Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Responsibilities of Celebrity

I went to the bank a week or so ago—I go now and again just to make sure it's still in business—and while there I was reminded of something which, to my mortification, I often forget.  I'd gone this time to look into what I'll call a glitch in my account, and found myself being helped by the same woman who had helped me the time before that, and now that I think of it, the time before that as well.

This happens at other businesses too.  The grocery store, the other grocery store, the bazaar, the convenience shop downstairs.  I always interact with the same person or small group of people.  They are memorable to me because I always see them in the same context.  I always run my errands on Friday, my day off, and as I have a repeating schedule I expect that others do as well.  The same was so in the U.S., after all.  Even on bus routes I've come to know the fare-takers who work during the times I regularly use certain routes.

Now, I have never considered myself to be an overly memorable person.  I have never gone out of my way to attract attention: in fact quite the opposite.  However, before now I was an American among Americans.  Now I'm a American in a place where Americans are rather few and far between.  Instead I'm a foreigner among locals, and so memorable.  When I go to the bazaar, if I have bought a thing once I am remembered and expected always to buy it.  The women who work the Korean salad stal see me coming and immediately ask, "Tofu?"  Indeed, I have a suspicion that they think tofu is all I ever eat, and I find myself buying other things just to prove that it isn't.  At the bank, where my story begins, when I walk in I see the woman at the desk noticeably sigh and seem to prepare herself for another encounter with that inscrutable American girl who knows just enough Russian to be a pain in the ass.

My progress with Russian also suffers as a result of this unexpected celebrity.  When once a person finds out I am American and speaks English to me, I feel obligated always to speak English.  At work they placed the communal microwave and refrigerator in an office where some of the occupants are learning English, and, knowing that many of the foreigners bring their meals to work, use our desire for refrigerated, bacteria-free food to force us into English-language interactions for their own benefit.  At unexpected times i my work day I am lured into impromptu interviews about curiosities and commonplaces of my life in the U.S.  They seem to want to know everything and anything, from how symmetrical heart-shaped valentines are achieved in the U.S. (they're not, unless one purchases them [anyone who's tried to cut out a heart using the fold-in-half method knows this]), to in which direction books are read (left to right [unless one is reading Manga {in translation, of course}]).

Disorienting as this constant interrogation is, the more so is my odd response to it.  I now understand what celebrities in the U.S. experience.  I now find myself answering questions and beginning statements with, "As a foreigner...," or "As an American..."  For instance, the other day a colleague made a comment about the weather.  I'm not sure now exactly what the gist was, but I replied, "Well, as a foreigner I find that snow falls heaviest when it's just cold enough to snow but not so cold that the moisture falls out of the air before it even makes it up to the cloud layer."  Fascinating and inspirational as I'm sure those words were, I'm beginning to feel the strain of being a foreigner and constant curiosity.  It's just so oppressive to always be aware of one's celebrity, and to always have to live up to it.

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