Saturday, August 25, 2007

Short Funny Gender Story

Or, Yet Another Peculiar Conversation about My Name

Last weekend I was strolling about town with a friend. We were discussing the language origins of our names. Both my name and hers work well in numerous languages, but the meanings vary across languages. With my name, even the gender varies across languages: most Indian (from the subcontinent, not the Americas) people will hear my name as Devi, which is a definitively female name.

Just then we were hailed by Mohammed, the Indian guy who just opened a little grocery up the street from my house. Ordinarily I anonymize the strangers that I write about in my blog, but "an Indian guy named Mohammed" might apply to a larger group of people than almost any other phrase of similar construction, so I'm not worried. Business was slow, and Mohammed was bored, so we chatted for a while.

(Random footnote: The spell-checker built in to blogger does not recognize Mohammed, but does recognize Microsoft, McDonald's, and Macintosh. How fucked up is that??)

The first thing Mohammed said to us was, "Where are you really from?" I said "New York," and Mohammed said, "Really?"

This confused me. I know that people get asked questions like this all the time, but ... I'm white. I'm not even "kinda dark for a white guy," like a lot of white Jews I know. So I'm not sure what stereotype he could possibly have been drawing on, to have trouble believing that I came from New York. Then he asked my friend where she was "really from," and she said "here," and there was a similar exchange of mild disbelief. That made a little more sense to me, because she is indeed kinda dark for a white girl, in a way that not many people are, who are "really from" here.

We chatted for a while longer. I did most of the talking, and Mohammed mostly talked to me. I felt kinda bad about it, because it seemed like a gender privilege thing. But, I also thought it might be kind of chivalrous of me. My friend is femme and gorgeous and gets a lot of un-asked-for attention from men. So I thought, maybe Mohammed is rudely ignoring her to converse with me, but, at least that means he's not leering at her like most men do.

Then Mohammed looked at me, and nodded toward my friend, and said, "Is she your girlfriend?"

I said, "No," and my friend and I made eye contact and giggled, which probably didn't help anything.

He said, "Just friends?"

We said, "Yeah."

Still looking at me, Mohammed said, "Oh, are you gay?"

"I, uh ... not exactly?" I almost said, "No, but she is," but then, isn't she dating boys lately?

He said, "It's okay if you are. I accept everybody."

"Uh, great. Yeah, um..."

"You swing both ways?"

"It's ... complicated."

Somewhere toward this end of this exchange, I realized that Mohammed thought I was male. And gay, of course, because why else would I be "just friends" with a stunning and seemingly heterosexual woman? At that point my friend must have taken over holding up our end of the conversation, because I was totally flummoxed. So much for being the gentleman. The rest of the conversation is kind of a blur to me, until we decided to extricate ourselves.

I said, "Look, we really have to get going. It was great to meet you." Then realizing we hadn't exchanged names yet, I put out my hand: "My name's Davey."

Mohammed took my hand in both of his, softly, with a level of attention that I'm not used to receiving in a handshake. "Devi?" said Mohammed, "That's an Indian name."

"Yeah, I know," I said. "See you around!"

And we scrammed, before he could put the pieces together.

I can't wait to see what happens the next time I swing by his grocery store.


ElliotManning said...

That could be a very interesting conversation about what people think about one's sexuality based on what their culture is, too.

Or, maybe that's just an example of me trying too hard to start up dialogue.

Davey says ... said...

I assume people's culture has to do with pretty much all their assumptions ... But I do not assume it only about people whose culture differs from mine. Actually, most people who read me as male make the same assumptions Mohammed did - including many white U.S. Christians, U.S. Christian People of Color, European white Christians, U.S. Muslims of any race, etc. - as well as most, but not all, Jews. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Who are you trying to start dialogue with?