an open letter to a closed-minded customer

dear sir,

i’m glad you decided to choose our cafe on such a grey, rain-drenched day. we take pride in what we do, and we love meeting new people. lovers of coffee come from every possible place and personality. we see scarves. we see suits. we see fairy wings. we see camo and army badges and navy bus driver vests. it’s fun greeting regulars, and it’s gratifying to produce blissful smiles and coherency with a few sips.

i’m sorry your latte was not hot enough for your liking. i will take this critique in moving forward, as i am still learning. as, of course, we all are. no one has it all figured out. with this in mind, i have written you a letter of advice in response to your behaviour today. personally, i was hurt about it, and then later pissed, and then pissed about being hurt. after which i decided i would articulate it for myself and for you, in the name of awareness and understanding.

the following is my advice to you, broken down into key points.

1. please don’t make assumptions about me based on my ethnicity. i understand the sentiment behind wanting to speak someone’s mother tongue to them. in some cases, it can be a little piece of home for someone adjusting to a new country. but here’s the thing. if you guess wrong, you’re making a statement. when the first thing you say to someone’s face is “hello” in what you assume is their first language, it says that the very first thing you noticed about them, out of all the complexities that make up being a person, was their race. great. cause the world needs more of that.

2. this stems from number 1. don’t be so surprised when i break your preconceived notions of a certain ethnicity, or happen to fall outside the boundaries of your stereotype. no, i don’t speak cantonese. yes, i was an english major. one day, i hope to learn both cantonese and mandarin to be able to communicate and learn the stories intertwined throughout my family tree with integrity and respect. but that’s me. don’t constrain me – or yourself, for that matter – to a box based on prescriptive paradigms you’ve accumulated through mass media or whatever else. think creatively. in the words of walt whitman, be curious, not judgemental. be open to being wrong.

and no, just because you took cantonese for eight years does not give you the right to speak about a language and a culture as if it were your own. certainly it’s a start towards a more nuanced cultural appreciation. but that doesn’t mean those things belong to you. understand that as a white man, your experience of life is inherently different than mine, a woman of minority descent. i’m not shaming you for that. that’s not of your choosing. but how you act in response to where life has placed you is your choice. and a good start is respectful acknowledgement that you cannot speak my story for me. you don’t have the authority. just as i don’t have the authority to speak yours. we’re both people, and we’re both learning to listen. so listen more, and don’t think you can voice who i am on my behalf. i’m told that enough.

3. don’t be a racist asshole. but mostly, don’t be an asshole. asking my name and then using it to condescend me about your coffee is just demeaning and rude. whistling loudly and rolling your eyes when i give you the price for two large lattes has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with being a dick. so don’t be one. for the record, a) our prices are comparable or cheaper than what you’d dish out at starbucks, and we’re an independent family-owned cafe. b) we source from local roasters who themselves believe in transparent process and trustworthy partnerships, to make damn good coffee, but also to maximize positive impact and minimize exploitation at any step (which is rampant in the coffee industry). c) as a loyal mac customer, i’m sure you can afford it.

for the good of everyone else you interact with on a daily basis, please think about your behaviour carefully, and how it affects others. i know we’re canadian, and we’re weirdly neurotic about politeness. i know the patriarchy tells you being sensitive is weird and feminine. but guess what? being considerate when engaging with others is actually a wonderful and illuminating thing. i don’t mean this sarcastically. i myself am learning this every day. the homeless man muttering over his bagel is more than his mud-slathered boots and his cardboard sign. maybe he has a history of depression. maybe he has a daughter. maybe the irate bus driver who honks at everything within a meter of his lane has a harvard degree and a pile of returned job applications. or maybe he loves his job and this is just a bad day. maybe the lumbering white-haired senior counting out his change at the counter is the only one in the neighbourhood who remembers what war is like. maybe.

so don’t let your impulse for categorization and capacity for pride (both very human things that we all must navigate) eclipse the stories that everyone around you carries so closely to themselves. listen. learn. do things that make you uncomfortable and that force you to exist outside yourself. prove yourself wrong. be ok with it. take a different route to work. sit in the park and watch people walk by. read humans of new york. read the sacred text of a religion you think is the most different from your own, or, if you’re religious and what scares you the most is the absence of religion, read a book about atheism. hell, just read anything that tells the story of someone different from yourself. watch documentaries. take a dance lesson and look stupid and have fun doing so. hold the door open for women and men. the world is huge and humming with beautiful and scary things and yeah, it’s terrifying when you step outside with open eyes. but do it. it’s worth it. you will be implicated, and astonished, and challenged. and every day will be new.

in sum, don’t make racial assumptions. don’t talk down to people. don’t act as if you know everything. look outside yourself, and listen. the rest will follow.

and if you’re feeling generous, maybe even tip the baristas.


3 thoughts on “an open letter to a closed-minded customer

  1. Hahaha. Good old dark corners are great for inspiration and of course all this power will get our attention. We the readers. Im a captive audience myself.
    Please please I hope there’s more observation than creativity. Poetry is like graffiti avoid it.

    • sorry george, i feel like poetry and graffiti are both crucially beautiful, and important. however, this blog will most likely be a mix of both (observation + poetry).

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