English, please.

Salsa music danced in the air of the new little Mexican restaurant off the freeway. Never mind that salsa music isn’t Mexican; the foray of papel picado hanging from the ceiling and little Mexican trinkets adorning the clay-colored walls almost compensated for the inauthenticity in sound. The Modela and Dos X neon bar lights didn’t hurt.

A petite blonde girl approached us as we hung around the hostess stand.

“How many?” she asked.

“Three,” Jimmy said.

Jimmy was Jean’s husband. Jean was my supervisor —the kind of grandmotherly woman that gives you retired elementary school teacher vibes. Straightforward but sweet. Warm as her knitted sweaters. Jimmy, sometimes he did some business at the dealership as well, though I don’t recall ever knowing what it was exactly. He seemed nice enough, though. And he was until he wasn’t.

It was a big deal that Jean invited me to lunch with her and Jimmy. I exalted her as I tend to do with people of authority, and I felt honored that she would want to spend her only working hour free from me, with me.

Our hostess guided us to our table and we sat down and browsed the menu for the first time.

“I’m gonna get the fajitas,” Jimmy said in his Texas drawl. He closed his menu, quick and assured.

Our waiter, a lanky middle-aged Hispanic man with prominent dark circles under his eyes, came to take our orders. Ever the gentleman, Jimmy insisted the waiter take our orders first, so I made my order and then Jean followed.

“I’ll have the fajitas,” Jimmy said. “Can I get an extra thing of sour cream too?” and he motioned his hands to indicate a small ramequin.

Our waiter smiled, shifted his weight from one foot to the other and mumbled something to Jimmy.

“What?”

“Ehhh…I’m sorry…” and he leaned in to look at Jimmy’s menu as if to get clarity on what Jimmy was asking for.

“More sour cream. Can I get some extra sour cream?”

“Ehhh…I’m sorry…uh…”

Jimmy turned red in the face and started sighing and rolling his eyes.

“Sour cream. Can I get some extra sour cream? You know what, where are you from!?”

Jimmy didn’t give our waiter a chance to answer before he pressed.

“WHERE ARE YOU FROM?”

“Eh, Puerto Rico.”

At that point I was pretty sure Jimmy thought Puerto Rico is a place in Mexico and I wanted to expose his ignorance, but I didn’t have an ounce of courage at the time so I sat, frozen as I watched a brown man turn red and his body language shrink in front of our big, pasty Texan. In hindsight, could have translated with my half-assed Spanish and nipped this thorny situation in the bud, but I wilted in shame right with our waiter.

“Do they speak English in Puerto Rico?”

“Jimmy…” said Jean, visibly exasperated.

I’m sure she was embarrassed. Not surprised or anything. Embarrassed. This was the man she had been married to for decades, and surely they had discussed things like this is American and we speak English here. But he was showing his ass in the company of a Mexican-American —one, I believe, she genuinely liked and cared for.

Flustered, Jimmy said “Nevermind,” and, in essence, shooed him away like you do when flies are coveting your summer barbecue.

We sat in an uncomfortable silence until our food came and I stewed over his treatment toward our waiter. Number one, Jimmy, Puerto Rico is not in Mexico like I know you’re assuming. Number two, yes. Many people in Puerto Rico do speak English as it is an unestablished U.S. territory; however, the official language is Spanish, which means they are not required to learn English though they are completely welcome in the U.S. Number three, would you like some Wet Naps to wipe that asshole where your mouth is supposed to be?

I used to wonder how people expect non-English speakers to learn the language so quickly. They complain that they don’t speak English, but then they roast them for trying. Are they allowed room for error? To learn? To get comfortable making mistakes in their new language cause that’s the best way to learn anything? No. Because it’s not really about any of that, now is it? 

The horror is not the opinion, whatever it is. We’re all entitled to them. But for god sakes, how hard is it to be kind?

Jean was my homie, but I was eighteen at the time. If Jimmy broke bread with me today…

(This post is an oldie. One of many uncomfortable moments re: racism and such that remain with me.)

26 thoughts on “English, please.

  1. Yes! People can’t have it both ways. English is not my mom’s first language and so many times when people meet her, they say right to her face, “I don’t even understand what you’re saying. Wow, that’s a really strong accent.” Etc. *side eye* She tries really hard. But that’s all people want to focus on. It irritates me!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Eek. I think there are kinder ways to communicate that you can’t understand a person. Sorry that you have to witness that! I’m sure it’s hard to keep your cool when it’s your mom.

      Like

  2. This was really interesting. People today are so impatient and unforgiving. That poor waiter!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Impatient and unforgiving is true, but I think J was ignorant to boot.

      Like

  3. Thanks for having a space for writing like this to live on the internet. While I love the cheap DIY and the tried and true recipes in the blogosphere, my heart beats for pieces like this – windows into other people’s writing worlds. Love that Write or Die exists.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Emily! That means a lot! I do an occasional DIY (cause I’m crafty too), but I love storytelling the most. Thanks for joining us!

      Like

  4. Love the story and your writing. Very frustrating and sad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for the high compliment, Priscilla! Hope all is well with you and baby 🙂

      Like

  5. I love this and what you are doing with the link up! It’s so nice to have a space like this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sheryl! We’d love for you to share your posts with us too!

      Like

  6. My in-laws are all Puerto Rican and many of them have strong accents and use Spanish over English. This just makes me MAD. I wish people could have a little more compassion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t understand why we as a nation are so uptight about language. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could all learn from each other??

      Like

  7. I really love the story and your writing style!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Chrissy! That’s a sweet compliment. I’ll take it! 🙂

      Like

  8. brittanyputman15

    Poor waitress. I spent some time abroad and know how it feels to not be able to understand because I didn’t speak the language. I think it all goes back to respect and remembering that someone’s worth isn’t determined by how alike they are to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “…someone’s worth isn’t determined by how alike they are to you.”

      Absolutely! SO well said!

      Like

  9. Rachel G

    Sadly, I have relatives who would probably respond like that. I think it’s only monolingual people who have no sympathy for the process of language learning. I literally wrote a post about my experience being the one who didn’t speak fluently when we were in China, and about how different I think my experience was compared to the experience of people like my parents-in-law in the USA: http://www.therandomwritings.com/2014/08/im-illiterate-idiot.html

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I just read your post. Thank you for sharing your perspective! Really valuable insight into what it’s like to be on the fringes of an emersion experience. It’s sad that our country (in general) is so uptight and unwelcoming about other languages compared to other countries’ reception of us.

      I also read all of the comments on your post, and I saw some usual, “What bothers me is when people don’t try to learn.” I always wonder…how can people (and especially strangers) really know how much someone is trying to learn? 1) Are they at home with them all day? 2) Do they know how difficult it is to learn a new language as an adult? Do they consider that they might have tried to communicate at some point but was publicly shamed? (As in the case of our waiter).

      I could go on and on…

      Like

  10. Such a great post Shelly. I felt like I was there and could feel the tension.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. It happens more often than we want to believe/admit. An all too familiar and quintessential example of ignorance. I’d tell him “hey man, we’re all human here, you don’t have to be a douche about it”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! Being an older generation southerner, I’m sure he has some strong opinions about the matter; but gosh, our waiter was polite and rather timid, so it just felt so ugly the way Jimmy treated him.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Tawni Sattler

    I was cringing as I read this. Really well written, but hard to read. I’m living in Austria as an American expat, and I CONSTANTLY worry about encountering people like Jimmy, who are less-than forgiving about my poor German language skills. Luckily I’ve only had one encounter, and the man was teasing me in a light-hearted way, but still. I am trying so hard to improve my German, but learning a second language (especially as an adult) is HARD. So grateful for grace. Thank you for sharing this with everyone!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tawni, thank you for sharing a bit of your experience! I love hearing first-hand accounts of what it’s like to communicate all over the world. As Rachel (above^^^) expressed, we as English-speakers are received much better in other countries than other-language speakers are received in the U.S. It’s kind of sad, isn’t it?

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  13. I grew up in India where is English is the official language and yet when I moved to this country for university, I felt I couldn’t understand what other people were saying! Communication is not easy, and even when we speak the same language and have the same cultural background we often misunderstand each other so add language barrier and we have an easy recipe for disaster!
    I enjoyed your story not only because it’s well written but also because it is a subject that everyone can relate to, somehow! Thank you for sharing! So excited to be s part of this group!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s so interesting, Koninika! I didn’t even realize that English is the official language in India! I bet you guys learned PROPER English, whereas we in America speak so many different dialects, complete with colloquialisms that are hard for anyone outside of that region to understand. That’s another argument too, right? Like, if someone came here from another country and DID IN FACT learn some English (like they are expected) say in Boston, I’d assume they’d go to Los Angeles and have a really hard time communicating.

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  14. That’s so interesting, Koninika! I didn’t even realize that English is the official language in India! I bet you guys learned PROPER English, whereas we in America speak so many different dialects, complete with colloquialisms that are hard for anyone outside of that region to understand. That’s another argument too, right? Like, if someone came here from another country and DID IN FACT learn some English (like they are expected) say in Boston, I’d assume they’d go to Los Angeles and have a really hard time communicating.

    Like

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