It's not about the house.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

How Small Am I?

I know I promised funny for this morning, but this here's been on my mind for a week now and I've got to shake it loose. I'll funny later, with pictures and everything, so bear with me.

Oh, and this is not another dentist-terror story. It just starts out in the office.

The first dentist I saw is a beautiful young woman. I’m too much of an idiot to know my own dentist’s last name (in my defense, she’s a student on a ten-week rotation; when I first saw her, I assumed I would not be seeing her again – ha, ha – and since then I’ve been too embarrassed to ask), but I believe she is of Middle Eastern descent. I can’t be certain – she has no accent, does not wear any telltale cultural accoutrements – but she has the facial features, and the same first name as a Pakistani girl I knew in college.

The second dentist I saw – at an office I was referred to by Dr. First – was a beautiful, slightly older woman. She was Japanese, but I got confused about her name, too, because she made my next appointment for me, which I thought going to be with her again. It turned out to be with Dr. German, but I hadn’t met him yet. When she handed me the appointment card and I saw the new name on it, I assumed it was still her, just with a different name. Which, you know, makes total sense.

I saw Dr. First three days later and she asked me who I’d seen. I got all discombobulated. I knew both names – Japanese and German – but didn’t know which one was correct. I nattered something about “first one name and then another and maybe she’s getting married?” And then, for good measure, I added: “It was a Asian woman.”

“An Asian woman…” Dr. First replied, with a tone in her voice that I could not quite place. Did I offend her? By saying “Asian woman”? Does that make me small-minded, or a racist? Or did I offend by not knowing the Asian woman’s name? What would Dr. First think if she knew I don’t know hers?

Or was she maybe just mulling over my meager description and trying to come up with a name to match, since I obviously was going to be no help in that department?

* * *

Quincy, Massachusetts is Asian Nation. Even the graffiti says so. Officially, the town is something like 15% Asian immigrants, but they are largely concentrated in this one area where I get on the T. I used to live there, and I loved it, but then we bought this stupid house…

Anyway, there’s a high school right across the street from the T stop, so all the kids get on there. Clots of baggy-boys and belly-girls, all trying to out-loud each other in typical American teenager slang, and then a cell phone will ring, the clot will hush, and the cell phone's owner will go all submissive to answer it in fluent Cantonese – or Korean, or Vietnamese, or Mandarin, or Lao. I don’t speak any of these languages, but I do know what they’re saying: “Yes, mama. No, mama. Sorry, mama. I’m on my way right now.”

That day (it wasn’t during school hours) I walked in to the station behind a tall young man whom I hadn’t much noticed until a tiny, elderly Asian woman in the station hailed him in Cantonese (or Korean, or Vietnamese, or Mandarin, or Lao). She needed help with something – nothing desperate, probably directions somewhere – and he was Asian, so she thought he’d understand. But he put his hands up in the air.

“I’m sorry,” he said, without a trace of accent. “I don’t speak…” and he trailed off. As he kept walking I tried to meet her eye, tried to signal my willingness to help in any way I could – maybe she had an address written down and I could draw a map or something? But she looked past me like I did not exist, intent on scanning the line behind me for another Asian face. And I couldn’t help but have this thought:

She was racial-profiling! Does that make her the small-minded racist in this picture?

But then, before we were even down the stairs, the young man’s cell phone rang. He answered it in fluent Cantonese – or Korean, or Vietnamese, or Mandarin, or Lao. And in my mind two thoughts followed in quick succession:

1. He’s an asshole! Because he spoke the language all along and was just pretending not to.
2. I’m the asshole, because it’s very likely the two of them are speaking completely different languages and I just basically assumed that Cantonese is Korean is Vietnamese is Mandarin is Lao.


* * *

Back at the dentist’s office. Dr. First again. We’re three weeks and four appointments into this, with at least one appointment left to go. I’m in the chair with hoses and contraptions in my mouth, when some guy pokes his head around the corner.

“Dr. First,” he says, though he calls her by her first name. “You’re leaving us already?”

“Yes,” says Dr. First. “Three weeks left. Are you going to miss me, ——?” and she calls him by his.

“It seems like you just got here!”

“Seven weeks ago, that’s how it goes. You better start shopping for my going away present.”

“We should just hire you permanently. Or for six months or something.”

“Six months! I’d miss my graduation.”

“Yeah, and then you’d expect a graduation present, too.”

“Better start shopping, I’m telling you!”

“Oh well. When you leave, though, if I write a note, will you deliver it to Osama for me?”

I did mention that Dr. First is Middle Eastern, right? But that she has no accent? I don’t know if, when she graduates, she’s going home to Kabul or Salt Lake City, or if she’s staying here, and I don’t know if this guy knows, either. Maybe this is a private joke they have, that they’ve been sharing together since her arrival. Or maybe he’s not talking about bin Laden. Maybe Osama is a mutual friend of theirs. Maybe he just really wants her to pass a note to a real person. Maybe I’m jumping to small-minded conclusions again?

“Ha, ha,” says Dr. First. “Because he’s my cousin, right?” she adds, and I realize that his comment was exactly what I'd assumed it was. But by then the voice in the doorway has moved on.

Dr. First, drill in her hand, hand in my mouth, leans in and whispers in my ear, so low that a person sitting in my lap would not have heard her. “Okay,” she breathes, inflection rising slightly, “that was inappropriate.


“Uh-huh,” I agree, fighting the instinct to nod my head. Only, with drills and fingers and everything inside my mouth, my “uh-huh” comes out sounding like “ah-hah.”

“Sheesh,” she continues. “It’s a good thing he didn’t say that to my brother. My brother would have…” but she decides not to say what her brother would have done.

“Well,” she concludes, shaking off the incident more quickly than I would imagine possible. “He’s just lucky I don’t have a temper.”

I’m lucky you don’t have a temper!” I interject.

Only it comes out “Ah uckee oo oh ah a eh-uh!”

* * *

My instinct was to call the clinic the next morning and report the incident. But all I know is the guy’s first name, and I know that Dr. First is leaving in three – well, by now it will be two – weeks’ time. I didn’t want to get her all wrapped up in something that she might want to forget about and move on. Johnny thinks he knows who the fellow was that said it (it’s not exactly your everyday first name), and if he’s right then the guy’s not in any position of power, he’s just kind of a dick. But it doesn’t feel right, letting it go.

I’m seeing Dr. First again today for probably (keep your fingers crossed) the last time. I’m going to ask her what she wants me to do. If she wants me to report it, then I will. And if she doesn’t, then I won’t.

But either way, I’m going to stop beating myself up about the Asian-woman thing.

Both of them.



Anonymous said...

I often forget my friends'names. i have lots of friends,some of who are met on interracialmatch. when we met for the first time, we always exchange our screen names, but for the second time, i always forget all of them or called the wrong names. I think we should pay much more attention to the people around us.

Anonymous said...

I always worry so about what people are thinking of me and if I am being friendly and courteous and kind, that I am ignorant and often do not listen to names. In school if I had to ask a student their name I would repeat it several times in conversation with the student and I never forgot. Too bad I do not do that with adults.

Anonymous said...

So, yesterday, at lunch at work (and for those of you who don't know me, I am at a major university in California - one of the most liberal and progressive states in the USA) this happened:
In the lab next to mine, there is a Visiting Scientist from Pakistan with an easily pronouncable name. He is currently working with an senior scientist, originally from China but raised in LA. Dr. LA, after mispronouncing Dr. Pakistan's name several times, said something about being careful around Dr. Pakistan because he might be a terrorist.
I was so shocked I was literally speechless.
And then, when others corrected him and pointed out how inappropriate that comment was, Dr. LA kept saying, "Well he could be, he could be."
And people wonder why certain other cultures hate Americans.

Anonymous said...

1. "Asian woman" is by far preferable to Pakistani or Chinese or whatever. Don't sweat it.
2. Report the ass.

Anonymous said...

yep, report 'em. I'd loose my nursing license over that sort of comment. His high tech knowledge was probably paid for with a grant from my hard earned (working on 30% because I work too damn much) tax dollars, he should be ashamed of himself. Not one of the 7 students here that I pay tutuion for go to school on a nickel of government (or church) $ in this house! Why? Because I am crazy enough to think I can make a difference by using my degree for good and not evil! Report the SOB and make him pay it(me) back. Now I'll tell you how I really feel...