Monday, October 20, 2008

No, really...

My American Meltingpot looked like this last Saturday.

My family and I went to a Native American pow-wow in West Philly. I love to take my kids to experience different cultural events in ways that are interactive. All in all it was pretty cool. I learned a lot and my kids got to dance the Native American Candy dance. No joke that's what it was called, and yes there was candy involved.

When we left the pow-wow we decided to grab a bite to eat at one of the many ethnic restaurants in the neighborhood. We had our choice of Thai, Mexican, Indian, Middle Eastern and McDonald's. We chose Mexican.

Because we were with my kids, the restaurant was rather tiny and I am on a crazy restrictive diet, I didn't pay too much attention to the menu items as we stood in line. I was just making sure there was something on the menu I could eat, and something my four-year old would eat. In other words, my 'say what?' detector didn't rise at the "tofu taco" choice. When it was my turn to order however, I finally noticed that the young woman taking orders was Asian. I looked behind her to see that the cook was a balding, middle-aged White man and his helper was another Asian woman. So clearly this was not an "authentic" Mexican joint. I considered leaving because I really wanted to enjoy my lunch, but then I remembered that one of the best Mexican franchises in New York City (Fresco Tortillas) is run by Chinese people so I held on to hope. But I shouldn't have. The food wasn't bad, it was just really, really bland and didn't taste very Mexican. And in fact, when I asked for a bit of salsa on the side to liven up my tacos, the girl looked at me like I had asked for a side of motor oil. They didn't have any salsa at this Mexican restaurant. No, really. I was given a small bowl of chopped tomatoes instead.

So, here I am stewing about the lack of authenticity at this restaurant, cursing myself for expecting authentic at a Mexican restaurant with no Mexicans in it, when I heard the following exchange. A White woman goes up to the Asian woman at the counter and says in a very gringo accent, "Yo quiero dos cucharas, por favor." She then turns to my husband who happened to be up at the counter, and says, "I'm practicing my Spanish because I'm getting ready for a trip to Guatemala." The Asian girl behind the counter looks at the woman with a blank stare. The woman then realizes she's made a mistake. Her mistake? She meant to say "tenedores" the Spanish word for forks, instead of cuchara which is spoon. No, really. She didn't notice that the woman in front of her was Asian, not Hispanic and kept trying to use her Spanish to procure her forks.

Finally my husband stepped in, wanting to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and asked the girl, "Do you speak Spanish?" She said, "no." And funny thing is, the woman didn't seem the least bit embarrassed by her assumption. She just took her forks and said, wait for it, "gracias." This is probably the same woman who mistook me and my best friend, who happens to be Japanese, for twins when we were seven and eight. No, really. That happened.

So, that's what my American Meltingpot looks like.

7 comments:

Kohana said...

Ha! This sounds like my experience last week. Latin/Carribean/Mexican food is seriously lacking in Sydney (I'm lumping them together because the common ingredients I crave for protein, as a veggie - beans and rice). So when I found a "wings and burritos" hole in the wall I decided to give it a try. The staff did all appear to be Asian and the food was...strange. There were beans...but not like any beans I've had before!

Anonymous said...

I've met asians raised in Brazil and in Latin America, who speak Spanish almose exclusively, so it's not beyond the pale to assume that an Asian running a Mexican restaurant might speak Spanish - not true in this scenario, of course. I don't think that customer was wrong to try speaking spanish to the proprietress...

LT said...

xdeiKohana,

glad to know the meltingpot makes it way to Sydney! Thanks for sharing your story. Hope you find some good beans and rice!

Anon,

I too have met Asians who speak Spanish. And Hispanics who speak Korean. That's the beauty of the Meltingpot. I just don't think this particular woman was really noticing that the Asian woman looked uttlerly confused when she spoke to her in Spanish. And she didn't apologize or even seem to care. She truly seemed to have made the assumption that this ambiguously brown girl must be a Latina. I could be wrong, I'm not a mind reader, but I don't think so. But I'm not trying to judge, just observing.

Former Mushroom-Haired Child said...

Wow. It sounds to me like the woman just saw "brown", and pasted whatever ethnicity was most convenient to her at that moment.

FirstPersonArts said...

Hmm, this sounds like MexiCali. The owner formerly ran a truly legendary burrito truck on Spruce Street, and has never made any pretense of authenticity. Obviously, this is a special case, but as a more-or-less fluent Spanish speaker, I'm often conflicted about ordering in Spanish at 'authentic' places like Taqueria La Veracruzana and Plaza Garibaldi on Washington at 9th or La Marqueza Grill in Upper Darby. Does initiating in Spanish presume a lack of English or honor diversity (or both)? There are lots of asians in latin america. The president of Peru was Japanese.

Spring said...

You've no doubt heard of President Fujimori, yes? A past president, Japanese in name and appearance (though born in Peru), of a Latin American nation?

Many from Peru are of Asian ancestry and have Asian features. There are Korean communities in Mexico and Japanese communities in Brazil. Immigration happens everywhere.

No big deal to speak Spanish to someone working at a Mexican restaurant, but weird to continue without comprehension or reply.

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