Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The language bomb

We all have vindication fantasies. For some people, they involve telling off a loathsome ex or showing up smokin' hot to a high school reunion and breezing past former rivals with a triumphal strut. Call me strange, but my vindication fantasy involves dropping a language bomb.

You know, a language bomb. Leaving someone numb with surprise and embarrassment when you reveal that yes, you speak their language and yes, you understood every nasty word they just said about you.

Looking back, I'm surprised that the nearly five years I spent living in South America didn't provide me with more opportunities to indulge my fantasy. If people were talking smack about me, they were considerate enough to do it out of my earshot. While I was frequently afforded the satisfaction of firing back in fluent Spanish at people who addressed me as they would a toddler, I was never able to experience the supreme vindication of looking the owners of vile tongues in the eye, cocking an eyebrow and saying, "Careful with the assumptions you make."

I was given the opportunity to do so today. On my way home from class, I stopped at a deli to buy a sandwich. Several feet away at the other end of the counter was another customer who was talking with someone who appeared to be a deli employee. I only saw the customer from behind, and we didn't acknowledge one another.

Immediately after placing my (hefty) order, I heard someone say (in English), "That's breakfast, lunch and dinner!" I assumed it was the customer at the other end of the counter, but my first thought was that he'd been addressing the person he'd been talking with before, not me. My second thought was that he may have been alluding to my order and that, if he had, the comment hadn't exactly been a polite one. My third thought was that, in actuality, he may have been addressing me directly. My fourth thought came in the form of a decision to adopt my habitual modus operandi: When it comes to unsolicited comments from strange men who may or may not be speaking to me, I opt to ignore and await further evidence.

My doubts about the comment's intended recipient were dissolved when the man launched into a tirade -- in Spanish this time -- about how insulted he was that I'd ignored him. Addressing the person he'd been speaking with before, he indicated who I was, what I'd ordered (this part involved an impressive abundance of detail), what he'd said, and the fact that I hadn't responded. The diatribe culminated in a declaration: "They're racist."

Of course! Not responding to random comments that someone shouts down a deli counter at me clearly makes me racist. Never mind that I hadn't seen the color of the customer's skin or had the slightest idea what languages he spoke. Never mind that I hadn't even known he'd been talking to me. Never mind that he'd been the one to make ungrounded assumptions about what I could and couldn't understand based on my appearance. I'm obviously racist. And not just me. I and whoever else falls within the scope of they. People with my skin tone? Women? Panini lovers? People wearing leg warmers? The mystery remains.

I was incensed. And damn it, I was going to tell him. In Spanish, so there would be no question as to the fact that I'd understood everything he'd just accused me of. At the time, I didn't see it as the fulfillment of a vindication fantasy but rather as simply setting things straight.

"I didn't know you were talking to me," I called over to him in Spanish.

Alas, the record was not to be set straight, because he didn't hear me. Or perhaps he did and decided to give me a taste of my own medicine by ignoring me. In any case, he continued his conversation and made no indication that my words had registered. I tried to get his attention again when he passed me on his way out, but he didn't appear to hear me then, either.

As I stood fuming by the counter, waiting for my giant sandwich, it occurred to me that I'd just witnessed the implosion of my vindication fantasy. I'd experienced the rage of having been wronged while being denied the satisfaction of vindicating myself. At the same time, I realized that the other customer -- still under the impression that I'd ignored him because he was Hispanic -- was probably also seething and contemplating all the things he wished he'd said to me. If the issues underlying the misunderstanding weren't so socially, politically and emotionally charged, there would be humor in the situation.

Looking back, the following things occur to me:

1) If the deli customer had previously been discriminated against because of his ethnicity or language, it's understandable that he might attribute my lack of response to prejudice. That doesn't change the fact that he jumped to some very hasty and incorrect assumptions about me, though.

2) I could have stood to have lightened up when it came to the "breakfast, lunch and dinner" comment. The guy probably meant it to be funny, not offensive. If one of my friends had said something like that to me, I probably would have laughed.

3) Everyone at the deli probably thinks I'm racist now.

What about you? Do you think I had the right to be pissed at the guy for trash talking me in Spanish? How would you have responded? Have you ever dropped a language bomb? Did it detonate?


Jamie said...

The breakfast, lunch and dinner comment just sounds like a lame joke to try to start a conversation. It sounds like after you didn't respond all his past rejections culminated into a misguided offense on his part. Sorry you didn't get your vindication... that would probably bother me for months!

Abby said...

I would have been pissed if I hadn't got my vindication. I don't think it's so much what he said to you at first, but the fact that he made so many assumptions about you, the most frustrating being that you didn't speak his language and that you were racist. In my mind I imagine that it would be very satisfying to get vindication like this, but I know in real life I would mess it up big time, like start crying or make mistakes in Spanish or something mortifying. I'm horrible at confrontations.

Julie said...

I believe he probably did hear you when you responded and was embarrassed that you had understood everything he said about you. I was in a disco, many years ago, dancing with a guy who was hearing impaired. He was very tall so was speaking, in sign language to someone over my head. I knew a little sign language and knew they were talking about me ( it was actually very nice stuff about me), a little later in the evening, he was trying to speak to me. It was very loud in the disco and because of his hearing impairment he didn't speak very clearly, so I signed to him to "finger spell" what he was trying to say. You should have seen his face and the face of the guy he was signing to. Mike, the guy I was dancing with, turned several shades of red and the other guy just ran off. I got a good chuckle out of it and by the way a few more dates with a very good looking guy.

Margaret said...

This reminds me of a really awful experience I had many yrs ago. A group of young black women got on the bus and were incredibly rude to the driver, shouting insults from the back of the bus until he stopped and told them to get off. They wouldn't, so he did, and we had to wait for another bus to pick us up.
I was pissed about their behavior and having missed my first class on their account, but had no reason to get into it. They continued trash talking and generally being loud & obnoxious the rest of the way to school (community college), and when we finally got off the bus, the ring leader turned to me and directly asked me if the driver wasn't an asshole. I lost my cool and told her exactly what I thought. It turned into a huge fight that went through the student center and up the elevators--the troop on one, me on another, and them yelling at me as the doors opened on each floor. then it was written up in the school paper about some (unknown) white racist (that would be me) causing problems with black students on campus.
Wow... I'm still fuming about it all these years later! My anger had nothing whatsoever to do with the color of their skin but rather with a belief in how you should or shouldn't treat other people and act in public.

victoria.magyar said...

The vindication fantasy! Mine probably involves completely deflating some stupid-ass piropo (abroad or at home) and seeing a smug face crumble.

I agree with Julie that he probably heard you and just wanted to cling to his conception of you as stuck-up/racist. I also feel like, short of fawning over him and giggling uncontrollably at his little drollery, no reaction you had would have been satisfying to him.

My favorite fantasy comeback for when someone throws some random epithet at you that reveals more about him/her than it does about you? "When you point at me, three fingers are pointing back at you." (Kinda lame I know, but I think that's its charm.)

Anonymous said...

If that had happened to me I probably would have screamed louder the second time and made sure he heard me.

I have been in that situation. I can't say that what I overheard was bad. Most often, it was simple speculation over who I was and what I was doing. Once, I heard two guys complementing me in a carnal way and chose to ignore it because I had no desire to talk to them.

However, I have the exact same fantasy.