babies and pregnancy · chronic pain/fibromyalgia · culture/multiculturalism · food · Hispanics/Latinos · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · New York · race/racism · Shabbos/Shabbat · teaching

A Rainy, Racist "MEXICAN HOUSEKEEPER" Kind of Shabbos

We went to the Five Towns for Shabbos. Everything that could go wrong did.

Traveling and fibromyalgia don’t really mix. Sitting for too long (so my muscles and bones atrophy and start to hurt unbearably), over-stimulation (from subway noise and train noise) and carrying heavy things (like our bags) all spell disaster. To get to the Five Towns, we had to get a public bus, then the subway and then a LIRR train before finally, Hubbie’s brother picked us up. I was in pain long before we ever left for the trip.

And then it started to pour. People with arthritis and injuries generally complain about the rain. I sympathize greatly. Rain can send my body into “shutdown mode.” I literally feel like I’m powering down. First, the pain starts to shoot all over my body, and then my brain starts to fog up and slow down. All my physical movements slow down, too. My hip joint starts to crack and lock and slowly it becomes difficult to walk. Usually, one side of my body completely shuts down and then with all the nerves in my body overreacting, the other side joins up, too.

And then we arrived to the house where we would be saying and discovered that they had…the horror of all horrors…WALL-TO-WALL CARPETING! Within 5 minutes, my chest hurts and my eyes start to burn. With 20 minutes to spare before Shabbos, we run out to Best Buy and buy an air purifier which we hope will get me through the night. It helps. But I still wake up feeling like a fat man sat on my chest because my asthma’s been working overtime. And I’m also totally high from nearly overdosing on Benadryl to get me through the night.

But there’s more. Friday night, I escape davening to stretch in hopes that it will help my pain. It doesn’t but it releases the nerves in my hands so I feel like I have some control over them. I know I’m going to be a terrible guest but at least my husband won’t have to cut up my food for me.

At dinner, I am, as predicted, an awful guest. The nerves in my face are making it hard for me to open my mouth. I murmur everything. I’m moving slowly from head to toe because every movement causes me to wince. Aside from Hubbie, Brother-in-law and me, the married couple with baby has invited over two guys in their 20s, a college student and a comedian. Though the wife asks me to sit next to her, I renege because I would have to squeeze into the seat between her and my husband and have a hard time getting up to stretch. I know I’m coming off as rude, standoffish and shy but I can’t help it.

I’m ready to throw a tantrum after the wife frequently asks me where I’m from five times too many. Finally, we get to the gist of it, when I remind her again and again that I grew up in Washington Heights and she asks, “Originally?” I bite my tongue but I’m pissed.

Why is it that though I was born in America and speak English with no hint of an accent, people have to ask me where I’m from all the time? And in case you think, I’m overreacting, you should know that I am asked this every other time I meet new (ahem, white) people. Why don’t they just say, well, since you’re not white, what the hell are you? Or why don’t they ask, what is your racial and ethnic background? Well, probably because they’re not the from the US Census bureau and oh, right, because that wouldn’t be polite. Neither is asking me where I’m from, repeatedly, especially when you know the answer you wanted wasn’t “New York.”

I’m sorry that my tan is confusing YOU. How often does anyone ask black people where they’re from. That’s racist, no? What the hell do you expect them to say?

I’ve trained my lily-white husband to approach people he thinks might be Hispanic at synagogue with, “Hey, my wife’s Hispanic, by any chance are you?” Direct and to the point.

Imagine you’re white and I ask you where you’re from. My husband says “LA.” Okay, no, where are you from originally? “Well, I grew up in Long Beach.” No, where are your parents from! A clueless, exasperated look has just crossed your face and then you repeat yourself again. No, dammit, where are your people from? “What people?” Your white people! What shtetel did they crawl out of?

No one asks white people where they’re from. Come on, they’re white, they’re American. Unless they have an accent no one assumes differently. Most white people can’t remember how they got to America but that doesn’t matter because white people don’t get asked what countries their ancestors came from over dinner. Guess what, those brown, yellow and black people are American, too, and would forget where they were from if people stopped ASKING. And yes, I’m still pissed.

Finally, the pain starts to let up and the comedian has decided to do some of his show for us. By the end of his bit, I’m glaring at him. One racist joke about “a Mexican housekeeper” too many? He says that when his mother told him to date someone traditional, he ends up dating a girl who can cook, clean, blah, blah, blah and who, of course, is a Mexican housekeeper.

I shoot “the comedian” frosty glances the way that the pain is shooting up and down my right side. My pain like my anger is seething. It is taking all willpower to contain myself and not call him a RACIST! My husband and my brother-in-law, who both winced and looked at me the minute the words “Mexican housekeeper” were uttered, are darting glances my way as if waiting for a volcanic eruption.

Things only get worse when our hosts start joking about Chinese names while discussing their costumes for upcoming Purim. When they’ll be dressing as a Chinese family! WHAT?!

Maybe I should wear a sign? I’m Hispanic. My friends are Chinese. Bite me, you racists.

I was already in a terrible mood but these jokes just reminded me how terribly isolated I, often, feel in Jewish (ie, white) company. When I’m at the table, offhand comments about race and class become daggers. These comments happen most frequently when I haven’t announced that I’m Dominican. Yes, that means they happen even when I have said I’m Dominican but at least, then, people look rightly sheepish. But when they don’t know I’m Dominican, it means they’ve decided that I’m “one of them.” When really, I’m one of those people that they make jokes about when “one of those people” isn’t in the room.

3 thoughts on “A Rainy, Racist "MEXICAN HOUSEKEEPER" Kind of Shabbos

  1. When people ask me “Where are you from?” I answer: “I was born in Boston. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. I live in outside of Chicago. And I am ethnically Chinese.” Sometimes I still have to explain further that my dad was born in Portland, Oregon, but his parents were born in China, and my mom was born in China. But usually if I don't get into the question/response thing by just immediately giving all the above info, we get straight to the last part which is all the person really wanted to know. Then they start telling me about all the Asian people they have ever known. Do people tell you about all the Hispanic people they have ever known, too?

    My husband has similar ideas to yours about responding to rude questions. He says that when people ask me “Are you a convert?” I should say “Yes, I am. Are you?”

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  2. You're nicer than me, I wouldn't give them the satisfaction. If you want to know where I'm “really” from then you'll have to get to know me and wait for me to mention my obsession with plantains or that my father lives in the Dominican Republic or that I'm a Jewminicana.

    I think a good answer to “Are you a convert?” Is “Why do you ask?” or “Are you?” Because then it will trip them up and they'll get to it real fast…”well, you don't look Jewish,” etc and then we can really have a discussion.

    It depends on when you catch me, I'll be in a smart aleck mood, in a I CANNOT DEAL WITH THIS ANYMORE mood or hopefully for the person on the receiving end, an educational mood because obviously, the problem here is education, ignorance….

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