Day: November 24, 2014

A Regularly Scheduled Rant on Being Bugged about Foreignness

Long-time readers know that I passionately hate it when people with whom I share a fleeting interaction cannot curb their rudeness and curiosity enough to stop themselves from either inquiring about or making stupid assumptions about my origins. This post has been brought to you by the three separate incidents  that happened between Thursday and today. This is a high frequency even for me; something must be in the water.

1) Today, I was leaving daycare with Smurf. One of the office staff came to us and asked about Smurf “Does he speak Vulcan?” (I wish she had asked that. No, it was a certain Earth language). I said “No, and neither do we.” She laughed like what I had said was the funniest thing ever. This led me to suspect that she didn’t get my point, so I explicitly said “We are not Vulcan.”

WTF? This is not the first time people assume we are from Vulcan. In fact, my planet is not even a neighbor of Vulcan. We are from Romulus and share perhaps only the most distant past with the Vulcans. We live on Earth and my kids speak only the Earth language known as English.

The woman who asked, by the way, is an Earthling from Thailand (I only know that because some info on her was in the newsletter some months ago, where she was introduced as a staff member). I would have never asked her where she was from. Never.

2) Last Thursday: My husband usually picks up Smurf from daycare in the afternoons. Near as I can tell, nobody asks my husband anything ever, perhaps because he looks like someone who doesn’t want to talk. (No unnecessary eye contact. Smart man. I should learn from him.) When I picked up Smurf last week, the afternoon teacher, with whom I had interacted 3 times in my life for 5 seconds each time, absolutely had to use the 5 seconds to ask me where I was from. I took a deep breath and gave her my canned response in a robotic voice. That’s the best I can do not to pop a vein and to try not to embarrass the person who was asking. Then she asked about where my husband was from, and then she proceeded to tell me about the erroneous assumptions of  where she thought I was from; I am not sure why sharing her thought process about my origins was supposed to be interesting, informative, impressive or anything to me.

Why? Why does she have to know? That has nothing at all to do with any of our interactions. Tell me about what my kid did, or what other kids did. I will tell you that the roads are bad because it is snowing or whatever. I promise I will not ask what godforsaken village in this fair state you are from.

3) I saved the best for last; this one happened on Saturday. Eldest has been swimming non-stop, and the winter boys’ swimming season was  kicked off by a 2-hour breakfast for parents as well as swimmers. There was information, but mostly food and mingling (parents and swimmers separately); I was nursing my coffee in the corner, only surfacing to top the cup off or checking out team apparel. Of course, I was asked where I was from a few times, after I shared my name; I didn’t mind it too much as I was expecting it and was psychologically prepared with my trusty canned response. But one dad made my day (not). First, he interrupted the conversation as I was saying my name to someone else, then proceeded to tell me that when he usually hears my name it is pronounced differently (because I do not know how to pronounce my name and I need to be set straight by a random dude; what you are familiar with is a different name with a different spelling, a$$hole, which explains the difference in pronunciation). Then he asked where I was from, told me all about his trip to a country in the neighborhood when he was 13. The discussion was mercifully cut short by the coach who started with the announcements. Unfortunately, the dad managed to corner me twice more with questions thereafter, such as which town I was from, surprised that I was from a big city (I was close to telling him that we shockingly had indoor plumbing and electricity, too). Then he asked me what the main industry in my country was. Then he asked me what my parents did — are you fuckin’ kidding me? How is that an appropriate question for someone you just met? (I said they were middle class.)

Why can’t we talk about our kids swimming? My kid is a freshman, his is older, how about tell me about your experiences on the team. That’s why we are both here, right? If you are making small talk, have mercy and stick to the subjects that you know are of interest to the other person (such as school and boys’ swimming for a meeting of parents of the boys’ swim team).

As I wrote before, having a hard-to-place accent is like being perpetually pregnant. People badger pregnant women with all sorts of intrusive questions all the time, some even touch the belly. Random strangers think it’s fine to ask you when you are due, if it’s your first, if you are having a boy or a girl, and then proceed to give unsolicited advice. If you were pregnant once, maybe you found it endearing. With multiple pregnancies, it gets old. Now imagine being perpetually pregnant and FOREVER having to endure the inquisitiveness of strangers, whenever, wherever, without regard for what you may care to talk about instead. FOREVAAAAAAH…

Usually when I complain about this, I am told to lighten up because people are just making conversation. Why is it my job to satisfy everyone’s curiosity? Why can’t people stop to think that, while the fact that they noticed the accent and don’t know what to do with it may be riveting to them, it is likely completely unimpressive to me?

Lastly, I may be cynical, but I am not sure that people are so well meaning. There are a great many people who really just want to emphasize that they have noticed I have no business being where I am. I wonder when one of them is going to ask me to show them a valid visa. They ask because they want to remind me that I am Other and to let me know that I have been spotted.

I have taught veritable hordes of undergrads over the past decade. Only very, very infrequently does it happen that a student asks where I am from, and only after they have been coming to office hours for months. Most never ask, even if we have spent a lot of time chatting, even if they have had multiple courses with me. How is it that the students don’t care, or care but don’t want to bother me with their curiosity, while the grownups, who should know better and presumably have more experience, cannot bear not knowing exactly which stupid compartment to put me in?


UPDATE 11/26/2014:

Here are some old posts from Academic Jungle on the same topic.
Accentuating Deflection
The Return of Where are You from
So Where Are You Really From?