Saturday, November 14, 2009

A cat may look at a king

posted Fri, 03 Dec 2004

I was in line at the Vietnamese grocery store where they sell persimmons for 69 cents a pound rather for 99 cents apiece, stocking up. There was a little old lady in front of me. Another little old lady – also Vietnamese – came into the store, squeezed past me rather than walk an extra three feet around the checkout counter, then returned with her taro root. She slipped in front of me and in front of the other old lady, who appeared to be an acquaintance of hers, slammed the root down on the counter, and opened her purse.

Don’t even think about cutting line in front of me these days because I will fillet you – unless you are a brazen little old lady.

I watched in amazement as she absolutely shamelessly cut in line. She dug the change out of her purse as the first old lady was paying and pushed it at the cashier, who shook her head in exasperation.

I said nothing, which is not my way in these matters, but sometimes I am so gobsmacked at the brazenness of the action that I am struck speechless. Once the women had left, I commented to the cashier, also Vietnamese. “Asians are the worst,” she said. “If I say something to them, they get mad and tell me I’m being rude. I think they’re being rude to cut in line.”

I’m trying to figure out where the almost uniquely – at least, based on my experience – American value of waiting one’s turn comes from. I have seen people waiting their turn in only a few other countries besides the US – Costa Rica and England. And maybe Australia. It’s been so long since I was there that I don’t remember. I do remember Aussies as being polite, though, and don’t remember them as line cutters, so I’ll bet they wait their turn, too.

Everywhere else I have ever been, it’s been a free for all. In Italy, little old ladies will knock you down to get to the front of the line at the bakery. In Chile, people always cut line. I know I was supposed to adapt to their ways, but as I could not bring myself to cut in line and as I was always being cut upon, I was in a situation where I was never going to get service unless I did something.

One time in the Metro, when I was waiting to buy a ticket, this guy cut in front of me. I told him very politely that I was next in line and it was my turn. At least, that’s what I think I said. Whatever it was, it worked. He was so shocked that he stepped back.

I became much more vocal in Miami, figuring I was on solid ground being in my country where my country’s cultural values should rule. I love Latin culture, but line cutting is not a Latin cultural value that needs to be imported to the US.

What I don’t understand why some cultures think it’s OK to cut line. When Monica, a colleague in Chile, and I were waiting in line to buy bus tickets once, people kept cutting in front of us. It was making me crazy, but Monica was unfazed. I asked her why she wasn’t bothered. “Maybe they have something important to do,” she shrugged.

“And we don’t?” I answered.

It seems that the countries where line-cutting is acceptable are the ones with stronger class and caste systems. I haven’t visited Asia and don’t know the culture that well, but I get the idea that caste and class are quite important, especially based on what Harpo writes about his colleague Thomas from Pakistan. Thomas seems to think he is due all reverence and awe simply because of his title, not because of anything he has done to earn the respect of his subordinates.

I do know that class and caste are very important in Latin America, even in Chile, which has a very strong middle class. I still haven’t figured out why I saw people standing patiently in line for the bus in Costa Rica.

But what it comes down to, I think, is that in these cultures, it is accepted that some people’s time is indeed more important than other’s time. So it is their due to be able to cut line.

In the US, our idea is that we are all equal and all our time is equally important. Weird that that is such a revolutionary idea.

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