Thursday, June 24, 2010

It's Personal

Well, I tried out the new line yesterday. It didn't go so well.

V and Adinah and I were walking down our street, in no particular hurry. I felt good.

About twenty-five feet behind me, V. had just decided she did not feel good, and was launching a mini-tantrum. Also behind us, a little old lady with shopping bags had just passed V. and Adinah, and was approaching me with that little smile people get when they want to make contact. She looked harmless enough.

When she got to me, she looked back at the girls, who were now assaulting a coin-operated rocking horse. The lady asked, in German, 'Where is their mother from?'

So I smiled a friendly but pointed smile back, like I was about to be frank with a good pal, and I said, "That's a very personal question."

The little old lady went off. Blustering, frowning, huffing.

"That's not a personal question," she cried. "That's a normal question!"

"Do we know each other?" I asked her.

"No, I saw the children and I thought they looked like they were from Africa!"

I started to ask her why she would ask me something like that, but she didn't let me finish. Tried to ask her to be more polite, but she didn't hear me. Blustering. And mad.

So I put up my hand and walked back to my kids. And Adinah, seeing the lady making a commotion, asked, "What's she saying, Papa?"

That's when I thought I might have been wrong. I'm so tired of people asking us about us, when it's just none of their business. It's probably harmless, she's probably a nice person, but really, I'm sure she would never ask any other total stranger the same question. And I wanted her to check herself. Maybe I thought, 'Now she'll think twice before asking another family a damn fool question.'

But maybe I was only thinking of myself, and that stranger, and not of my girls. Adinah could see something had happened, could see the lady was mad at me, and that may have frightened her, or made her feel bad. That's not right, either.

It's so hard to know what to do sometimes.


cliff1976 said...

I may have an inkling of how you feeling, on a much, much smaller scale.

I bristle when treated differently at work because of where I come from. People who prematurely address me informally (in German!) but not other (native) colleagues, earn my wrath. Germans who have heard my complaints about this sometimes don't get it (immediately).

"I hate being treated differently!" I exclaim.
"But you are different!" they reply.

It is here that I get bogged down, because I can see that the different treatment is not malicious. It may even be some messed up gesture coming from a kind place.

I still cringe when it happens, but I'm getting better at not exploding. In fact, one such explosion has had negative long-term impact on my work life.

Ed Ward said...

As I gathered from the comments on Facebook, this is a devilishly complex situation. And, although answering a question with another question isn't a very good idea, the proper response to this is a question:

"What's it to you?"

Possible truthful responses range from "I'm a nosy old bitch" to "My daughter's doing a doctorate on the integration of non-white adopted children into Austrian society."

At which point you have your next step. But in real life, you can't count on a truthful answer, and given the society you're in, the nosy old bitch possibility really overshadows something more interesting.

So yeah, "Austria" is the right answer in this case, I guess. Not the most satisfying one, though.

pat said...

Thanks to both of you for these thoughtful responses! Yeah, I guess I could have called the post, 'It's Complex.'

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't "... she is from Austria and we adopted them..." a possible answer?

pat said...

Yes, that's certainly an answer that we have given to strangers many times. But my point is that our children and our family isn't public property. Where the kids come from is none of their business.

cbessada said...

That is Vienna. As private as they are - they don't smile at you on the Strassenbahn they way Americans do when they catch your eye - they still think they have rights to intrude. When I had stitches on my face, somebody yelled "YECHHHHH" at me from a Strassenbahn in the Nussdorferstr. Creepy cranky people. Still, quick to be friendly.

You have a right to your privacy. My answer to impertinent questions is "Why would you ask?" Stops 'em dead every time.