A conversation I had at a recently opened British café chain in Paris, with my internal commentary (translated from French):
Barista: How are you?
(I am thrown off because shopkeepers and cashiers in Paris almost never ask how you are unless they know you. This cafe’s employees must have different training due to its British origins.)
Me: Fine, how are you?
Barista: Fine. Of what descent are you? I’m just curious.
(??? Really, you are asking me this? This is an acceptable question in the context of a conversation but not as an opener by someone I don’t know. Nowadays I find this as a first question by a stranger odd or amusing, but it doesn’t bother me as much as it once did. Before I can decide which pastry to order, I debate whether to answer “Chinese” or “American.” Asking what of what descent (de quelle origine) I am would indicate that you want to know what kind of Asian I am. And yet just saying “Chinese” with my American accent seems like an incomplete answer.)
Me: Chinese. Well, Chinese American.
Barista: Ni hao.
Me: Well, I’m American.
Barista [in English]: How are you?
Me: And what ethnicity are you?
Barista: French. Well, French of Portuguese descent.
I find a nice, brightly lit table in the corner and leave my coat there, then go back to the counter to wait for my order.
Same barista: What state are you from?
Me: New Jersey.
Barista: I heard a story about New Jersey.
(My interest is peaked. New Jersey is little-known enough abroad that I sometimes have to give a summary of it and place it “near New York,” but it’s also mentioned enough in popular American TV shows and books that sometimes people know snippets about it, sometimes true, sometimes wacky.)
Barista: There are forests in New Jersey where people get attacked.
(That’s the first time anyone has ever made that reference to my state. Even fellow Americans have never given me that association with New Jersey. I quickly scan my brain. He must be referring to the Jersey Devil. I would bet that most Jersey residents don’t even know the details of that story. I certainly don’t. Suddenly I realize why our hockey team is called the Jersey Devils, though.)
Me: I don’t often go to the forest in New Jersey…
Barista: It’s a legend, of course.
Me: Well, yeah.
He proceeds to tell me that he’s been everywhere in the world but the United States. He said he wants to go but also kind of doesn’t because then he’d probably want to stay there.
I don’t know if I’m ready for this kind of hyped-up Anglophone service in Paris. The “How are you?” was like being in the States but the inquiring about my ethnicity was not. Ah well, I’ll take the smile.