two Jews; three opinions;” I want to work toward an America where someone sees my daughter as a young woman and does NOT ask her if she speaks Chinese (only as a third language behind Spanish, and as a way to get a kickin' job in the new world economy), is a Buddhist (Jewish all the way), or thinks, “Asian women are submissive” (my daughter will kick your ass), “I’ll bet she’s a terrible driver” (she’ll be no worse than her fluorescently white mother), or “I’ll bet she hangs out at Asian markets making my search for a can of lychees a terrible ordeal.”


muhsana said...

Hey! I like your blog. I know what you mean about people grouping everyone together. I never realized how prejudice & racist ,etc some people are until I became Muslim. I wore the headscarf a few times(hopefully soon I'll wear it full-time), one time someone even *tried* to rip it off my head. There are the really hard glares..I mean stares..then there is the people that will ask you where you are from.. & I'm like I'm from here,Mississippi born & raised.. I'm white(Irish-Scottish,German, & Native American) not Turkish, Iranian, or Arab,etc. People are so quick to generalize & so quick to judge. They can't see that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world& *at least* the 2nd largest religion in North America??? Anyways like I said you have a nice blog. :) Peace.

Елизавета said...

I'm glad to see that you're spreading some cultural tolerance!
French people have gotten a really bad reputation for being rude, but I don't think that it is deserved. I've met some very friendly, kind and generous folks from France.

Raine said...

Well, honestly, I think it's a cultural thing. The whole "melting pot" ideal is designed to make the homelanders feel comfortable in their culture by making everyone else conform to it. Naturally, when somebody doesn't conform, "issues" tend to result. This can range from the water-cooler racial bashing we're all aware of, to actual racist developments (like the Heritage Front in Canada) that aren't so front-page.

It's good to see you understanding the fundamental cause of tolerance. Recognizing that we've done something wrong is often the first step to doing something right.

Speaking of the Heritage Front, Canada's cultural mosaic is literally helpless in dealing with white suprmacist / anti-immigrant groups. Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Association have to be two of the worst abused rights in North America.

E said...

Thanks all for the great comments! You are right; it is so easy sometimes to forget that who we are at our core is really nothing more than the sum total of all of our *small* decisions. It's easy to not cheat on your husband or steal money from an old lady. It's harder to not go for a cheap laugh at the expense of someone else's culture when you are feeling socially awkward at a party. It's harder to not just say nothing when someone says something anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish, anti-anything and you are worried about looking like a humorless buzzkiller. It's harder to remember that "throwaway" comments about race and religion and cultures are nothing of the sort.

The society we live in--and that our children live in--is created less by big moral decisions like "will I lie, cheat or steal?" and more by the small decisions we make every day. Decisions about what we will turn a blind eye to, what we will remain silent about, what we will say to be thought funny even if we know our parents raised us better than that. It doesn't make someone any less fun to be with at a party to resolve to be one less person making stupid statements about other races and cultures. In fact, as I decided in college after seeing the WORST "comedy" act in the history of the private liberal arts college, if not the entire free world: Sex, bad language and racism are the lowest common denominators of humor. If you can make people laugh without gratuitously using those three elements, then you are truly funny.