Stranger Talk

A conversation I had at a recently opened British café chain in Paris, with my internal commentary (translated from French):

Barista: Bonjour.

Me: Bonjour.

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.


8 thoughts on “Stranger Talk

  1. I guess he forgot the part of the training, “American service 101”, where the answer to the “how are you?” question is completely irrelevant, and when you proceed to order and he take the payment.

    I’m often curious about people’s ethnic background, especially in Canada where we are a fun mix of so many cultures. I wouldn’t ask a stranger, though. Or if I ask, I usually say “what’s your cultural background?”

    I will not visit forests in NJ. I consider myself warned.

    (What chain is this?)

    • Ha ha ha ha.

      I think there’s nothing wrong with being interested in someone’s ethnicity– it’s a positive thing. Also, I think the acceptable variations of how the question is asked varies by country. To be discussed in a future post. I enjoy sharing my cultural background with someone who is interested. But like other Asian Americans I know (and other Americans of different ethnicities), if someone asks me where I am from and I answer “the States,” if they follow up with “No, where are you REALLY from?” I find that annoying.

      Just don’t go to the Pine Barrons. The other forests don’t have monsters, as far as I know.

      Costa Coffee. But I should mention that I’ve since interacted with other baristas, and they haven’t asked me personal questions. But they do make a greater effort in general to say “Bonjour” and make sure you’ve been served.

  2. Wow. That’s definitely not the sort of conversation I’d expect to have in a cafe or shop.

    One time, when I came back to France from the US, the French border control agent said “Bonjour” very enthusiastically and then asked “Comment allez-vous?”. I was so thrown off guard that I stared at him for a few long moments before responding.

    • Did you hear about the customer service booklets the city handed out to restaurants and shops in Paris two years ago? It was meant to improve France’s image in the eyes of tourists who visit.

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