Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?
by Dali Abel
My wife and I decided to invite some friends and colleagues over. We sent out invitations a week in advance. On the last day, she met at the office a new colleague, by the name of Robert. He was alone and getting bored in his hotel room, so she decided to invite him just like the rest of his colleagues whom we knew since many years.
Seven O’clock, the bell rang. We jumped from our seats to open the door. A tall blond guy was at the door. My wife shook his hand and made the presentations. This was Robert, the new guy in our small expatriate community.
Robert might have been suffering badly from jetlag, I suppose, because he forgot to shake my hand as I welcomed him. My wife accompanied him to the living room. He made himself comfortable, one leg on top of the other. I joined them.
More guests arrived. The maid was busy trying to serve the drinks, as fast as she could. I tried to help her by starting with the nearest guest, Robert. “Ahem…Excuse me. We have Whisky, German beer, Australian wine and juice. What would you like to drink?” I asked the young man. “Beer!” he said while glancing at his Tag Huer watch.
Robert was probably hearing-impaired, I thought. That is why he made paid no special attention at the door when my wife introduced us to each other. May be he mistook me for a house helper because of my dark skin? I pored him a glass a beer anyway but unlike the usual guest, he didn’t say thank you. Was he thank-you-challenged?
All the guests had arrived. The atmosphere was nice. Everyone was having a drink and talking. Time came for me to sit. I joined the big circle and pored myself a beer.
I have been able to exchange eye contact, smiles or say few words with all of them, except one. You guessed who. I tried my best but it didn’t take me long to notice that Robert was avoiding making eye contact with me. Strange, really strange. May be I had somewhere in this world a look-alike who bullied him in school or slept with his girlfriend. May be he also got the M.B.A (Master’s in Brainless Abhorrence) where dark skinned people are considered to be of an inferior race and a superior evilness.
Robert’s attitude became like a pesky fly turning around my head. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else but him. I went to the bathroom to relieve myself from the two beers I had before. While absorbed in thoughts by the awkward situation, I didn’t aim well and made a mess. I had to clean it fast because someone tried to come in. Guess who?
Later, I went back to my seat and put up the best smile hoping to see him loosen up a little towards me. Robert relaxed now and a bit too much. The sole of his foot was too close to the jug of juice and cashew nuts while he was showing how important his work was. VIP or not, old-fashioned people like me find this “modern” way of sitting rather discourteous and unhygienic bearing in mind the fact that public bathrooms are not an icon of cleanliness, to say the least.
To give Robert the benefit of the (last ounce of) doubt, I served him another German beer which he seemed to enjoy. No thank you, no eye contact, no head nodding came from him.
Now, this was getting way too much. Being despised in my own home by a guest is the most annoying thing that ever happened to me between four walls since my birth. I did not exist for him since he saw my face at the entrance. He was acting in a friendly way with the rest of the people.
Had I been invited by Robert (Thank God, he would never invite me) I would have left in the first few minutes, slamming the door. Being the host, I was in a difficult situation. In my culture, we treat the host like a god. If one says “Oh what a nice vase! Where did you get it?” Make sure to pack it discretely and give it to him upon leaving. I was brought this way.
I went to the kitchen and pored myself a double shot of Vodka. Seeing me really piqued, the maid got scared at the thought of having done something wrong. I needed a double shot of Vodka to swallow Robert’s bitter pills of haughtiness.
The lavish dinner was ready. My wife invited everyone to the table. I wasn’t hungry anymore. I just wanted Vodka.
A lot of interaction between people goes non verbal. Body language is unambiguous and Robert’s attitude said a lot to the highly sensitive person I, unfortunately, am. It was hate at first sight. That I was sure of. What I didn’t know precisely was whether he relegated me to Rhesus Monkeys or the Amphibians, specie.
Unaware of what was happening, since he has been able to offend me without saying a single word, my wife made the worst thing: she put us side by side in the table! As we all sat down I could felt his displeasure and tenseness to be sitting so close to me. I decided to avoid looking in his direction and talked with a lady sitting in front of me.
Someone started commenting on how nice our home looked. Joining in, he complimented my wife for the excellent taste she had. She laughed saying that I was the one to be complimented since she was forbidden to buy anything. Big surprise. An unmarried lady asked me jokingly if I had a younger brother. People laughed and a guest started asking me questions about a Malay exquisite work of art, something I had pleasure talking about and thus, shifting the attention towards me to cushion Robert bad vibes.
As I became the center of the discussion, Robert couldn’t ignore me anymore. He finally accepted to gratify me with his blue stare. He pursed his lips as if he were sucking lemon. That was all he could sacrifice as a smile. I gave him a smile and lowered my head, a sign, an animal would find friendly.
Robert forced himself into saying few words. I replied with several just to make him relax. He noticed my accent and asked me if I spoke French. I said, “A little.” He continued the rest of the conversation in French. I responded in broken French, something to deserve a D for. A young lady exchanged few words in French with him and complained that forgot most of it. He proposed to give French lessons to anyone willing to learn, an idea she found excellent. He relaxed and mistook my glass of water for his.
I let him show how his French was good by feeding him with short questions. When my turn came to talk again, he had the impression something someone else was talking through my mouth. Shock and Awe. I raised my French from school to scholar level, my real level. Fluent French started poring like monsoon rain. Taken by surprise and unable to understand the complicate words and phrases I was firing on purpose, he began to trip over basic words and phrases something which, I must confess, had the pleasure correcting making his face turn tomato red. As we talked, his French downgraded to saying: “Oui, Oui.” to whatever I was saying. He lost his early self-assurance. Feeling uncomfortable before the spinster he was supposed to give French lessons to, he retreated to the safe grounds of English, a language he spoke better than me. I started learning it on my own, only seven years ago.
Finding that I spoke French so well, made Robert realize I was not the kind of person (or was it an orangutan?) he might have imagined me to be. He started looking at me with different eyes. Mind you, I take no special pride speaking French but I know that many people consider it as a sign of refinement, which isn’t necessarily true. I have met refined Bulgarians, Mongols, Ethiopians, Hungarians… Refinement shows in one thing only: behavior, period.
“Did you live in the West?” Robert asked.
“No, I have never been there,” I said. He looked very surprised.
“Is one of your parents a Westerner”? No, I said, adding more to his astonishment. Giving the impression of emerging from some deep thought, he whispered between two sips of water “I see, you are different.”
I knew this was the beginning of his hard to get approval but by then, I didn’t need it at all because I had downgraded him from respectable guest to a primate suffering from an acute case of inanity. I didn’t thank him for his apparent praise because he was uncovering his prejudice without even noticing it. In his small mind, he was first assuming that whatever intelligence and good taste I had, I owed to the fact of having lived among Westerners or having European blood!.”
I spent the rest of the evening talking with other people, giving him my back wherever I saw him. What a relief to see Robert finally leave. It was as if he took it away home from me during that long evening.
Weeks later, I still haven’t been able to recover from that dinner. Knowing that Robert was just a vain person drifting in the stale waters of superficiality didn’t take the sting away. I found out from someone who had a problem with that he was a rabid racist. He hated Indians especially. It so happens that I look very much like an Indian, something I am proud of.
This was my first and I hope the last close encounter with a hammerhead racist in hating frenzy. Now here is the killer: Robert came to the country to work for an Institution that aims at bringing understanding and global peace!
Would you like a double shot of Vodka or a handkerchief?
Dali Abel is a writer and artist. His website is available here.
Copyright © 2003 Dali Abel. and The Multiracial Activist. All rights reserved.