How To Pick Up Strangers (aka How To Be As Awkward As Possible Around Immigrants)

A few years ago, Gabriella was playing on a playground, and I was sitting on a park bench because, ya know, I do not get involved in her play. Another woman was there, and we soon began chatting.

Our conversation quickly revealed that she was really kind, interesting, and smart. It was also obvious that she was new to the area, very lonely, and an immigrant.

My heart went out to her. Conversations I'd had with Billy over the years about how unwelcoming and unfriendly the US can be to newcomers made me want to hug her.

Later in the day, I was sharing with Billy about the encounter. His question: "Did you get her phone number?" And I was all um... no. To which he basically responded, "What is your deal?"

"I don't know. I'm not experienced at picking up other women at the playground."

Billy is convinced (using me as a one-person sample) that Americans are weird about making new friends with strangers. His experience is that when he meets folks from other countries they are much quicker to act like old friends, swap numbers, and get together with strangers.

I can't really argue with him. I wandered away from him in the Target check-out line once, returning only minutes later to find him and the Canadian girl in front of us chatting like long-lost cousins. They lamented the US's obsession with credit cards and commitment to poor healthcare. They laughed like BFFs while myself and the American boyfriend stood by quietly.

Fast forward to last week. A mother and her two children eagerly welcomed us into a Chick-fil-A, where they'd be waiting for other kids to play in the indoor playground. Gabriella was so distracted by the girl asking, "Are you finished?" we totally abandoned eating.

The kids were similar ages to our own. The mother lifted her son and Isaac up the giant stairs while the girls hid out and giggled at the top of the structure. I soon joined the mom and we chatted easily. I learned she was from Lebanon.

It's time to go, and I rush out to Billy. "Oh no," I whisper in a panic. "It's that moment. I feel like I should get her number, but it's so awkward."

"Do it," he instructed while wrestling Isaac's coat on. "The kids had a great time. She's from another country, she won't think it's weird."

"BUT I THINK IT'S WEIRD," I whisper-shout.

"Well," he said, "I absolutely cannot be the one to go back in there and ask for her number. That will be awkward. You must do this."  

So, since one of my New Year's Resolutions was to take social risks, I steeled myself and walked back into the isolation booth that is a Chick-fil-A playground. Literally, I opened with, "So do you all come here a lot?"

"Yes!" she told me with great enthusiasm.

So I went for it. "Well, let me get your number, and maybe we can get together again next we come."

And so, with zero trace of discomfort, she rattled off her number and told me to text her right away.

Here's my question: Am I just a complete weirdo about picking up strangers? Or is there truly cultural differences in the way we approach and include new people? I'd love to hear your thoughts. (Especially if they include the words "you are not crazy!")

When Can You Joke About Immigration?

Last night at the Oscars, Sean Penn announced the winner of Best Picture. Birdman was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who also happens to be Mexican. Before Penn announced González Iñárritu, he made a "joke" to the effect of "who gave this guy a green card?"

Twitter blew up, but González Iñárritu has since said he was fine with the joke. I personally had very mixed feelings about it all. When I first saw the clip, I may have audibly gasped. But then I noticed a picture of the two men from 2003 when they filmed 21 Grams together. Oh, they know each other.

Here's the thing: I love to joke and laugh, and most of my closest cross-cultural relationships have included jokes about race and culture. There are a thousand things I describe to Billy that he laughs and says, "Could you be any whiter right now?" And Lord help us when I found out he was my "alien relative." We joke because race and culture are not taboos in our house.

But it's a fine line, right? How do you know when you're being offensive? And should you care? Many are quick to criticize our "PC-culture" and claim that we should be able to joke about touchy topics without everyone taking it so seriously.

Personally, I think humor is valuable, even in complex and sensitive topics. But I believe strongly in sensitivity and that the best jokes don't offend the marginalized.

The Who

Chiding about someone's immigration status can only happen in a safe relationship. Two friends hanging out and joking, "Who gave you a green card?" is a totally different story than a presentation at an awards show with millions of on-lookers who are not part of (or even aware of) any relationship.

The When & Where

It simply wasn't time or the place. The Oscars was already being criticized for lack of diversity, and jokes about race serve to dismiss the serious questions and offend those are already experiencing exclusion. A green card joke hits hard in a sensitive spot for many, many families in this country, and coming from such a large platform is in poor taste.

The Wondering

While I can't speak for González Iñárritu, I do have to wonder if he was really as cool with the comment as he says. I have witnessed Latinos whose culture encourages them to sidestep their true emotions in an effort to blend in, avoid conflict, and show respect. I certainly can't say that's what was happening here, but the director did make some interesting comments of his own.

First, he returned his own quip, saying "Maybe next year, the government will inflict some immigration rules (on) the Academy. Two Mexicans in a row, that's suspicious, I guess."

He also closed out his comments with these eloquent words: "I want to dedicate this award for my fellow Mexicans, the one who live in Mexico. I pray that we can find and build the government that we deserve. And the ones that live in this country who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and the respect of the ones who came before and (built) this incredible immigrant nation."

González Iñárritu might say he was okay with the joke, but he definitely made his own statement. Ultimately, I hope his call for just treatment of immigrants will get more attention than Penn's thoughtless comments.

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Image credit: Denise P.S.

Valentine's Day: The Video

In celebration of Valentine's Day, we thought we'd do another little video for y'all. After all, we already showed how you can use grammar to woo your love interest, so we're clearly romantic gurus!

This time we're sharing about our childhood Valentine's Day experiences. Even better, Billy teaches you how you can make money on the playground off your Valentine this year. Enjoy!

After we filmed this, I got to thinking. It makes me wonder if Billy's girl classmates treated this Valentine exchange in the same way. Something tells me it was a bit different...
How did you celebrate Valentine's Day growing up?
Image credit: Sarah Parrott
A LIFE WITH SUBTITLES. All rights reserved. © Maira Gall.