Speaking in Public

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Dedication: To the news that evokes memories one works through by writing

The first time my husband and I took the LIRR from Penn Station, a tall, 6-foot something, middle-aged white man with graying hair aggressively interrupted our conversation and said, “Hey hey, we’re in America. Speak in English.”

Our conversations are usually a mix of English and Bangla — and I’m not even sure if we were speaking in Bangla at that moment. We were standing in the area where people wait to see their gate number flash. It was incredibly crowded — and it was as if this man came out of nowhere. Maybe the stranger took a look at my headscarf, overheard his accent, and then put the two together to mean ‘not English?’

…but how could someone overhear anything in Penn Station during peak hours unless he stood very close and strained to listen in?

I was so mad. On behalf of MY country — which I felt particularly entitled to claim because my husband was visiting from Canada — I was especially mad. 

I had waited long for his first visit to the U.S. and was so invested in him having a wonderful experience — that it pissed me off to have to meet a racist THAT DAY.

The Mad Hatter, Central Park, NYC

They could at least give us a few months and THEN come out of the woodworks.

(It was also the fall I took kung fu and probably had an unrealistic vision of my “skillz.”)

So I told the stranger I must have learned incorrectly from public school my rights; that I wasn’t aware there was an official public speaking language; and that we could speak any language we want. 

He didn’t stop. He moved closer into my space, lowering his voice, saying something like “Don’t you know what’s going on these days? This is America.” 

It was dumb – but I couldn’t help myself. Maybe I should have walked away. I’ve done that many times before – hold my tongue and walk away. For some reason, at that moment–I couldn’t help myself. 

That moment of anger — it was the kind of anger that comes from protectiveness. At that moment, I knew between me and my partner, I had more power. In spite of my gender, race, visibility – I had the idiomatic language, the sense of entitlement and belonging. 

I raised my voice and said repeatedly he needed to mind his own business. He then nodded at a white family standing nearby and said, “See? They agree with me.” By that time, the father (I assume) spoke up and said, “WHAT?! Absolutely NOT. I agree with her.” 

That’s when I realized people were listening in — because then an Indian-American guy spoke up. And then a Latino guy. And then the Huntington gate opened and everyone began running toward the train. 

It didn’t/doesn’t feel heroic; it all feels/felt absurd — the way someone could/can storm in and out of your life, leaving destruction and debris in its wake without accountability. In our case, we live with a story to tell and with me slightly entertained that the men around me suddenly began to speak up once they heard an older white male give voice to an opinion they shared. 

While on the train, I still felt unnerved and looked around to see if we were followed. I even questioned whether the whole thing was staged, a mise-en-scène orchestrated by secret puppet masters… because as fast as the stranger seemed to come out of nowhere, it also felt like he disappeared into thin air.  

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