I was taking BART into San Francisco one Sunday a few weeks ago when a young man got on the train at the MacArthur station and glanced curiously at me for much longer than I was comfortable with as he made his way down the aisle.
A few minutes later, I heard someone call out, “Excuse me!” I looked over my shoulder, as did several people in my vicinity. It was the aforementioned young man. The train was packed, so he was forced to stand in the aisle, a few rows behind me, from where he delivered his bombshell question to me: “Excuse me, what language do you speak?” Everyone’s head expectantly swiveled my way, waiting for an answer.
Being asked, “Where are you from?” generally annoys me. But I hadn’t known until that morning that being asked, “What language do you speak?” could make me so furious. Was he serious? I wanted to ask, “What the f*ck do you think I speak?”
Thrown off guard, I stared over my shoulder at the guy, mentally calculating my possible responses – my totally b.s. Pukhtu, my fluent Hindku, my ever-dwindling repertoire of German, my passably conversant Urdu. But then, still angry, I responded as coldly as I could: “English.”
“Yeah? Well, I just wanted to say that…” – here, he paused to swing his arm around his head and torso – “your style is really beautiful.”
“Thank you,” I said shortly.
“Where is that kind of style from?”
“Guess,” I snapped, and turned around to face the front, eyes forward, jaw tight. Apparently, a red&white wrap-around spring dress from Forever21, and flared jeans, and dangly earrings and flip-flops, and, oh yes, the headwrap, are all exotic items that have no space or sense of belonging in American fashion.
I understand that I look different, and that this will raise curiosity wherever I go. I understand, too, that some people are genuinely interested in learning about others. But I have a right to be angry about how such interest is sometimes articulated, and the manner in which such questions are sometimes posed. Really, I was fuming over being asked – point-blank and in a completely rude manner (how is it okay to make that the very first question you ask anyone?) – about what language I spoke.
Goddammit, I’m surrounded by effin’ MORONS.
I comforted myself with the thought that at least he didn’t tell me how great my English was.
Several people got off the train at the next stop, and, next thing I knew, Mr. Smooth & Charming had found a seat in the row diagonally across from mine. “Hey,” he whispered loudly.
I ignored a couple of the Heys, but I didn’t have a book with which to pretend to distract myself, and, up and down the train, people’s heads started swinging back and forth from me to the guy, so finally I turned my head, eyebrow raised challengingly.
“So, you’re not going to tell me where you’re from?” he asked in a wheedling tone, sounding a bit hurt, as if I were doing him a great disservice.
“No,” I said, spitefully spitting out clipped responses. “You just keep guessing over there.”
I turned around again. A minute later, he ventured, “Are you Gypsy?”
“No.” I didn’t even bother turning around, but could still feel him staring.
“They’re the oldest race, you know.”
I sighed, raised my eyebrow again, tried to give every indication of being uninterested, but couldn’t help asking, “Who? The Gypsies?”
“No. The Egyptians.”
“I’m not Egyptian, either,” I said.
I felt like I was actively participating in a guessing game, in Twenty Questions or something, and the ridiculousness of the situation (and, perhaps, of my antisocial – even defensive? – reaction) started to hit me. Everyone on our side of the car was silently watching our childish exchange. I tried to suppress a smile, and he must have noticed my face softening, because that’s when he made his smooth and charming move: “You’re very beautiful, you know.”
“Ha. Uhh, thanks.” And I was trying not to laugh, because somehow, in his cocky yet completely bumbling way, Mr. Trying Too Hard To Be Smooth reminded me very much of my co-worker from my old Sacramento job, and I couldn’t wait to get off the train and call H#3 and say, “Guess what idiot on BART just reminded me of you?”
I turned my head to the left to look out the window. From my right, Mr. Smooth added loudly, “Your beauty will never fade.”
Mein Gott, can we get to the city already? This is killin’ me.
A young mother of two, sitting in the seat across from me – and directly in front of Mr. Smooth – smiled. Most of the other people seated in our vicinity smirked as well.
“Did you know that?” he repeated loudly. “Your beauty will – ”
“Yeah,” I said hurriedly. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“When?” he challenged.
“When will you keep it in mind?”
“Forever,” deadpanned the man behind me. I started laughing, and so did he, and Mr. Smooth, shameless flirt that he was, smiled winningly, as if his charm had finally achieved victory over my cold war. I was still chuckling a few moments later when we reached the Powell St. station, and something about laughter as a letting down of the guard put me in a good enough mood again that I even saluted Mr. Smooth as I stepped off the train, calling out behind me, “Have a good one!”
While I waited at the Powell St. station for my friend to pick me up, a young man walked by, then paused and said to me, “How do you like your cell?”
I looked down at the cell phone in my hand, where I had been punching in my friend’s number. “Oh, the Razr? It’s pretty cool. I haven’t had it for too long, but I’ve been liking it so far.”
He looked at me oddly. “I said, I really like your style.”
“Oh! Thanks, buddy!”
He stood there awkwardly for another moment, then just walked away. I had a good laugh after he had gone. Clearly, I’m an idiot, too.
I told N about these two encounters when she picked me up, and she just laughed and shook her head. “Yasmine, you can’t even tell when guys are hitting on you.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m hella oblivious. Somayya used to tell me I walk like this,” and I placed a hand on either side of my face – narrow focus, restricted peripheral vision. Anyone who knows me would be hard-pressed to disagree.
At a recent gathering, I chatted with a middle-aged lady about travel and the Bay. Midway through our conversation, she asked, “So, sweetie, when did you immigrate? Are you here on a student visa?”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “Oh, actually, I was born here in the U.S.”
“Where?” she asked.
A gentleman standing nearby, who happened to overhear this part of the conversation, guffawed. “Oh, but that’s not the U.S.,” he pointed out. “Berkeley’s a whole different country.”
I laughed, too. “I think I’ll have to agree with you.”
I was in San Francisco last Sunday for the Global Day for Darfur event. A Sudanese gentleman named Ebrahim gave me a wide, sunny smile and called out, “Assalamu alaikum [Peace be upon you]!”
“Wa alaikum assalam [And upon you be peace],” I said, smiling back.
He shook my hand firmly. “Where are you from?”
“Oh, I’m from the East Bay,” I said (evasively, I must admit).
I have no defense against people who ask politely. I sighed mentally. “Pakistan.”
There was that sunny smile again. “Urdu bolti hain [Do you speak Urdu]?”
I was surprised, and almost responded with, “Ligga ligga raazi [I know a little bit],” before I caught myself – that’s the b.s. Pukhtu response I’ve used since I was a child; it’s not Urdu. (I made the same mistake a few years ago, too, as some of you may remember.) “Tori si bolti hoon,” I said instead, in Urdu this time.
He beamed, and began telling me – in fluent Urdu – about the ten years he had lived in Pakistan as a Sudanese diplomat. I was blown away by his Urdu and struggled to keep up, responding with nods and smiles and monosyllabic answers.
Two of the event photographers paused nearby to take photographs of us talking. I ignored them for as long as I could, but after several blinding flashes, I turned towards them, eyebrows raised, smiling embarrassedly, hands up in a gesture of Enough. I felt like I was being stalked by the paparazzi, and I hate having my photo taken by people with fancy-schmancy cameras (and that includes my friends, too). The photographers laughed a bit; one backed away, but the other approached me to say, “I’m sorry, I was being rude. But you are very beautiful. Still, I’m sorry – that was rude of me, though.”
Bill Richardson, Governor of New Mexico and one of the speakers at the event, came over to introduce himself, and to stare long enough to make me uncomfortable. “You’re so pretty,” he said. I smiled politely and turned away. Thanks, Governor Richardson. Sure, now you’ve definitely got my vote for the 2008 Presidential elections.
“What the hell’s wrong with you, Yazzo?” recently asked a friend, impatiently. “Just take the damn compliments, say ‘thank you’ like a normal person, and move the hell on.”
“Easier said than done,” I muttered. “I don’t know how to gracefully accept compliments.”
“It’s called ‘THANK YOU’!” she said. I laughed, while she rolled her eyes.
“It embarrasses the hell out of me,” I said. “Can I just stab people instead, so they can stop putting me on the spot like that?”
…from an American, “where are you from” is exclusive – it says “well, you obviously aren’t one of us, you’re not like me.” From an immigrant, the question is a pleasure because it is inclusive – it says “tell me about how you and I are alike – fellow visitors (or children of visitors) to this land.”
Ennis’ post, What’s the Opposite of Coconut, is also thought-provoking. Go read.
Recently, I was at a meeting in San Francisco. At its conclusion, we stood around munching on macaroons and exchanging contact information (business cards!). One lady was writing her Ph.D. dissertation on something related to faith/religion/spirituality, and excitedly approached me once she figured out I was Muslim. “Has your faith changed over the past ten years?” she asked. It was a great question.
“Yes, of course,” I said, even though the experience I was referring to was more like a dozen years ago. I began telling her about those eighteen months in Pakistan, and how it was so important to me because it was the first time I began to educate myself about my faith, because it was the first time “That’s just the way it’s done” wasn’t a good enough reason.
The lady interrupted me: “Was this an urban area?”
“No, it was a village. We lived with our grandmother in the same house where our father had grown -”
“Was the food different from what you were used to?”
“- where our father had grown up,” I finished. “No, the food was mainly the same, because I grew up eating Pakistani food, but at home we cook it the way our father cooks it, because -”
“Was it really greasy?”
This was really getting annoying. “- because my dad came to the U.S. when he was seventeen, so he taught himself – and later, my mother – to cook Pakistani food with a little bit of a spin. We cut all the fat off our meat and chicken, for example, and cook our food with olive oil. So our version of Pakistani food was healthier. But in the village -”
Her eyes widened. “Were the people really obese?”
“No,” I said shortly. “It was a village. People were active. They didn’t have the luxury of sitting around and -”
She interrupted me again: “Was there a high rate of heart disease in your village?”
“I have no idea, honestly.”
“Did you have electricity?”
“Yes, although -”
“How ’bout indoor plumbing?”
Not just once or twice, she did this several times, interrupting me in the middle of a sentence. I was irritated. Why even freakin’ bother asking questions, if you won’t take the time to hear the answers?
At a social gathering in San Francisco, N introduced me to F, another Hindku-speaker who is, like N, from Abbotabad. In fact, as soon as I heard “Abbotabad,” that was that first question I excitedly asked: “Do you speak Hindku, too?” And she did – sort of – thus immediately earning her status as my new favorite person in the world. (It is so rare for me to find others – besides my family – who speak this dialect here in the U.S. that N’s number is entered in my phone under “N____ .hindku!”, exuberant exclamation point and all.) We joked about being Pathan, and how no self-respecting Pathan from Attock (as I am) would ever admit that our district technically falls on the Punjab border. We are not Punjabi, no, we are from the NWFP!
Later in the evening, I couldn’t find the bottle-opener for the sparkling apple cider. So, I did what any self-respecting village girl of my background would do: I dragged one of the shiny, deliciously red plastic chairs (which, incidentally, I had been eyeing and meaning to photograph all evening, ‘though I ultimately forgot to do so) over to the door, kicked off my red heels, clambered up onto the chair, braced the ridged edge of the bottle-cap just over the metal hinge above the door-jamb, and pulled. It must have taken me a dozen tries, but the cap was finally knocked off.
Everyone watched with a mixture of amusement and perplexity. Someone made me pose again on the chair, so she could take a photo. I raised the glass bottle against the metal hinge again, until the camera flashed; then, I jumped off the red chair in triumph, laughing. It had been at least a dozen years since I had opened a bottle in that manner.
“You know where we’re from!” crowed my new friend F, holding out her hand for a stinging highfive. “NWFP!”
That night, F and I took BART back together to the East Bay. She got off before I did, in Berkeley, but up to that point we sprawled comfortably in the blue seats and conversed about this dialect we have in common. I was explaining something, and she stopped me, shaking her head: “No, no, say it in Hindku! I need to practice.” So I switched to the dialect, and, even with F’s halting sentences, the conversation was easy and personal and intimately familiar. Weeks after that exchange, I read a post Maisnon wrote recently, about correcting others’ language mistakes without causing offense, and felt a sense of recognition.
“Meh akkhay,” I corrected gently. I threw in words, phrases, grammatical twists, whenever she stumbled in her story: “Akkhnihai… iss jaga vich… ke karnai…? vaisaan…” She watched my face closely, and nodded, and repeated the words after me, fitting them into her existing sentences. It was comfortable and companionable, much as I feel when throwing random Hindku words into conversation with B and N and Zana and Ayesha, knowing that they will understand my references. It is comforting to know that there are some people for whom I don’t have to recreate/re-explain my history – they know it already.
Sometimes, it is their history, too, even if they aren’t Pakistani or Muslim. I think of my friend, the lovely L lady, who has just returned from living for a year in Sudan with her parents and relatives and cousins. In some ways, the core of her experiences is so similar to mine during my eighteen months in Pakistan. And, so, we enjoy these exchanges with our friends and families – and even, perhaps, with strangers who don’t interrupt our stories, provided we give them half a chance and don’t look askance at their interest. I still struggle with this latter part.
PS: When I told my father about Mr. Smooth, he frowned and shook his head. Seemingly baffled that anyone in his right mind could possibly be interested in his daughters without the aid of illegal substances, the daddy-o’s first question was, “Was he on drugs?”
PPS: Relevant to this post, I would like to give a public shout-out to my beloved Baji, whose blogroll describes me as the “all american crackstar.” It reminds me of this post: Tell me what itâ€™s like to be the one and only All American Girl, the All American Girl, the all amazing crazy girl.
…Now, Where do you come from?
strangers ask. Originally? And I hesitate.