“Good morning!” The man hailing me adjusted his hearing aid with one hand and waved with the other. His neatly pressed shorts stood to stiff attention around his thin legs — more a cordon than clothing. His short-sleeved shirt and sturdy leather sandals completed the image of a man who took pride in his appearance and valued how he was viewed. Thinning white hair parted with each gust of wind to reveal the pink of his scalp. I noticed his hands as he released his small, wiry-haired dog from its leash to complete its morning ablutions — speckled with sunspots on almost translucent skin, a railway track of criss-crossing veins bulging at the surface, knuckles bent and gnarled and probably arthritic.
“Morning,” I called, stretching the ‘o’ like warm candy. I gave a quick wave before pressing my earbud into mute.
He tried out a beaming smile at me — always a risk amongst morning exercisers and dog walkers. You could never be certain who’d spit a clipped ‘good morning’, who’d stop for a twenty-minute chat, and who’d ignore you entirely. I pulled the dogs off the path, parked them like vehicles. I had time.
“Lovely weather,” he offered.
“It is,” I said. “The cool’s a pleasant reprieve from the last week of blazing heat.”
He nodded slowly, weighing my words.
We exchanged chit-chat for a while, lingering on dogs and weather and how crowded the park was on summer mornings.
“Did you come here from England?” His question, apropos of nothing else we’d discussed, blindsided me.
“No, I didn’t.” I’d fielded this question before from others. My ambiguous accent when speaking with strangers often generated confusion. They’d look at my face, listen to my voice, and try earnestly to fit them into the rigid taxonomy of But Where Do You Really Come From they carried in their heads.
“Oh.” He sounded disappointed.
“Your English is very good,” he rallied. A heartbeat of silence passed between us. He beamed at me.
“Thanks,” I said, clipping the consonants, cursing my parents internally for instilling unmerited respect for elders in me.
“Were you born here?” Mssr. Clouseau was determined to investigate.
“No, I came here with my parents when I was five.” My responses, automatic and practiced, came without effort.
“Ah,” he said, having solved the mystery. “You’re an Aussie chick.”
I balked. This accusation had been levelled at me before. The epithet — ‘an Aussie chick’ — so laden with meanings and judgements, so heavily implying that I’d given up any vestiges of other identities, always grated.
“Well, no. Not exactly. But yes, I guess,” I fumbled. I never knew how to address this without launching into a TED Talk about migration and history, and the complexity of identity for the children and grandchildren of migrants.
“My people came here in the 1800s.” He established his credentials, his claim on Australian-ness.
“Ah, right. My husband’s people came with the first fleet.” I was not above pettiness.
He turned to pick up after his dog and was wandering away.
“See you next time, Aussie chick,” he called.
I’d been dismissed.
“Yes, bye. Have a good day,” I called after his retreating back.
Later, in the shower, I thought of all the clever retorts I could have spun.
Image credit: Photo by 🌸🙌 فی عین الله on Unsplash
Why don’t we come up with right retorts precisely when we need them? 😁
Right? And why is it that the smartest, sharpest retorts always come in the shower?
Great work putting me there with you! You seem to have a lot of story fodder walking your dog. Hehe I cringed at his first question and winced as he continued talking. Nothing like a healthy dose of casual racism to start your day. 😣
Thanks, Mel! Honestly, I don’t know what it is about me that says “talk to me” when I’m walking. I’m a grumpy walker (or at least, I always thought I was a grumpy walker) and I always have at least one earbud in my ear. Maybe I need to practice my ‘leave me alone’ face. The strangest people seem to stop me to voice their (often wrong) opinions too.
It’s probably the same look I give at the airport that ensures I always get picked for the drug and bag security check. Hahah should practice rbf a bit more I guess. Hehe
Love: Thinning white hair parted with each gust of wind to reveal the pink of his scalp. and I called, stretching the ‘o’ like warm candy. .
Mssr. Clouseau LOL. 😀
I kind of felt this in my bones. My question used to be “What are you?” It rarely happens in these times, but when I was young…man…it grated. Why can’t we just chit chat about the weather like everyone else? Always wondered what it would be like to mouth off on a long, unfiltered rant 🙂
Thank you, Tara! I wondered for exactly one second whether to call him Poirot, but Clouseau was so much more fitting for his bumbling detective-ing!
Oh my goodness. “What are you?”!!! Why do people do that? It’s so weird. If my brain ever kicks in when it happens, I’ll let you know how the rant goes.
You skillfully wove context into this. In the US, “chick” just means girl. It could’ve thrown me except for the way you wove it’s meaning into the very next sentence. Any further away, and I’d have had to reset my thinking, but its placement brought the point home nicely. Even more than that, what worked for me was the contrast between you stopping what you were doing to have a chat and this “nice old man” being offensive.
Mssr. Clouseau made me chuckle. And I related to this so hard, ASha. I got the “Your accent is so unique, where are you from?” comment at San Francisco airport right at the beginning of this year and its 2020, and I’m almost 40 and I still don’t have the best answer to this.
Good grief, they can’t help themselves, it seems. My favourite is “Asha! Oh, that’s such an unusual name” — really? REALLY? When there’s a song that most people have come across with your name in it, you know your name’s really not that unusual (thank you, Cornershop. I’ll forever be grateful!) 🤣.