Updated at the bottom at 8:18 p.m.
My car was in urgent need of a cleaning. Which is code for "I've never washed the car and I park it outside and I've had it for three years." But please don't tell my father who always preaches good car care. Truly, the rain washes away a lot of shit. Just not all of the shit.
And as of late, there have been swarms of bees on my car when I go out in the morning. They scatter when I drive away and lay in wait for the moment I return. I turn off the engine and eight bees swoop down and start feasting on the pollen that streaks my hood.
Since it is my first time at the car wash, I pull up to the pay booth a little dazed and uncertain of what happens next. The woman working the register makes faces at the Wolvog and ChickieNob and finally says, "they're really cute."
The Wolvog, ever the flirt when he sees a blond, smiles shyly and says, "thank you!"
And this is a transcript of the rest of the conversation.
Woman: Are they mixed?
Me: Mixed? Boy/girl twins? Yes, the one in pink is a girl...
Woman: No, I mean mixed.
Me: Fraternal? Boy/girl...
Woman: Mixed. Like is your husband a different race? Do they look like your husband?
Me: Um... No, we're all the same race. Do I just pull up to that building over there?
Woman: Then are you mixed? What are you? Are you an American?
Me: Yes, I'm from here. I grew up here. My parents are from New Jersey.
Woman: You're kidding me! You're an American?
Me: I think you could probably tell from my accent that I'm American...
Woman: But you've got to be mixed or something. I can't believe you're American. You don't look American. And I'm not racist. But you can tell that you must be mixed-race.
Woman: You think I'm racist. But I'm not. I just don't think you look American.
Me: Okay...well, I just need to wash the car...
Woman: Your kids are really cute. But they've got to be mixed-raced.
By this point, I finally have my credit card back and I'm pulling away slowly, mentally noting that this is a good reason for why I shouldn't get my car washed again for the next three years.
From the backseat, The Wolvog translates mixed-race into toddler-speech and asks, "Mommy, what's mc-ray?"
And still trying to figure out where my car is supposed to be in order to be de-crudded, I mutter, "a mc-ray is something you get with mcnuggets."
Thus begins another missed parenting moment.
In case you haven't been able to pick this up yet from reading my blog...I'm a Jew. The olive-skin? The dark eyes? The long curly hair? It's all just my Eastern European Jewry. I thought I'd just place that on the table since you can't see me right now and I'm sure you are wondering, "well...what ethnicity is she if people are asking these questions?"
But what did she think was the mix? White and something else? Middle Eastern and Latina? Half-meerkat, half-woman? Completely-fucked-up-in-the-head paired with high-functioning?
My whole life, I have had people out of curiosity play "guess her ethnicity" with me. It is a favourite game of people standing next to me in checkout lines ("your hair is so beautiful. Are you Middle Eastern?). Or pumping gas at the next car over ("Chica, I don't believe you. You have to speak Spanish! You're Mexican."). Or taking my order at a restaurant ("Italian? Right?"). This is pretty much a weekly occurrence. This has been going on my whole life.
Josh finds the whole blatant show of racism disguised as curiosity an interesting phenomenon and when I relayed this latest conversation to him, he laughed hysterically at this woman's social ineptitude. He told me that I had to write it down--it was one of the best ones yet.
But when she was talking, all I could think about was when it would start for my daughter, my beautiful olive-skinned daughter who has my dark-colouring, curly hair, dark eyes. And how she would feel when the questions started coming in earnest. And how they would make her view other people.
I think the greater thing that floored me this time is this thought that if your child looks like you, they are destined to repeat many similar experiences--both good and bad--that you experienced as a child. For me, this questioning affected me differently depending on where I was in my life and how comfortable I was in my own skin. In a blond-haired Barbie world, I was pretty uncomfortable with my looks. In college I was considered exotic on my blue-eyed Midwestern campus so I embraced looking different from my other dorm-mates. By now, so far beyond a time when I'm concerned about what people think of me (except when I'm about to go to meet a roomful of other bloggers at the D.C. Blogging get-togethers and I'm scared shitless. Sorry if I always seem quiet in person), these questions are an annoyance. The social ineptitude of others has its advantages too. Other people's assumptions have gotten me out of many an annoying conversation--it's easy to feign a lack of English knowledge when people start with the assumption that you don't know the language.
But until today, I had never considered how my daughter, who does look remarkably like me, will go through something similar too. I find the people who are the most rabid with the questioning tend to be younger. A case in point, the woman at the car wash was probably in her early twenties. Therefore, this isn't a problem that is going away. It is a problem my daughter will face too.
I think we're so conditioned or perhaps even biologically driven to create children in our image. But I, personally, had never stopped to think of the drawbacks of having a child in your image. And having them walk the same path that you walked. Will I be able to give her different skills because I lived it too? Should we work on comebacks? If she didn't look like me, there could be a different set of problems, so it isn't as if "woe is me, if she just didn't look like me she would skip through life unscathed by idiots." I'm simply commenting that I never thought about the inherent drawbacks--I only focused on the advantages of having a child reflect my image.
I've worked so hard in our house to take our focus off of looks and place it on action. We talk about how smart she is, how clever, how creative. Do I sometimes say, "you're so beautiful" too? Of course. I was always concerned with how she would come to view her body simply as a girl living in a body-focused society. That was my whole reason for taking the pressure off of looks.
But I had never considered this other side--that her looks would become a thing of comment just because a person couldn't "place" her. We're not only body-focused, we're obsessed with all labeling. And I know I do it too. My labeling is uniquely slanted to reflect my own interests--I am constantly assessing families and wondering which were built through treatments or adoption and which were built through good, old-fashioned sex (what? What's that? How do you have a baby from sex?). I'm noting if a person's last name is Jewish.
The Wolvog and ChickieNob are starting to note differences, and I've found it interesting that their commentary leans towards different actions rather than different looks. I've wondered if this is the work of my focus-shift or if this is the natural tendency of children: first focus on what people do and then focus on how they look. And how much will this work fly out the window the second they start encountering the guessing games.