After what felt like the best and most relaxing lunch of the entire month since I started interning, I skipped back to my cubicle and plonked myself down, ready to tackle the incredibly slow server and remaining workload of the day.
But first, I pulled open my little metal drawer under my cubicle and poked around the mess of stationery items for a sharpener. How else was I supposed to continue my self-taught Korean lessons with a blunt pencil? No such luck. I swear there had been a sharpener in the stationery pack I’d gotten on my first day of work. Oh well. I closed the drawer and dug out my headphones instead. After combing through articles on the Internet about the appropriateness of using headphones at work (the responses were mixed), I decided that it was alright. My work does not involve much (or any) interaction with others and I’m not the kind who listens to music until I can’t hear the world around me.
I unreeled my headphones and only managed to stick them into the laptop port before someone said from behind me, “You didn’t go to lunch with the rest of them?”
I immediately recognized the voice as the same one that had greeted me unexpectedly yet cheerfully just this morning. During these past few weeks, I have kept to myself. I speak when spoken to and send messages when I have questions but other than that, it has been quiet and, well, peaceful. I have observed my colleagues and the people around me enough to know who comes in at what time and who they are close with.
Naturally, I have noticed this one 40-something-year-old woman who sits at the end of the aisle behind me. She comes in before or at 9am every day and I recognize her footsteps by the black booties she wears. I know her name from the name list each aisle has, I have seen her having lunch with some ladies who work upstairs, and I know that even though she is from my department, her work differs from what most of the others do.
We have passed each other in the lobby once or twice but the most we have done is exchange polite nods and smiles.
This morning, she announced as she walked to her seat, “Hello, it’s just you today, huh?”
Taken aback and realizing a millisecond later that I was the only one in the aisle, I looked up at her. “Oh, hello, yes, just me,” was what I managed.
I didn’t think too much about her greeting, thinking she was just being friendly.
So when she spoke to me again after lunch, I was surprised. And when I looked up from untangling my headphones, she was beside my desk, gazing down at me.
“Go to lunch? Where?” I replied, thinking they’d had a department lunch but that I’d left too early for lunch and missed it. Not that it really mattered since my mom and sister came all the way to eat with me. I would’ve had to say no to a lunch invitation anyway.
“I don’t know,” was her reply. “They went to lunch.”
“By the way, what’s your name?” she asked.
Ah, she’s making conversation. She’s curious about me.
I told her.
I told her.
“What is it in Chinese?” she wanted to know.
Um. At this point, I’m getting wary because her eagerness and questions are beginning to resemble the behavior and questions nosy relatives/my dad’s nosy friends ask at Chinese New Year or dinners. Those, I do not like. Those relatives I tend to stay faaar away from.
“I don’t know it,” I told her. “I didn’t go to Chinese school.”
I was lying. Back here, I tend to tell people that I don’t know any Chinese because it makes things less complicated. Also, I don’t like telling people (who don’t deserve to know) what my name means.
At this, she made an amused smile. “You didn’t go to Chinese school? You don’t know what your name means in Chinese? Wait, in the first place, are you Chinese?”
I didn’t know whether to be offended or surprised so I went with a joke, “I don’t look Chinese?”
She laughed and somehow we moved on to another topic. “Where do you go to school?”
I told her that I’m back for summer.
“Oh, from where?”
I told her.
“I see. It’s a nice place.” She paused then added, “I have never been there but my old boss was from there.”
“What are you studying?”
The alarms and bells were going off in my head at this point. I prepared myself to be interrogated thoroughly, just like during Chinese New Year visits when aunties and uncles who aren’t even that close to me ask annoyingly personal or unnecessary questions. None of your business, is what I want to say most of the time.
I told her.
“It’s not related to what we do here.” It was more of a statement than a question.
So I simply said, “No. I just wanted something to do over summer.”
“I see.” She hopped to the next topic. “I always see you but you’re so quiet and always eating lunch by yourself.”
I blinked owlishly at the latter part of her statement. Always? But you can more often than not find me having a bowl of delicious flat rice noodles at the stall with my dad… is what I thought. Not that eating lunch by myself isn’t nice and rewarding. Does she think that eating alone is pathetic?
“How do you know I eat lunch by myself?” is what I ended up saying.
“I’ve seen you upstairs,” she said.
Oh, right. Once or twice. That’s not always, is it? But then again, I haven’t had lunch with any colleagues since I arrived. It’s not so much that I don’t want to have lunch with them than I’d rather eat lunch by myself.
“Ahhh,” I said with what I hoped was a modest laugh.
Quiet, though. That’s an appropriate description. I have kept true to my desire to keep to myself while working here.
Just as I thought she was going to finally leave, she looked up over the cubicle walls and called out to someone, “Hey, come here, come here, your sister is here.”
If I had to describe the first emotion that arises when people say stuff like that, it has to be annoyance. If I had to describe a stronger emotion, it might be rage.
On the several occasions people have compared me to a stranger or told me that someone looks like me or suggested a random stranger is related to me, I have felt these emotions in order: confusion, humiliation, insulted, annoyance, anger, and a strong desire to scream ‘shut up!!!!!’.
Sister? As an insulted Cantonese-speaking person would exclaim, “CHOI!!” I have a sister and she looks nothing like that. I have a sister and I don’t need some stranger trying to link me and this random other person as siblings.
Commenting on someone’s appearance or comparing their appearance to a stranger’s, especially in front of yourself and the stranger, is rude and insulting. It’s also an Asian thing.
I looked up over the cubicle wall to see who she was referring to. I swear I flinched.
It was the woman who has been doing nothing but bitching all this time. For weeks, since I started working, I have been hearing her talking loudly, either complaining or talking rubbish.
Even then, she glanced at me and scoffed as she walked past, “Yeah right, we don’t look anything alike! Why are you always going around saying people are good-looking or that people look alike?”
She could have been trying to hide her humiliation but I had moved on to being irritated and insulted.
“But you two look alike!” the first woman insisted. “Your hair is the same and from the back you look alike.”
I had just pulled my hair back into a ponytail because it was hot and our floor never turns the A/C on. Right then, I wanted to rip the hair tie out of my hair and scream, “No, we don’t!”
Can she just stop now? I thought. No. Obviously.
Instead, she called out to her friend who was walking by and went, “Hey, hey, these two look alike, right?”
Her friend stood at the mouth of the aisle and looked back and forth between me and the other woman. To nobody’s surprise, she said, “Yeah, they do.”
I wanted them to go away. I wanted the ugly emotions in my gut to go away.
It wasn’t enough for the first woman. She flagged the female janitor down and asked again, “These two look alike, right? Right?”
The female janitor made a hesitant smile but I suppose in an effort to not offend the bigger fish, she nodded and said, “Yes, somewhat.”
I pointedly turned back to my screen and began to continue working in an attempt to get the woman off my case about looking like this complete stranger who I obviously do NOT look like.
Finally, it was enough for her. She’d had her fun and thought it was all good. She left.
I don’t want to speak to her ever again. That’s unlikely since she has initiated a conversation and thinks that we are pals now.
As I sat there and was looked over by the two ‘judges’, I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious and insecure. When she said ‘from the back, they look alike’, I immediately felt this curtain of shame fall onto me and sunk lower into my chair. My first thought was, I’m fat. I have been feeling guilty about eating more these past few weeks but today, this morning, before she made that comment, I’d actually been feeling good about myself again.
For a while after that, I continued to feel self-conscious and upset. Then I shook it off and wrote this post instead.
Look alikes exist but since you don’t know if people will appreciate you comparing them to some random person, don’t do it. Do not comment on people’s appearance or compare them to some random person in front of them. It is not funny and it most certainly is NOT a compliment.
Well, from today onwards, I will be turning on my ‘leave me the heck alone’ mode and that woman will be another nosy and rude person to mark down in my mental ‘stay the heck away from’ list.