Have I told you about the time I was mistaken for an immigrant?
I was born and raised in the dustbowl of southern California. After graduating high school, I spent two years in the Bedfordshire, England, and three years in San Vito dei Normmani, Italy, before finally settling down in Denver, Colorado in 1988. I moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma in the December of 1993, and I’ve been here ever since, livin’ the life.
As I related in an earlier post, and for reasons I won’t go into here, I took it upon myself to learn to speak Spanish last year. During the spring and summer of 2018, every other sentence that came out of my mouth was en español. I visited taco trucks with my daughter at lunch – she happens to be fluent in Spanish – and attempted to order in my new language. I visited Mexican panaderías. I listened to Spanish-language radio. And most importantly (for this story, anyway), I changed my name on the Starbucks mobile app to Esteban, the Spanish form of my given name, Steven.
Because there are not a whole lot of Estebans that frequent my local Starbucks, all of the baristas got to know me in pretty short order. I was often greeted with, “Hi, Esteban!” or “Good morning, Esteban!” as if I were the Hispanic Norm Peterson, to which I’d reply, “¡Buen día, mi amigo! ¿Cómo estas?”
One particular morning, I arrived a little early after placing my mobile order, and the barista said, “Hey, Esteban! I’m just finishing up your order, it will be ready in just a minute.”
“¡Gracias, mi amigo!” I replied. We then proceeded to make small talk (in English, as he doesn’t speak Spanish) as he continued to prepare my drink.
As I reached across the bar for my finished coffee (venti almond milk latte with seven – seven! – pumps of peppermint, in case you’re looking to get me something for my birthday in April), a hand reached out and grabbed my arm. I turned to face the older woman who had stopped me from getting my life-sustaining bean juice.
“Do you mind if I tell you something?” she asked me.
Well, this is awkward I thought to myself. “Sure, please do!” I said, perhaps a little too energetically.
“I just want to tell you that your English is fantastic, Esteban! You are assimilating very well to your new country. Tell me – how long have you lived here?”
I was floored. Part of me wanted to laugh, part of me was horrified, and part of me was flattered that I’d been mistaken for being Hispanic.
Competing thoughts flooded my brain. Do I tell her the truth? Do I mock her somehow? Do I accept this little microaggression for what it was meant to be – a compliment?
In the end, I decided not to burst her bubble, to let her think she was being a good American citizen by welcoming a foreigner in to her midst.
“A few years, ma’am,” I responded, “and thank you for the compliment!”
“You’re very welcome, “she replied. “You’re doing a great job – have a nice day!”
“Gracias – ¡que tengas un buen dia!” I said to her as I grabbed my coffee and walked out of the shop.