Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Overheard at Starbucks, pt 2

It's NaNoWriMo, and by some miracle, I am almost halfway through the month and still within shot of potentially 'winning' (winning = writing 50k words in 30 days, an average rate of 1,667 words/day).

I work well at Starbucks. It's a productive space for me (which is how I justify the 7 franc chai latte). Lots of other people also bring their laptops to work at Starbucks. Students, casual people, older people, business-y people. This conversation just happened between two men who were sitting near me. Business man starts to leave and says goodbye to man at next table.

Man at next table (MANT) in Swiss accent: "Goodbye. Where are you from?"

Business-y man in perfect British accent: "London."

MANT: "Where?"

Business-y man: "England." (smiles)

MANT: "Oh, you don't look like it."

Business-y man: "Chinese blood." (stops smiling and leaves)

Uggggh. Conversations like this make me cringe. I know they happen all the time, and I certainly heard similar ones in the US regularly. And to be fair, my cringing is a minor issue - I have never been on the receiving end of these conversations. When I say I'm from the US, people nod and leave it at that. Because I have the fortunate coincidence of looking like what an American citizen 'should' look like. (Interestingly, within the US, when I say I grew up in West Virginia, I often get a puzzled look and the comment, "But you don't have an accent." Or the less innocent "But you have all your teeth." Har har har, people).

Just yesterday I read this NPR article looking at this exact question (their entire Race Card series is fascinating), so this topic was on my mind. I've certainly been witness to these conversations - hasn't everyone? Perhaps you've even unwittingly been guilty of it yourself (no judgment, keep reading). My sister's partner was born and raised in the US to parents who immigrated from India, and I know he's been questioned in the US. One of my good friends here grew up in Zurich and (from what I can tell) speaks Schweizerdeutsch with the best of them, but she is technically a Korean citizen, and often feels the need to clarify that in conversations when asked the above question. Mortifyingly, when I met her, I showed surprise to hear that she grew up here - I made the embarrassing mistake of assuming she was from the US, since she spoke flawless American-accented English. It was an extremely gauche move of me, regardless of whether I was questioning her Asian appearance or not, and a reminder to me that I now live in a multi-lingual country where many people speak a variety of languages flawlessly.

I'm not a philosopher and I don't study race or ethnicity or appreciate my own white privilege as much as I should, so I just want to say this, as a reminder for myself and everyone else out there: when you ask someone where they are from, please do them the courtesy of believing their answer (their first answer). Unless they are an international spy or hit man, there is no reason for them to lie about it.  The answer to "where are you from?" can provide a myriad of conversation starters. So if you want to ask a follow up question, take a moment to check yourself, then ask one - about whether they enjoyed growing up there, their experience in the area, when they moved, or if their family still lives thereabouts. There are many options that don't dwell on a person's racial or physical appearance, so - in my opinion - try one of those.


  1. People can't even say "but you have all your teeth" to me! ;-)

  2. The Starbucks in Baden (Argau) is invaded by Christmas's too much 4 me...I take the coffee only to go these days...I love Christmas but I have huge problems with this Swiss early Christmas in October/November

  3. I love overhearing and observing interactions. I have a similar "series" on my blog called People Encounters.

  4. That is incredibly obnoxious. I have witnessed that more than once, and it just never stops bothering me. Definitely joining you in the cringing!