When I was twenty, during my first year in university in the United States, my mother came from our home in South Africa to visit me for the December holidays. We spent a couple of weeks with her sister, who still lived in the small town she and my mother grew up in. The sisters would argue and make up, argue and make up, shouting in Greek and English alternately about historic injustices and current disagreements.
We hardly left my aunt’s house during our visit. The snow was prohibitive for me. My mother was used to the cold, having been born into it. Even though I had been too, I’d grown allergic to anything other than constant sunshine. Sunshine that allowed you to be in a T-shirt outside in winter. But a change of scenery would sometimes have the magical effect of halting the bickering for the day, and so, one afternoon, without mentioning that motive, we all agreed that we should go out for lunch.
My mother is the only tall one in her family. ‘Too tall’ they all would say. They hoped I would stop growing when I was thirteen, but I didn’t. My aunt is very short, like everyone else, just shorter. In their parents’ other language, Laziká, spoken by the Pontic Greeks, she’d be called a ‘mugika’. A shrimp. You could never win. My mother would get into the car and complain about the seat being too close to the steering wheel, and my aunt would retort with sharp instructions for how she should put the seat back where it was after she finished driving.
Bundled up in my men’s small-sized NorthFace jacket, I swept a scarf around my face twice and resisted wearing a hat because of the way it matted my hair. I’d just washed it and wanted the curls to last for the day.
We drove ‘downtown’ to the main strip, just beyond the old bridge. We were going to Dan’s, my aunt’s old haunt and favourite diner. Dan’s was a log-cabin replica, with the red script lettering Dan’s placed at an angle on the wooden siding. We parked next to a snow bank and trundled into the diner, the tinkling bell hanging on the front door announcing our arrival.
We stopped in the doorway, scanning the large room for an empty booth. Wall-to-wall brown carpeting immediately made me think of ordering the mash and gravy because their gravy was exactly the same hue as that carpet.
The waitress was busy taking an order, but she nodded as she looked up at us to say ‘just a second’. We hung back, sort of shifting in place. We didn’t take off our coats and scarves because we hadn’t yet found our place to relax. I looked around at the full tables of families and friends eating large plates of warm food. Some at those tables looked back at me.
I noticed I was getting a little too warm when, into the space of that silent instruction to wait, a question came hurtling towards me from the back of the restaurant and hit me square in the face.
‘What are you?’
My mother and aunt hadn’t registered the question as having anything to do with us, and my aunt had launched into a story about how long Dan’s had been going for. I knew, as I always knew, in my heart, that the question was for me, the child of a Greek mother and Zulu father – but sometimes the brain isn’t as quick to catch up.
‘What are you?’ Louder this time. Directed, expectant.
The hum of restaurant conversation died down. Every one of the white faces in the room turned towards us: the two tall women and the one very short one. But it wasn’t really towards us. It was towards me.
‘Excuse me?’ my brain asked.
My mother’s eyes narrowed. She and my aunt were looking at the questioner now. Slowly it dawned on them too.
‘What are you? Spanish?’ – Not meaning Spanish from Spain. She meant Spanish as in the American ‘Hispanic’. Latina. Mixed origin Spanish-speaking brown person.
‘No,’ I said quietly, shaking my head, half-smiling in anger.
‘What, Indian?’ – Not meaning Indian from India. She meant Indian as in Columbus’ Indians, as in Native American. As in First Nation. As in the indigenous people of this continent.
‘No,’ I said again, louder, finding my voice. The waitress was staring at us too. She was finished with her order but hadn’t walked over to us yet. She was also caught up in the spectacle; the mystery.
My mother was usually the one to take down this sort of aggressor. She had been doing it my whole life. But for some reason I owned this moment. She and my aunt were now cursing in Greek between themselves, but it was clear that I was to fend for myself, with them in the wings as back up. Later I would realize that it was a profound moment of recognition from my mother of my adultness.
‘I’m Greek,’ I said loudly. Greek as in Greek. Like the pizza places she knows that have Italian names but aren’t Italian. Greek like the Ancient Greeks she learned about in school. Greek as in ‘It’s all Greek to me’.
‘Oh,’ she said, her voice shrinking, clearly disappointed. She went back to her meal.
The waitress finally arrived, welcoming us to Dan’s and leading us offstage to an empty table.