This is an actual conversation that happened earlier tonight, when I brought a friend as my guest to the health club where I take Zumba classes. The guy in the membership department was leading us to his desk so he could get her information for the system, and as we were walking he said to me,
“Are you Greek?”
I laughed a little bit (I’ll tell you why in a minute) and said, “Nope!”
He said, “You’re NOT Greek?”
I repeated, “Nope! Why?”
“Because you look Greek.”
My face must have suddenly displayed some kind of weird expression because he said, “Would that be so bad?”
“No!” I said.
Backstory: The reason I laughed when he asked me if I am Greek is because I have been gifted with lots of great Greek friends, Greek experiences, and other Greek miscellanea over the course of my long life, starting with my eighth grade crush and, as recently as last year, a warm and fuzzy experience touring the new National Hellenic Museum in Chicago. That visit resulted in correspondence from several members of Chicago’s Greek community, expressing appreciation for the coverage and generally saying lots of nice things to me. One of them even told me that my name–which I already knew means “honeybee”–is actually the GREEK word for “honeybee” (but you have to put the emphasis on the ME in MElisa). Anyway, since that museum visit and subsequent love from the Greek community, I joke with my sister all the time about how I’m really popular with the Greeks. So that’s why I laughed when the guy at the health club asked me if I was Greek: I’m not, and NO, it wouldn’t be so bad at all. I bet I’d fit right in. The weird expression on my face was probably caused by the split-second thought I had: “Does this still really happen?? UGH.”
You see, if I had a dollar for every time THIS conversation happened, I’d be rich:
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am!”
“You can’t be…you don’t LOOK Jewish…”
I mean, WHAT DOES THAT MEAN???
By the way, contrary to that oft-repeated conversation, I have also been told–many times–that I look “very Jewish”. And I’ve also been told that I look Italian.
Being told that I look, or don’t look, a certain way doesn’t bother me much. As an adult I’ve never encountered anyone who meant any harm in asking. (Don’t get me started on my tween/teen years, though.) The thing is, I just don’t get why people even bother asking in the first place. I could understand if I were having a conversation with someone I consider to be a friend and it came up at some point; in that case it would be a good conversation and much more than a single, simple question and answer. More often than not, though, the question comes from strangers. Why? Is it to fill awkward silence? To make small talk? To try and find a commonality?
I’m not really sure. All I know is, when strangers ask questions or make comments about my religion or ethnicity based on how I look or don’t look, it’s really hard to find a graceful exit to that part of the conversation.