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

Why Multicultural Marriage Is Awesome

Multicultural marriage is fantastic. There, I said it.

Sometimes it's easy, in the routines of life, to forget all the enchanting elements that attracted us to cross-cultural marriage in the first place. And sometimes those around us can be quick to remind us of the extra challenges with language, families, and culture.

We know that's true. But multicultural marriage also offers bonus gifts that we can enjoy and celebrate. Here's some of the awesomeness that stands out for me.

Read the rest of the post, which covers peanut butter, piñatas, and Pinterest, over at Multicultural Kid Blogs.

Bilingual Kids: A Mother's Lament

Can I just whine for a second? Not like over the top melodrama, but just a little bit of “do ya feel me?” Because raising bilingual kids, while not necessarily harder than I expected, has been maybe a bit more emotional than I anticipated.

Gabriella recently asked me to watch Clifford the Big Red Dog. So I put it on in Spanish because Netflix lets you do those sorts ofthings.

Then she started: “Mom, I can’t hear them. I don’t understand it. Mom, I want an English show. An Eeeeeenglishhhh show, Mommy!” And I felt defeated.

I mean, seriously, when everything with a preschooler is a battle, TV is supposed to be the truce. The one thing we both agree on for a moment of peace.

That day I told her to keep trying and pay attention. She eventually settled in and later told me what it was about. Then, she asked, “Now can I watch an English one?” Like that one didn’t really count.

And I totally knew this would happen. I knew she’d be more comfortable in English. Despite Papa speaking Spanish, irregardless of Spanish-speaking caretakers, no matter Spanish church, I knew English would be her primary language.

Still, I harbored dreams that she’d hesitate over high school exams that ask demographic questions like “What is your first language?” I envisioned her wavering because I’m equally fluent in the two languages of my household, she’d think.

But alas, I know that’s not the case. Even when Billy asks her questions in Spanish, she already responds in English. I mean, I knew that would happen. It happens to everyone. I didn’t assume we were this wild aberration of bilingual education. Still, if my heart could cry, little tears would be pooling.

She’s such a communicator, which I love (even when I want to amputate my own ears with a butter knife) because I see myself in her. Maybe one day, she too will have an elementary school teacher who will utter the phrase "verbal diarrea." Thanks for that, Ms. Kincaid!

But her passion to communicate means her Spanish fails her. Sure, there are moments when she pushes her face into her brother’s bellowing, “Come tu comida!” And I can hardly tell her to get back into her own chair because I’m cheering on the inside. But I know it’s not enough.

There’s an episode of Modern Family where Gloria hires a Spanish tutor for her son Manny. He is very unenthusiastic because he wants to take French, claiming “Spanish just doesn’t come naturally to me.”

Gloria is heart-broken and later admits that she hates having no one to talk with in her first language. The show responds with her husband Jay deciding to learn, but Manny is let off the hook. And for me, there was still sadness in that resolution.

I have spent so much time with young adults who lament how little they know of their parents’ language, their heritage language. I don’t want my kids to experience that loss one day, but perhaps it is somewhat unavoidable.

I haven’t given up hope, and in fact, we've been exploring bilingual elementary school options. I know this challenge is par for the course for any bilingual family. And I know we will experience it all again with Isaac, who currently shouts agua and vamanos along with bubbles and ball.

Let me close with a shout out to all my fellow parents wading in the multilingual pool. Keep going! We can do this! It’s not all neat and tidy, and it definitely requires commitment and re-commitment. But our children, whatever their level of fluency one day, will be grateful that we didn’t give up.

That’s what I tell myself anyway. Do ya feel me?

Why I Know Exactly How Jessica Huang Feels

I had been looking forward to the season premier of Fresh Off the Boat for some time. Articles had been popping up in my newsfeed, both positive and negative, and my interested was piqued. The uptick in diversity this year on TV has definitely been interesting to watch. (See my obessions with Cristela and Jane.) I love it, of course. I get a kick out of humor and cultural observations.

The title of this show has made me a bit uncomfortable since it's historically a derogatory description for first generation Asian immigrants. As Pamela Tom points out in this article, "Would you call a new show about Hispanic immigrants, 'Wetback'?" 

But the first two episodes had some moments that made me laugh and were totally relatable. Early on, the mother Jessica Huang (played by Constance Wu) complains about how one of the suburban, roller-blading housewives was carrying around dog poop in a baggy. I was transported immediately back to when we first got our dog Daisy. Billy was horrified when it came up that we're supposed to clean up after her. We still joke about it! 

Probably the most stand-out scene to me also centered on the mother and her discomfort in a U.S. grocery store. She waits outside, overwhelmed by its size and enthusiasm while creating a worst case scenario plan with her son. ("If we get separated, try and join a white family. You will be safe there until I can find you.") Her apprehension was so powerful to me.

I have talked to enough parents whose young adult children are considering a cross-cultural relocation. And so many are terrified. It's a universal feeling that new experiences can be intimidating and/or frightening. 

Of course, it's almost humorous to me to be unsure of a supermarket because it's too quiet and big. Jessica reminisces fondly over haggling and jostling in Chinese markets in D.C. But that's because we can rarely see some of the idiosyncrasies in our own culture. "Normal" is relative, and what may seem run-of-the-mill for one person, can be bizarre for someone from a different background.

When I first moved to L.A., my prior city living experience had been a year spent in Atlanta. Los Angeles and Atlanta are two very different cities. While they both share awards for traffic congestion, I was initially overwhelmed by L.A.'s diversity, density, and noise.

I lived near MacArthur Park in Filipinotown. The neighborhoods were packed tightly together, and people were always on the streets, waiting for the bus, hawking tamales, or returning from family trips to the market. Helicopters hovered overhead, and ice cream trucks sang out at all hours of the day and night.

My first week in town, I remember darting into the staircase of a local business to literally hide from the crowds. I needed to pull out a map, and I didn't want anyone to see me. I felt lost, completely overwhelmed, and ironically alone.

So when I watch Jessica Huang staring at that grocery store, I knew how she felt. Stepping into a new world, a new culture, is equal parts exhilarating and nerve-wracking. I'm looking forward to more episodes of Fresh Off the Boat, curious to see how the story evolves.

Did you watch the show? What did you think? Can you relate to the feelings of being overwhelmed in a new place?   
A Life with Subtitles. All rights reserved. © Maira Gall.