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A couple years ago, I spent a brief stint working in St. Louis, Missouri. Many people wouldn't get excited about the prospect of spending the winter in icy, gray St. Louis, but I was thrilled.
As the place I spent my formative young adult years, St. Louis holds memories of hijinks, first loves, and good friends. And food, wonderful food.
Aside from the delicious selection of good ol' comfort foods (best gluten free Pizza I've ever had was at Pi Pizzeria in the Central West End and I remember the hamburgers at O'Connell's on Shaw being the BEST) St. Louis has some of my favorite Thai restaurants.
So one lazy afternoon, an old pal of mine, I'll call her Sally, took me to lunch at my favorite little Thai restaurant on Delmar. A quiet, homey restaurant that makes their dishes delightfully spicy, we took our favorite seat by the window and proceeded to order all the food.
I should note that Sally is Vietnamese-American. This will matter in a moment.
It was about one o'clock in the afternoon, and there were only two other occupied tables in the restaurant. As our food was delivered and we proceeded to gobble it up amidst catching up and cackling about old times, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a man pacing the floor about 10 feet to my left.
I didn't really pay him any attention. There were spicy rice noodles to be consumed, and I had noodle-vision.
At some point, I felt his eyes on me. Turning just in time to look at him, I saw him walking toward our table. Dressed in khakis, a non-descript polo shirt, he looked like a white man in his 40s, and he looked agitated. I realize now that his demeanor, and beeline at us made me involuntarily tense up.
About five feet from our table, he said pointedly, "Where's the bathroom?"
Taken aback, and not sure who he was talking to, I turned away from him and continued cackling with Sally.
"Where is the bathroom?" he repeated more loudly and with more force.
I gave Sally a "WTF" look and she shrugged at me. We paused, and were just about to continue our conversation when we were interrupted AGAIN.
"EXCUSE ME. Where. Is. The. Bath. Room," the man repeated, now closer to our table.
Turning to him, I gave him a confused look. I don't know about you, but I'm not used to giving crapper directions to other diners while I have a mouth full of extra spicy noodles. I couldn't help but just stare at him while trying to compute.
"Hellooooo!" He waved his hands at my face the way polite humans DO NOT, and said, "Do. You. Understand. Me? TELL ME WHERE THE BATH. ROOM. IS!"
The man was even closer to our table now, and his voice had that loud, condescending tone I'd heard so many times directed at my mom when I was growing up in Texas. The tone that undoubtedly reveals the speaker's subtext as, "IF I TALK ENGLISH LOUDER, I WILL JAM MY MEANING INTO THIS HERE PERSON'S BRAIN."
The man stood there breathing at us for a few beats, before it simultaneously dawned on Sally and me that he thought we worked there.
From his point of view, we were two Asian women sitting at a table in a quiet Thai restaurant talking about the time I lost a thumb nail while costuming the Shakespeare Festival, and eating St. Louis' last reserves of rice, noodles, and chili peppers — OF COURSE we worked there!
When the realization took hold, I couldn't help but snort a little through my noodle-mouth.
"Uh...it's over there?" I said, and limply pointed to the back where a large sign read "RESTROOMS." I wish I'd given him a piece of my mind, but there was such an element of "This Can't Be Real" that my brain couldn't quite catch up.
Making sure to give us one more disgusted look, the man said, "THANK YOU," and stalked off.
Everyone say it with me: WHAT. THE. F**K?
It wasn't so much that I was bothered by being mistaken as an "Asian Restaurant Worker." It wasn't that Sally or I were bothered to have been mistaken for being Thai. It was the assumption that two Asian women gabbing in a Thai restaurant in the middle of the day MUST mean that we worked there.
More so, even if we did work there (by the way, our server was a white, college-aged dude), if we were sitting and eating and IGNORING the man in khaki, couldn't that indicate that we were on a break? Off the clock? There were two other uniformed servers bustling around the restaurant at the time.
AND, even if all his assumptions had been true, how did that give him permission to encroach upon our personal space and speak to us like naughty hamsters? ("Now Zippy, you KNOW. WHERE. YOU'RE. SUPPOSED. TO. DOO-DOO.")
Sally and I were so flabbergasted, that neither of us could think of anything to say but, "Did that just happen?"
I was reminded of the "St. Louis Thai Food Incident" recently when I was shopping in Yokohama.
Looking for some new shorts at one of my favorite not-too-expensive clothing stores in the Sakuragicho area of Yokohama, I heard them before I saw them. A couple of American-sounding tourists — a man and a woman — loud-talking and giggling through some Japanese phrases.
Finding the shorts I wanted, I got in line at the register. The tourists stood one customer ahead of me.
When they got to the register, and dumped their heap of clothes on the counter, I watched the ever-smiling associate start folding, and ringing up their items. The tourists continued to talk loudly to each other as the associate worked. When it was my turn to check out, I found myself at the register next to them.
As is usual, the associate working with the tourists asked them in Japanese (because we are in Japan), if they had, or wanted to start, a point card. Not understanding, the tourists loudly said, "What?"
Looking uncomfortable, but still smiling, the associate repeated the question with the emphasis on "point card" – which honestly, when someone is holding up a POINT CARD that says "Point Card" in English, and saying pointo kaado several times, it's easy to catch on eventually.
Or maybe I'm stupid.
The tourists just kept saying in English, with growing volume, "What? What are you saying? WHAT? WHAT?"
Wanting the situation to just end, I stepped over and quietly said to the man-tourist, "He just wants to know if you want a point card. I'm assuming you don't?"
He just stared at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears, and said, "NO. NO. POINT. CARD," and pointed at the associate emphatically. Egads, I recognized that tone.
Smiling at the nervous-looking man behind their register, I thanked him and said that the point card wasn't necessary.
"You're fine now," I said to him and he just stared at me some more. Sensing all eyes on us, I said, "OK..." and resumed paying for my shorts.
Over my shoulder, I heard him say to the woman-tourist, "What the hell was that?"
I'm not saying all Americans are like this. Most tourists I've met here (and really, I'm sort of a tourist too) are quite careful with navigating the culture. It's the assumptions, and subtle (or not-so-subtle) racism that baffles me.
How narrow must your worldview be to behave so purposely dense?
While these situations weren't quite the same, to me they all start from a place of:
1. You are not like me. I'm introducing a status judgement. I assume higher status.
2. I'm egotistical enough to think my assumptions about you MUST be right
3. In order to get my way, I wall not concede to even question my assumptions or understanding, I will just attempt to bulldoze this impasse with my assumed status.
It's actually been amazing how living in a culture where I am perceived to be part of the racial majority has really highlighted the racism I experienced at home.
Whereas I ignored or was accustomed to casual racism in my US communities, seeing it carried over here with such audacity, has made me reevaluate my own behavior.
I can't go back in time, but what if I had spoken up more pointedly in the Thai restaurant situation or in the clothing store? Could I have made an impact on those butt-heads? My typical mouth-agape, "Are you freaking kidding me?" behavior makes for a lighter retelling, but am I not just in the end taking it?
I can be internally horrified, but what good does that do?
I don't have a course of action yet. I want to be gutsy, I want to have the presence of mind to constructively change the course of an ugly situation. But, to be honest, that is not behavior I've cultivated for 33 years. In such instances, despite my shock or sarcasm, I'm passive. But I want that to change.
Japan has given me a long list of things I want to work on — mastering the "L/R" sound, perfecting a gluten free doria dish, making small talk with my neighbor beyond "I'm good and you?" — but changing the manner in which I personally deal with racism, was one I didn't expect.