Today’s Bloganuary prompt is:
What do People Incorrectly Assume about You?
Before I begin, let me introduce myself.
This is me. It’s a two-year-old picture and the hoody disguises my grey hair but it’s a good indication of what I look like.
Common misassumptions about me, are best illustrated by incidents from my past.
It’s my first year of university in Canada and I’m in a funky smelling common room deep in the bowels of the Engineering building. It’s 1 am in the morning before a big assignment is due. Empty coffee cups and computer paper are scattered over the table and I’m wrassling with an unfathomable logic problem. As I unwrap my last packet of vending machine sustenance, a chirpy Asian girl comes up to me and says “Nǐ chīle ma?”
“Whaaa?” I say.
“Have you eaten yet?” she replies.
I look at my packet of biscuits, shake my head and say “No.”
Later that week, the same girl sees me in the cafeteria and asks the same question. Since I’m clearly heading into the cafeteria and towards the sandwich bar, I find it peculiar. I shake my head and say “Not yet.”
Another day when I’m walking into a 10am lecture, she waves at me from across the aisle.
“Have you eaten yet?” she shouts.
I pretend to not hear and hurry to a seat several aisles away.
I grew up on a small island in the Caribbean. The country’s motto was “Out of Many One People” and indicates the multi-racial heritage of the population. Everyone on the island had ancestors who came from somewhere else. Some willingly, some forcibly but all left their homeland many generations ago.
Distance and time have a way of diluting cultural heritage and one of the first cultural origins to fade, is language. The country’s national language was English and that was my first and only mother tongue.
Decades after my university years, I went to work in China. I took lessons in Mandarin where I learned that Nǐ chīle ma was a common greeting, equivalent to “Hello” and “How are you?” It literally translates to “Have you eaten yet?” That poor girl was only trying to be friendly.
Five years after I graduate from university, I’m at a job interview in a historic building, smack in the heart of downtown Toronto. The company is an old financial institution founded in 1871 and governed by a series of conservative old men. The interviewer is the manager for the project I’d be working on and we’ve been talking for a while. He’s commented on my qualifications, my degree and the results of an aptitude test I’d taken earlier.
Finally, he looks at me and says “… and you speak English very well.”
He says it as if it’s a compliment.
“Actually,” I say “English is my first language.”
“Where are you from?” he asks.
“Jamaica,” I say.
Nonplussed he looks down at my resume before looking up again. An awkward silence falls as he thinks carefully about what to say.
“You don’t look Jamaican?” he says.
Many iterations past this first time, I’ve figured the appropriate response is to explain that my great-great-great-grandfather emigrated from China and that there used to be a substantial Chinese community in Jamaica. Economic and political reasons displaced them in the 1970’s but many Chinese Jamaicans live in cities like Toronto, New York and Miami.
However, I still haven’t figured the appropriate response to this next, inevitable question.
“But you don’t sound Jamaican?”
What about you? Do people make incorrect assumptions about you? How you feel about that? I’d love to hear in the comments below or in your own Bloganuary post.