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First Person When my neighbour asked me a question about my race, I thought twice before getting angry

Sandi Falconer

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“Oh, I’m so glad I ran into you. I need your help with a gift.”

We met in the hallway, I was late as usual, rushing to pick up my son from school, while she was returning from her daily midafternoon stroll. Nevertheless, I paused, as I always did for Doris.

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“Of course. Happy to help,” I said and actually meant it. I had lived across from Doris for a few years now and had discovered that, although she was fiercely independent, energetic and kept to a rigorous schedule, she was in her late 80s and needed help on occasion. More often than not, I really was happy to set aside a few minutes of my day to open jars, restart modems or unload heavy, unwieldy items from her car. We had developed an unlikely comradery that went a little deeper than the perfunctory exchange of pleasantries normally reserved for those who inhabit our shared public space.

“What sort of wine do Indians drink?” she asked matter-of-factly.

I furrowed my brow uneasily. “Uh ... ” I started to murmur, not sure where this conversation was heading. After a few more non-committal, one-syllable grunts from me, she jumped in and attempted to explain herself.

“Well, what sort of wine would you drink?” she continued.

I took a moment and was about to explain that I’m more of a gin and tonic kinda gal when she interrupted.

“My doctor and her assistant are both Indian. Young women. Just like you. I’ve been there a whole lot this year. Well, you know about all that. Anyway, I really wanted to get them a nice bottle of wine. To say thank you for their care. I’ve written the cards, I just can’t figure out what wine to put in the gifts bags,” she went on, starting to sound flustered.

I knew Doris well enough to know this was seriously stressing her out. I could picture the gift bags, sparkly tissue paper peeking out, cards attached, sitting empty on her dining room table – this outstanding gift was driving her nuts, buzzing around her all day like a pesky mosquito she couldn’t swat. She needed answers and she needed them now.

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I, however, had momentarily stopped in my tracks. I was still processing the question, which wasn’t merely a case of a robust merlot versus a fruity pinot grigio. I felt responsible somehow. Like I needed to answer carefully on behalf of an entire community.

“I see. Do you know for sure they are Indian though? They could be from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka even. Depending on where they are from they may not even drink wine. They could be ... ” I trailed off watching her stare at me. Clearly, she did not want a lesson in South Asian geography.

“No, no. They look just like you. Dress like you, too. They don’t cover their heads or anything like that. That’s why I asked you. You would know.”

She was beginning to get impatient and her tone had now shifted just enough to make me feel distinctly uncomfortable. A not altogether unfamiliar feeling for me though.

The emphasis on the “you,” the assumptive “would” – variations of this sort of conversation have played out several times over the course of my life. The prejudice used to be overt, mostly food related and therefore easy to respond to.

“I just love curry. It’s so aromatic. I really should try to eat more spicy food.”

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“I thought you may know Raj from accounting.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know why I did that dumb Apu accent when I said that. We’re cool right?”

“Your English is soooo good. Good for you!”

Globalization and increased immigration brought about a worse kind of discrimination. The politically correct kind, usually manifested in a casual dismissiveness toward anyone who appears different – an “other.” Fake smile. Awkward silence. Shuffle away. The kind of look that says, “I just assume you won’t know anything or be interested in cottages, single-malt, snow-shoeing, golf. Therefore I won’t even attempt conversation. I’ll just look at you but not really see you because saying nothing is better than saying the wrong thing.”

A lifetime of navigating these kinds of interactions had rendered me numb. Too weary to be indignant. Too cynical to try and educate in the hope that next time it will somehow be different. Too hoarse from symbolically jumping up and down and shouting to an apathetic audience “Look at me! I exist. I’m just like you, really.”

Yet, as I contemplated how to respond to Doris, I felt surprisingly different. I thought about the countless times she had brought over an extra bag of crusty rolls from the European bakery for me or excitedly dropped off small treat bags of candy and cookies for my son every Christmas and Easter, or handwritten her mother’s recipe for “war cake” on a tattered old Post-it note. I didn’t experience the intense, rising anger quickly countered by a sinking feeling of disappointment, that made me want to shake my head and walk away.

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We live in confusing times. Everyone is an activist of some sort, quick to get on their soapbox and decry the latest ill that has befallen society. Boldly adding their voice to a growing chorus of opposition. Bravely hash-tagging in solidarity with whatever social injustice they are outraged by. Is any of it effective I wonder? Are we really bridging the divide or just widening it? Yelling (or tweeting in all caps!) till we are blue in the face but unable to see the humanity that unites us all, even when it is staring right in front of us.

Perhaps, sometimes a simple question about picking out a gift is just that. A question. Not some sinister, layered statement prompting heated debate on identity politics, race and inclusion in our fractured world.

In the end, we both agreed you can’t really go wrong with a nice bottle of Chardonnay.

Maya Noronha lives in Mississauga, Ont.

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