So the other day I decided that I wanted to buy a McDonald’s apple pie. Not one of those crappy baked ones that have taken over the dessert portion of the menu in stateside McDonald’s…no, Mother England still fries her pies in oil, resulting in the perfect combination of crackly crisp crust and molten lava apple filling. Those pies are one of the best things about life as an expat in Britain. They make up for every boiled vegetable, dry pastry, and unsalted piece of meat I’ve been tricked into eating in this country…almost.
Where was I? Oh, yeah. I wanted an apple pie. So I went into a McDonald’s with a handful of change.. It was a strange time of day, just before the lunch rush, so the place was pretty empty. I walk in. See the display tube of pies, nearly empty. And before I order one, I ask the first employee I see “How long ago were those pies fried?”
You would have thought I’d asked, “How many times did you spit in my hamburger?”
I promise it’s less disgusting after the jump…
I mean seriously. There’s me, shaking with pie lust. The counter girl, English, in her late teens. And the manager, a thirty-something African woman who, as soon as I ask my question, starts shouting at the top of her lungs like my question hurt her feelings.
“You see here? We throw away the pies when they are old!” She snatches up a pie. Waves it in my face. Points to a time/date stamp on one end of the cardboard tube it’s packed in.
I respond with “…uh…”
She keeps hollering. “We don’t do anything dirty to the pies!”
I respond “…uh…?”
The English girl tries to rescue me. “They are fresh pies, how many would you like to order?”
The manager waves the sticker in my face again and says “Look! Fresh!”
Enough is enough. I finally say, “I wasn’t asking all of that. I just like really hot pies and I saw there weren’t many left. I wanted to know if I should order one of those or wait for a new batch to come out of the fryer.”
Blank looks all around. Manager shuts all the way up and scurries away to the drive-thru. I finally get to order a nice fresh hot pie from the English counter girl. I mumble to her, when I’m passing over my change, “Gee, I hope I didn’t offend anybody by asking about a pie.” She takes my money and gives me one of those thin, strained British smiles that translates roughly to “Girl., don’t even ask…”
So I finally leave with my pie. My mouth is happy, but my mind is still wondering what on earth was that African lady’s problem?.
Let’s take a quick break for today’s blog title song lyric. If you don’t know this song, either you live under a rock or you hate music.
By the way this artist is one reason I believe that success is an incremental process that often has a lot of false starts. Maybe I’m the only person on the planet who remembers this, but there was a time, however brief, when Cee-Lo as a solo artist was…well…kinda wack. But look at him now…
So fast forward an hour or so from the Pie Incident and I’m in another part of town, heading to the library. I pass a bus stop. Out of the bus stop comes a little old northern lady in crazily sensible shoes who pats me to get my attention.
I don’t like being touched by strangers, but hey. She’s old. And she looks upset.
“Excuse me, love. When does the 111 pass?”
I look around at the obvious bus timetables, blink and say, “I’m not sure.”
She looks really old and a little scared, so instead of being smart and moving right along, I go check the timetable for her, come back and tell her that it’s on its way in about ten minutes. She nods, says thank you(or ta, actually) and then…it just gets weird.
“I’ve been waiting for over an hour.” she says.
“Oh. Well, I’m sure it will be here s–”
“OVER AN HOUR! And there’s no guarantee it’ll be here soon, don’t you give me that. It’s a disgrace.”
“Well, I’m sure there’s no prob–“I keep trying to get a word in edgewise so I can graciously leave this lady to whatever it is she’s doing, but suddenly she gets this demanding look on her face…
“Why won’t it come? I mean, why won’t you people just let it come?”
You people? Suddenly I’m back to “…uh…” because at the end of the day she’s still old and that’s more polite than anything else I can think of.
So to cut her off from saying anything else and because I’m a little worried that she’s old, senile and potentially racist in the wrong neighborhood, I try and say one last thing…
“Look, the bus is coming soon. Just have a seat and wait, you should be fine.”
She looks me in the face, and instead of saying thank you, she says “EH?! What was that? Why can’t you speak English properly? Where are you from, anyway?”
At that point, I forgot all my home training and walked away really fast. I had a library to go to. And the only response that came to mind was “We don’t do anything dirty to the pies!”
So, sometimes, being an expat or an immigrant can make you a little crazy. People ask a lot of questions, all of the time–and whether well-meaning or self-serving, it’s usually unprovoked and can be kind of rude. No matter how normal and unremarkable you feel in your adopted home–no matter how long it’s been since you passed through your own stage of constantly asking questions about your new home–it’s never quite enough. People hear a different accent or see a different skin color and suddenly it’s open season. We are the Entertainment or the Scapegoat, there to answer questions about how weird our life back home is or take the blame for whatever is making the natives restless that day.
It gets tiring. Being a one-woman(or one-man) walking encyclopedia of Where Are You From and What Are You Doing gets really old, really fast. Sometimes, you just want to buy your orange juice and eggs and go home to rest without having to tell any of the grocery clerks how you wound up in the country. (I’ve found that picking the foreign clerk is the best way to avoid this. That can backfire in Britain though…who looks foreign is probably British, and who looks English is probably Polish and will have more questions for you than everyone else combined.) And sometimes you don’t want to deal with the conversations that happen when someone asks you a question, already armed with a (wrong) answer to bat back at you as soon as you indulge their ignorance even the slightest bit.
And sometimes, all it takes is someone asking a totally benign question to flip your switch because after living in a constant state of being questioned, any simple query sounds like the beginning of an interrogation and just pisses you off.
(Just a quick aside; American people of color are already familiar with a version of this experience, aren’t we?)
So, while I still don’t appreciate the McDonald’s manager getting loud with me over an apple pie, I may get where she’s coming from. Sometimes, you just don’t need one more question, no matter what it is. (And sometimes I just want my damn apple pie with no drama so I order one and complain about the service on the survey they invite you to on the receipt…but that’s beside the point.)
And I also hope that wherever that old lady who needed the 111 bus wound up, they gave her all her medication. Because senility is the only explanation I can come up with for her that doesn’t ruin my day.
Peace, beautiful people!