Scheme Magazine is currently featuring my story “The Good Sport.“ My piece is kicking off the second run of their series on cultural identity “But where are you really from?”
Excerpted from the original story
I still remember the bright yellow menus, the ubiquitous TV screens and the lingering smell of chicken wings in my hair. As an undergrad, I spent many nights serving tables and scouring my apron for extra packets of dill sauce.
A sports bar may seem like a strange entry point for a reflection on race, so I should mention that my ethnicity came up all the time. My customers asked“where are you from” about as often as they asked about the actual hotness of the hot wings. When they tried to guess, they would point to all kinds of obscure indicators, like my ethnic-looking earrings or my vague resemblance to a friend of theirs from Peru, India or Lebanon. I was the kind of server who wore a smile as if it were part of the uniform, entertaining customer curiosity without question.
The first time I played this guessing game at the restaurant, I was serving a table of four men.
“How are you guys doing over here?” I asked in my patented chirp. We engaged in light banter as I collected their empty pints and ravaged nacho trays.
“Just curious,” said one man.
“We’ve been wondering–where are you from?”
Although there was no game on that night, these men still seemed like they had their wagers set. I scanned the restaurant, which wasn’t too busy, and stood there holding a non-committal grin.
They placed their bets: Persian? Brazilian? Filipino? Portuguese?
“I speak Spanish,” I hinted, “and I was born in a small country in Central America.”
One man responded with a tentative, “mmm-Mexico?”
“El Salvador,” I finally said, “I was born there and moved to Toronto when I was two-years-old.”
This brief explanation felt worn-in like a well-read novel. I had shared it for as long as I could remember, and I didn’t feel much of anything when I repeated it.
Over the years I had somehow internalized that this was a geography game, not a history lesson, and that talk of the civil war and my fleeing family wasn’t good repartee. Particularly when on the job, I’d never say “Canada,” “Toronto,” or some other version of “here.” I’d let customers indulge in distancing my Canadian-ness: I would be agreeable and they would be satisfied. I admit, by temperament, habit, and job-description, I wanted to people-please. And I usually didn’t mind playing along if the customers seemed well intentioned. In fact, if they asked about my last name, I’d even mention my far-flung Italian roots.
I was loath to think this laid-back attitude was anything less than a personal choice. No big deal, right?…