It was my first time ever alone in a Korean grocery store. I have never been nervous to go to a grocery store before that day. Trembling hands because you’re going shopping? But having instant noodles two days in a row is a powerful motivator.
I wanted cheese. And eggs. Bread, meat, peanut butter. Milk. Buying milk was as straightforward as picking my favorite color because the names aren’t so easy like 1%, 2%. Milk has names that I didn’t know how to decipher. Besides my nervousness made me feel like if I stood in front of the milk too long someone would notice and try to help me and then I would lose the facade of calm that I’d managed to construct. So I picked green. Which may or may not be whole milk depending on the brand.
When it came to the fresh produce, I selected the best looking apples and bagged them all by myself! It was a small victory. Until I got to the cashier.
Halfway through my haul, she came to the apples. She looked at me, and back at the apples. And at me. I could see her making the decision of how to handle this situation. And I knew with dread what the situation was.
I should have weighed my fresh produce and gotten a sticker. I knew this because someone had taken me to a grocery store and taught me how to shop. I had grocery store lessons and I still couldn’t do it right.
The cashier was speaking to me and pointing back to the produce section and holding out the bag of apples. My hands and feet were frozen. It probably looked like I didn’t understand- and that was to my advantage- but I did understand. I just pretended not to. I couldn’t force my body to respond. I was embarrassed for forgetting the sticker. But even worse, I didn’t know how to get a sticker anyway, so me taking the apples back to the produce section would do no good! So I tried to communicate that I didn’t want the apples any more and to just put them aside, the sooner to be done and gone from this forsaken food buying place.
It’s the only time I have pretended not to understand what was happening.
I realize this is a privilege I have. I can use it to my advantage. But I don’t want to be that foreigner. I’m already the foreigner that causes cashiers to switch to a different till after I get in line at McDonald’s. I’m already the foreigner that giddy restaurant boys greet with a “hello” followed by a giggle of nervousness. I don’t want to be the asshole that takes advantage of their insecurity.
Thankfully, my grocery store cashier wasn’t the insecure type. She realized that holding the apples out to me and pointing wasn’t causing me to jump into motion. I’m sure this moment didn’t last as long as it felt, but the cashier ended it by deciding that I was incompetent (she wasn’t wrong) and she would have to do it herself. She left her till and got the weight sticker herself! Meanwhile me thinking this would be a good time to run away.
I’m glad my experience with pretending was embarrassing and not empowering. I’m glad it wasn’t like “oh, you don’t have the money for a bus ride? That’s okay, ride for free” kind of situation where I came out with a benefit. I’m glad I realized that I have the privilege of scaring people based on my appearance. (It’s actually kind of nice, since everywhere else I blend in with the middle school tour group because of my size- but deep down I now they’re only worried about my blonde hair and my height still gives me no street cred)
Being aware of my privilege (or unprivelege as it were) allows me to compensate. I try to make people at ease. To say hello in their language after they speak mine. To smile at the McDonald’s cashiers when they see me enter, and there’s a silent watching to see which line I’m gonna pick.
To take my stupid apples and DO something.