It’s Ramadan. A year a ago this week, I was visiting my favorite soup joint with a friend. I wrote about it. It’s Chinese Muslim and I told you the story of how for the first time I didn’t feel completely out of place while I was there and how my friend leaned forward during dinner and whispered from across the table to explain why; “they think I’m Muslim.” I’m not Muslim and a year later, the workers at the restaurant know this and they don’t care.
When I first discovered this place and sampled the soup they serve, the personalities took some getting used to. They were polite but in no way warm or inviting, not nearly as inviting as they were to other patrons. I didn’t look like they look. I didn’t sound like they sounded and I didn’t speak what they spoke. I was quite obviously and entirely different…at least on the outside.
A year later, I’m fairly confident the restaurant workers don’t notice these differences. How do I know this? Because I don’t. It’s not that my face has changed, although my beard is much longer than it was, it’s that as I know people better, I pay less attention to their outsides and more attention to their insides (I hope I remember this when I marry a woman I’m sure will age) and if others are anything like I am, they’re seeing more of who I am and less of what I look like. Character reaches into the deepest recesses of my soul. Unfortunately, the hair follicles on the top of my head don’t. Luckily, few people judge me on my hair and even fewer people remember it.
In my travels, I’ve noticed many differences, most of them skin deep and few a couple specks deeper. Underneath the surface of human colors and creeds, there are hopes and dreams that aren’t much different from my own. Spaniards have worries and frets and victories and values and inner conflicts and regrets just like I do, so do the Chinese, so do the Irish, so do the Czechs and so do we Americans. It seems to me, these are the qualities that constitute the “human condition” and it’s this condition that ultimately identifies me one to another as an other and equal person; not my eye, hair or skin color and not even my beliefs.
A year ago, I suspect I was a bit of an unknown alien invader. They were cautious and careful, much the way diners view me when either I walk in or they arrive. I notice that I’m noticed. I stand out and the stares don’t stop until my audience sees how the workers interact with me. In the past, the employees would sometimes reluctantly shake my hand only if I offered mine. One of them, the manager, wouldn’t even do that. Remember how he asked if I were Muslim and when I said “no”, he ignored my outstretched hand and walked away? It’s nothing like that today. Today I’m greeted to smiles, laughter, handshakes, shoulder taps and a chorus of “Marcus” (it’s what they call me as I offer them a bag of fruit before I order dinner).
What changed is nearness and time. I’ve often noticed, even those that I don’t particularly care for upon first meeting, I care for more once I’ve been around them for a while. I get to know them. While I may find certain things annoying, a loud laugh for instance, I’m much more willing to look past that and peer into the person. Case in point, at this restaurant, it’s not unusual for others I don’t know to sit down at my table uninvited. Evidently, it’s a norm, though it’s anything but normal to me. I used to be so bothered by it I’d get up and find another table, sometimes I still do but what I do more often is extend them a courtesy. I get up and grab a glass and pour them some of my tea. I smile. I invite them to dine with me. When I treat them like a guest and not a nuisance, I do much better and they bother me much less. What did I do? I gave them my time and my space and they responded. So did I. And that’s why I do it. I like myself much better when I’m warm and welcoming. Maybe they like me better too. The restaurant workers certainly do, that’s why they gave me a name.
A couple months back when my beard began to look long and shaggy, I showed up and the man working the cash register said “Marcus! Marcus!”
“What?” I looked at him completely puzzled and confused.
“Marcus!” he repeated.
“Peter. Handsome Peter” I corrected (remember my students nickname for me?).
He ignored my protests and proceeded to his computer. He Google image searched. That struck me as strange. I grabbed my phone, opened the translator and showed him. He ignored that too. He kept typing and scrolling images. Nothing.
“Marcus…Mark….Marsk…Marcus” he stammered.
“Marsk. Marks?” I offered.
“Marks?” He modified his search.
“Wait, Marks? You mean Marx? Karl Marx?” I entered it on his keyboard and hit return.
He erupted! “Marcus! Marcus!”
“Marx.” I corrected. “Marx.”
Apparently, to them I’m Karl Marx, never mind the different pronunciation. Despite my protestations and my politics to the contrary, I’m a bearded, Communist Manifesto-writing-white man and I’m also something else. I’m no longer the unwelcome alien invader…I’m their warmly welcomed guest.