I was in Alderwood Mall on the day before Mother’s Day. The kiosk salesman had made eye contact and since I was interested in talking to him, I allowed myself to be reeled in.
“Let me see your pinky finger.”
He spoke in an accent that made me believe he was an Arabic speaker – maybe even Lebanese. I held out my hand and he began to polish my fingernail. Oh, man. How do I get myself into these situations?
I overcame my discomfort and asked him, “Your accent sounds familiar. Do you speak Arabic?” I said the last part in Arabic. He flipped over his tool to the side with finer grit.
“No, not Arabic, but it’s close,” he said.
“Oh. Where are you from?”
He kept his eyes on his work, and answered, “Azerbaijan.”
By now my fingernail gleamed as if it had been painted with clear coat enamel. The guy artfully shifted the focus off his nationality and on to why I should buy polishing kits for my wife, mother, daughter, sister, and neighbor lady. I managed with difficulty not to buy anything. When I walked away he shot out an Arabic parting phrase that again sounded precisely Lebanese.
I really can’t say for sure that he was lying to me, but his not knowing my intentions in asking gave him enough incentive to play it safe. Most Americans know so little about Azerbaijan that they wouldn’t have any prejudices to judge by. Confessing you’re an Arab is riskier. Americans associate Arabs with terrorism, much as Russians were suspected to be communist spies not so long ago.
Californians Not Welcome Here
It reminds me of a couple in the store I used to work in, whose groceries I once bagged. The checker started the normal chitchatting with the customers as I packed their stuff. They were telling her that they’d just moved to our town.
I kept the conversation going. “Welcome to the neighborhood. Where are you from?” There was a miniscule pause as the two looked at each other, wondering who would answer.
The husband looked back at me and said, “Tennessee.”
“That’s interesting. I’ve never been to Tennessee. What’s it like there?” We continued talking while I put the bags in the cart and the checker took their money. They seemed surprised when I offered to load the bags into their car for them.
Out in the parking lot, they opened the trunk, and I politely pretended not to see the freshly changed California license plates. You see, Washingtonians have a reputation for despising the Californians that come and make it too crowded.
Looking for A Better Way to Engage
Making friends with our Muslim neighbors is significant, but starting by asking their country of origin to break the ice is somewhat counter productive. It shouldn’t surprise me. I was tempted many times in Lebanon to say I was from Canada. Once I was advised by a Muslim friend to say I was German when we were in an anti-American part of town.
So what’s your advice for a less intimidating way of engaging in conversation?
If we come up with something better, and prepare ourselves in advance, we may just eliminate the awkwardness that keeps us from saying, “hello.”