Although I’m not mistaken for a nanny, like Rose Arce, I fully understand how the assumptions made by some people can be disturbing and hurtful. http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/07/18/arce.latino.mother/index.html?hpt=hp_p1&iref=NS1
I am also sometimes taken for someone I am not. It isn’t because of the color of my skin or the texture of my hair. As long as I don’t speak, I am a respectful and respected American.
But a single, “Hi” that comes out of my mouth screams my foreign origins. Instantly, for some people I cease to be someone like them, and they assume that because I have an accent I am deaf, ignorant or even stupid.
This morning my husband and I hunted for an insurance company to insure the lake cottage we recently purchased.
We entered the office shortly before ten o’clock. Only one woman was sitting behind one of the three desks. She was on the phone and motioned for us to be patient.
Another lady showed up, pulled her chair, sat down, and switched her computer on.
“Can I help you?” she asked, taking her jacket off.
“We would like to know if you could insure our camp,” my husband said.
The woman stopped in her tracks and looked up. Her mouth twisted as if she was refraining a giggle while a mix of amusement, panic and suspicion filled her eyes.
“Your what?” she asked.
My husband turned toward me. He always insists that I’m the one who speaks better English. I disagree. His English is flawless. His written English, that is.
“We need to insure our lake cabin,” I repeated, speaking slowly and making eye contact with the woman. “We hope this is something we can do with your company.”
The woman realized then that we were both standing and offered us a seat facing her desk. We sat down and she turned toward me, ignoring my husband although her eyes darted to his face once in a while, showing again a mix of discomfort and perplexity.
Although she didn’t ask us where we were from, she clearly wouldn’t have believed us if we had told her that we were American citizens for the last ten years.
In her eyes, I read disbelief and annoyance. We were recent in the country if we had an accent. What were we doing in her office? And why was she the one who had to deal with us and not her colleague?
The following ten minutes reminded me of an excruciating school oral exam.
I was asked for my name, my address, and my phone number. Upon her request, I spelled out all the information. It’s only when the woman asked for my social security number that my husband dared open his mouth.
“Maybe we don’t need to waste each other’s time,” he said. “If you aren’t sure you can provide insurance for us.”
The woman stopped typing and instead pulled a questionnaire regarding the cabin. Although it was standard procedure, it sounded more like a murder case investigation than an insurance application. Every question was asked slowly as if I couldn’t understand the meaning of the words.
My husband saved us when he asked if it would be easier if she saw our place.
“That would be great,” the woman said and for a brief second I thought that everything would be all right. But she turned toward her computer screen and added, “We should set up an appointment now. I’m afraid I won’t understand you over the phone if I have to call.” She smiled an unapologetic smile. “With your accent and all,” she added.
The room closed on me, the air already humid thickened and her words echoed in my head. Despite my desire to flee the office-desire I’m sure shared by my husband-we agreed to meet the following morning at nine o’clock, knowing that it is hard to get insurance for a cabin built in 1950.
Seconds later, standing on the sidewalk, we looked as if we had run a marathon. It can be exhausting to be an immigrant. Without a word, we entered the local coffee shop, two doors away. After a strong cup of coffee and a chat with a friendly waiter we felt Americans again.
Better, but still down after our experience, we headed for a walk in a neighboring town. Accidentally, we parked in front of an insurance office. We thought it was a good omen, so we pushed the door open. Another woman took care of us and in less than fifteen minutes offered us an insurance contract.
I called the previous office to cancel our appointment but nobody was there. I left a message on the answering machine.
I hope the lady will understand me. I don’t feel like seeing her at nine o’clock tomorrow morning.
We are millions of Rose Arce.
We come in all colors, arrive from all places, or speak English with our birthplace tattooed on our tongue. Although born here, American citizens or residents of this country for many years, we are mistaken for nannies, gardeners, cleaning ladies, farm workers, and often not taken seriously weather because of the way we look or the way we speak.
The good news is that for one person who assumes things about us, another one doesn’t.
This is what I always remember when I am taken for a stupid foreigner, simply because I got an accent.