Stereotyping, Orientalism & a Total Conversation Fail

Strike 1...2...3...you're OUT!

Just had to republish this piece…It never got much attention the first time I published it, but maybe it’s because it had a not-so-sexy title. I still wonder whatever became of “Hot Sauce Guy”…

Conversations with strangers who approach me because they identify me as a Muslim (via my headscarf) are usually quite interesting and always leave me thinking. Yesterday, however, a conversation that took place at the check-out aisle of a grocery store continues to puzzle me and even disturb me; hence my blogging in hopes of getting it off my head and transferring it onto yours…

As I said, I was at the checkout aisle at the grocery store. I came with my Muslim girlfriend, her husband and her 3-year-old daughter. As we were checking-out of the empty grocery store (with over 10 registers), a random white dude in his mid-thirties and a Cardinal’s jersey stands behind us with one item in his basket: a bottle of hot sauce. I looked at the hot sauce, then to the empty isles to my left and my right, concluding that he hated the self-checkout aisles as much as I did and was patient enough to wait behind us for the one cashier.

guy: hi (speaking nervously)

me: hi (with big stupid smile on my face)

guy: how’s it going?

me: great day, can’t complain.

guy: are y’all a big family? (y’all=my girlfriend, her husband, her daughter and I)

me: They are husband/wife and this is their daughter…I’m their annoying friend (I smile nervously at his disappointed pause)

guy: you’re just their friend? (Did he expect me to say we were a harem?)

me: yes…

guy: do you have many friends?

me: Yes. Well, no….I just have a few good friends…

guy: yea, I have good friends too…

me: that’s what’s important right…? (awkward moment…)

guy: do you go to school or something?

me: i’m a grad student…

guy: oh, wow. hey, could we meet some time for lunch…or coffee?

me:……(How do you say, “hell no, dude! I don’t even know you!” in a polite way?)

guy: …or would that be inappropriate?

me: (Yes! that’s the word!…..inappropriate…!) Yes, it would be…

guy: oh, right….who should I talk to then? You mother? Should I meet your father?

me: (No, I don’t have a “representative” at this time, but thank you for asking)…..Nobody…I mean, just don’t have the time right now…

guy: not even to talk in a bench somewhere…like in a park?

me:…..no?

guy: I get it….

me:….

(Mind you, at this point I am dying inside because I don’t know where to run and my friend’s three-year old daughter keeps playfully encouraging conversation with this man by asking: “What’s your name?”…All the while, I know my friend and her husband are laughing at the fact that I am always somehow part of the strangest conversations/encounters)…

guy: My name is Nathan (he answers the three-year-old, but directs his introduction to me)…What’s you’re name? (this time, he directs the question to me)

me: Cristina (Oh, no! He will realize that I was a Christian-turned-Muslim and he is going to stab me or something, like Michael Enright did to the Muslim cab driver in NYC)…

guy: You know, I watched a program the other day and was hearing how Arabs are facing lots of discrimination nowadays…

me: Yes, that’s true, but….I’m not Arab…I’m Cuban American….

guy: Oh! I’m so sorry if I offended you…

me: It’s not offensive to be Arab…they’re Arab (pointing at my friends)

guy: Oh, you know…my friend speaks Spanish…

me:…. (should I tell him that Spanish is my second language and that I don’t like burritos? No. I don’t want to shake his entire universe all at once)

guy: …But you know, they mention that Americans should make more efforts to understand Arabs…

me: you mean Muslims?

guy:….

me: there’s a really good mosque around here and they would be more than glad to give you information about Islam…

guy: …right….this line is real long…it was nice meeting you… (I think the awkwardness of the conversation finally dawned on him)

me: have a good day, Nathan…(guy checks out at light speed in the lane next to ours)…

Why did he choose to speak with me? My girlfriend was inches away from me, but I was the lucky duck. While hijabi’s are sometimes approached when alone, they are rarely approached when accompanied by a man (perhaps due to the stereotype that Muslim woman don’t speak without permission from “their men”?). I commend Nathan for taking this “risk” and talking to an accompanied hijabi. But why me? Perhaps my zebra-printed headscarf  (yes, I wear animal print, don’t judge me) and clear, native English was inviting? Whatever drew him to me, this man’s goal was to start a conversation with the girl in the headscarf..

I am quite sure he wasn’t trying to ask me out on a date. I honestly think he just wanted to learn more. Not really about me, but what, in his mind, my headscarf represented.

Do you know when you attempt to do something new for the first time? Like sing karaoke or speak in front of a large crowd? Your voice tends to crack, you turn red in embarrassment, yet, you continue clownishly? This guy was something like that. I believe that talking to a Muslim was his attempt at something new. I will not argue that this attempt was utter failure in so many ways, but even failures teach us lessons. If he were to reflect, would he approach another Muslim with the same set of assumptions with which he approached me?

Was this his attempt to extend a hand of friendship to everything I represented (apparently—the Arab world)? Or, did he have some ulterior motive? Like to smash the bottle of hot sauce over my head and yell “dirty Arab”…? (yes, this crossed my mind!)

The one thing I did realize was the danger in becoming an object of representation. Muslim women who wear headscarves have become a representation of so many things. I was an American before I became Muslim. Thus, my annoyance is not in being mistaken for Arab. No. My annoyance is in having to carry the load of all the negative connotations that the headscarf, a piece of cloth (!), has come to represent (oppression, terrorism, foreignness). Realizing that I represented so many things in this man’s mind, I kept replaying the conversation in my mind. Did I represent my religion in a positive way? Did I help dispel misunderstanding about Muslims? Could I have been friendlier without being suggestive? Could I have educated him more about the fact that good Muslims don’t support terrorism? Should I have dramatically yelled, “we are good people, tell your friends!” on the way out?

I needed more time to tell him that I recycled my paper bags and reused plastic containers because I was a tree hugger! And I had to tell him that BBQ sauce was much better than hot sauce, how dare he? Oh, and that I was also a baseball fan, and actually watched a Cardinals game when I went to St. Louis! Yes, the American sport and I was a regular American girl too!

But who was I kidding. I stood like a billboard in front of this man. My identity and purpose cleverly designed and published by the American media.

Like any Muslim who loves his or her religion, we want to explain ourselves. But sometimes we simply aren’t prepared with all the right words because we are too busy being normal human beings. Thus, I stood as an awkward person dragged into an awkward conversation.

And yet, I think everything went as it should have…

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5 thoughts on “Stereotyping, Orientalism & a Total Conversation Fail

  1. You care too much about what other people think.
    if some one already has a Preconceived idea it’s very hard to change.
    the best way to change it is by acting real.

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