I toyed with making this a “Christmas Eve Message” but then decided that wasn’t quite right. Not everyone who reads this blog celebrates Christmas. I don’t necessarily need to make my world be everybody’s world today. I don’t have to center everything on myself and my experiences.
I thought a lot about that as my husband and I explored the new LA Mart grocery store in Oakland Mills. It’s not anything like grocery stores I am used to. The shelves are lined with unfamiliar items labeled in languages I don’t know. Much of the produce is unfamiliar to me as well. As we wandered down each aisle we saw couples and families discussing and picking out items quite comfortably. Some spoke in English, some did not.
My husband was filled with a sense of joy and adventure as he encountered each new display. I forget somestimes that he didn’t grow up here. Between Ireland, England, and travel in Europe he is quite used to shopping in markets with multiple languages and cultures included as a matter of course.
It can be discomfiting for some folks whose worlds have always been centered in American English-speaking Whiteness to go somewhere that doesn’t set its compass by them. We like to be the norm. It feels odd to enter a store that isn’t set up as a mirror to our cultural expectations. (I will confess I asked ahead of time if they had any American frozen foods because I was too tired at lunch to do any real cooking.)
It’s so easy to “other” those experiences when they conflict with what we have come to expect. Even well-meaning people shrink back a bit and exoticize meats and vegetables that seem too “foreign”. It’s ironic because Columbia was meant from the start to be so open and multicultural and yet there are some in my Village who think that a market like this is a sign of failure. A market that caters to brown people, people who don’t speak English, people who rent...(well, you get my drift, don’t you?)
I think that the LA Mart has a great opportunity to serve not only people in our Village, but also to draw people from all over the area who want and need these food items. I hope we welcome them and make them feel that Oakland Mills is a place worth visiting again and again. Or maybe even a place worth joining as a new resident.
Some years ago my husband witnessed a disappointing exchange between a customer and an employee at what was once the Food Lion or Weis. I can’t remember which. The woman said, “I am looking for a fish. I do not know what you call it, but in Spanish we call it tilapia.” The store clerk said, “but what is it in English?” She repeated, “I don’t know. In Spanish we call it tilapia.” He replied, “I’m sorry, ma’am. I don’t speak Spanish. I can’t help you.”
My husband was so disheartened by this. He felt that this woman had not gotten the customer service that anyone should receive because of who she was. “And why does a grocery clerk not know what tilapia is?” he exclaimed.
As we left the store today we passed the customer service desk where two employees were chatting. I didn’t catch all of it, but what I heard was (possibly in Spanish)
something something something fish something something tilapia.
I glanced over at my husband. He was smiling.
“Did you hear that?” He nodded. “Do you think that was a message from God?”
“Yes, I think maybe it is.”
So this is not a Christmas message nor necessarily a God message but a message that our communities are not just white or Christian but black and brown and tan and worshipping in many ways and speaking in many tongues and eating food we have never heard of.
And that’s okay. And we are “Columbian”. And “Howard Countian”. And, most of all, truly American in the best sense of the word.
Celebration in the Woods Advent Calendar: