MUNI Stories: I Said, What Are You?

“Are your parents here in this country?” asked the garrulous drunk of the Chinese boys. The drunk, a florid, swarthy, affable man holding a big beer can, sat in the back of the 14 Mission bus. I sat to the left of the boys in seats with our backs to the side of the bus. We looked across to people sitting on the other side. It was a little like sitting around a dinner table but without the table.

“Yes,” said one boy. “We’re from here.”

I’d been swapping stories with the boys. They were clearly all-American. We had started assessing taco places as the bus sped up Mission Street on Sunday. A long line waited outside La Taqueria at 25th Street.

“It’s good, but not that good,” I said.

“Yeah,” said one of the boys. “I live in the Excelsior and there’s a great taco place out by Onondaga. The line is shorter. But my favorite is El Farolito.”

I could see this kid was a regular taco aficionado.

“No, really,” said the drunk. “When did you come from China?”

After that, the boys stopped interacting with him. But I couldn’t restrain myself, even though I could see others on the bus would prefer to ignore him. We continued to chat loudly about ethnicities.

“I’m Mexican,” he announced.

“I’m Scandinavian, but way back there,” I said, waving my arm toward ancestors in the distance.

I looked around at the others at our “table.” A young dark-skinned black man with a thin nose sat in the corner on the back bench frowning as he read Dale Carnegie’s How to Develop Self-Confidence and Influence People by Public Speaking. He looked so serious, I wanted to hug him. A young pale woman sitting across from me pretended to float in another universe, looking past me out the window with half-closed eyes. Next to her a beautiful well-dressed Latinx adjusted his ear buds and consulted his phone, multitasking. I knew he was paying nearly as much attention to us as he had to the product on his glossy, curly black mane, but he tried not to look up. He was enjoying the conversation. I kind of wanted to hug him too.

An old Mexican man sitting on my left was the only rider as obviously entertained by the drunk as I was. The drunk had been mostly talking to himself in Spanish and periodically the man on my left would translate for my benefit, then giggle. But the drunk also spoke fluent English. He wanted us to know that he was more than just Mexican. His family was Spanish.

“My grandmother in Spain had blue eyes and everything,” he announced.

“My Swedish grandmother had brown eyes,” I said. “I guess that’s where I got them. The purple hair is all mine, though. None of my people had purple hair.”

The drunk grinned, the Latinx smiled, the old guy sitting on my left giggled. The boys were still quiet, but as I got off at my stop, I thought I could see them smirking.

MUNI Stories: What Are You?

“What are you?” asked the Filipina lady sitting next to me at the bus stop. She looked to be about my age—grandmotherly. She was talking with her female friend who had been telling her a joke in Tagalog, and she was laughing uproariously. Then, when she saw me smile, she translated the whole joke for me into English. I confess I didn’t totally understand but I laughed anyway. She was trying so very hard to include me.

I thanked her for translating the joke and then she asked me, ”What are you?”

My MUNI stop at Richland and Mission Streets where all the most interesting people gather.

It took a minute to understand what she was asking. Put to me, this question has been about gender, usually asked by children. People often mistake me for a man. But once I open my mouth I’m seen as female, and we had already been talking, so I didn’t think this woman was asking after my gender.

It’s the same question white people are admonished not to ask people of color. White people don’t get asked that question. It’s often assumed we have no culture. But this woman knew I came from somewhere, and once I figured out that she was asking after my ethnicity, I was delighted to answer.

“I’m mostly Swedish and Norwegian. But I’m third-generation so I don’t know either of those languages. I’m sorry to say my only language is English,” I confessed, embarrassed.

“What languages did they teach you in school in the Philippines?” I asked her. She told me they had learned both Spanish and English. I asked about Tagalog. She said they didn’t have to study that because they already knew it. That sounded like the argument of colonialists to me—Filipinas being taught the language of the oppressors but not their native language in school. But the main thing I thought was that this woman from the far reaches of the imperialist project got a better education than I did, at least where languages are concerned.

I’m the beneficiary of the American school system in a country and culture that believes we are the center of the universe, so there is no need to learn other peoples’ languages. Funding the football team was the primary objective of our school board in Yakima, Washington. Art, music, language and girls’ sports were seen as secondary. Or in the case of girls’ sports, completely unimportant. About this, as a pre-Title IX kid, I am still angry. I coulda been a contenda!

I know some things have changed since I was a student out there in education land in the 1950s and 60s. I sure hope so, because it’s this way of thinking that reinforces the xenophobia and nativism plaguing us now.

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