He said he was a cowboy. He assured me that he listened to what ladies told him, because ladies were smarter than him. Always. He looked about 58, and he sat on the table in the post office because his hip needed to be replaced and he could barely walk. He told the whole post office about it. He was in front of me in line. I told him to keep sitting there until it was his turn, and that I'd wait for him to get up and get to the clerk. He appreciated that. He said that was unusually kind. Then he continued talking loudly, making the entire line listen to his hip problems, and when his time came up to go to the counter, I waited for him to make his way, to the service clerk whom I know, as I’ve shipped many of my books before from this office. I’ll call her Mary.
Whenever I see Mary, we talk about our kids and vacations and books, and share our experiences on being immigrants—I'm from Russia, she's from South Korea. I said hello to Mary, walked up to the next service clerk, and was busy chatting with her and watching her type up the address into the system—it was her second day on the job, so we was careful and slow—when I picked up on the conversation Mary and Cowboy had.
“How do you say 'Thank you' in your native tongue?” Cowboy asked.
I saw Mary stiffen. She usually has a softness about her, and a youthfulness that's easy to notice, in the way she smiles, in the way she flips her bob to the side and tucks the hair behind her ear, like she is 20 in the body that’s maybe a little over 50 years old. But this question hurt her. It was the question that as an immigrant from Russia I usually avoid due to my European look and virtually no accent. Mary has a noticeable accent, and her eyes and hair are a dead giveaway that she is Asian. I knew why she stiffened. It was more than words. It was Cowboy's tone. He spoke down to her as to a circus animal. “Can you wiggle your tail for me?”
I wanted to say something to stop him, and I didn’t know what. My service clerk was asking me questions, and Mary was asking Cowboy questions, and he kept chatting her up, making her more and more uncomfortable. She didn’t say anything, just went about doing her job, but I sensed her grow more and more agitated.
After several failed attempts, Cowboy repeated again, “How do you say 'Thank you' in your native tongue? I like to learn foreign languages, and I like to learn a few words a day, if I can.”
Mary shook her head no. Silently.
“No? You won’t say a word? Why not?” Then he said something in some language, but what it was, I didn’t hear. Mary hid her face with a magazine and glanced at me from behind it. She rolled up her eyes—she wasn't mocking him; she was in pain. We shared a moment we could understand, as women and immigrants. I tried very hard to breathe.
Cowboy kept at it, filling the air with words.
I stared at him, thinking, “There is the man-over-woman entitlement, and the American-over-immigrant superiority, and the sheltered, stubborn ignorance packed in one loud mouth.” Cowboy demanded Mary say what he wants; he expected her to comply; he was baffled she didn’t; he pushed and pushed for the entire time she was processing his package; he was being nice through aggression of not understanding why being nice didn’t yield the effect he was looking for; and he left shaking his head at her perceived stubbornness, and I failed to come up with something to say that would be kind and yet would make him see what he did.
As soon as he turned his back, Mary put up a sign THIS WINDOW CLOSED and disappeared in the back, with the learned stamina I see in many women, in particular in women brought up in Asian culture, who are similar to women brought up in Russian culture—the stoics. She never complained; her face never moved a muscle. She only looked at me, because we’ve build a rapport over my many visits.
The service clerk had trouble processing my package, which was international, and she called Mary for help. With infinite patience and no sign of distress on her face, Mary returned and finished typing it up. I kept waiting for a moment to put in, “I’m sorry.” And then I thought, “What is it I’m sorry for?” This is another social construct I carry as a woman. I take blame on myself. I somehow could’ve made everything better. But it wasn’t my fault. It was Cowboy’s fault.
I didn’t get to say another word to Mary. She quickly went to the back; she needed to breathe. And I went out of the post office. And I stood there, also breathing, and thinking. What could be done here, to make Cowboy aware of his ignorance, even a tiny bit? What? I couldn’t come up with an answer. So I carried this story in me, and once home, I typed it up. It didn’t turn into an article like my trip to Russia did. It's just a little sketch. But I think my blog would be a perfect place for these sketches. Maybe I’ll do something with them in the future. Why did I type it up? I wondered about it myself. Something shifted while I traveled. I caught a bug called journalism. That's what happened, I think.
P.S.: I have written a very long post on the process of submitting my article and then getting it published, but I’m still waiting to hear back on what details I can and can’t share, so I’ll let you know soon. And I'll post it soon. Thank you for your patience.