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!”