I had a Russian grandmother once.
We met one day in the breakroom, despite having worked together for six months already. She was calmly reading a novel while I was furiously scribbling away, trying to cram all of my calculus homework into the thirty minute slot of serenity before returning back to work until midnight. The cyrillic characters on the cover of her book caught my eye, and I asked her feebly if she was reading "Anna Karenina" (the only Russian novel that came to mind). Her eyes were dark, but they smiled back at me.
In her broken English and my absolutely less-than-stellar Russian, we spoke for twenty minutes about her immigration to the United States during the Cold War and how she has been working for the company ever since it started. I sat in awe as she humbly shared her immense knowledge of the corporation and its inner workings. Time slipped through our fingers and the clock struck. We packed up our things and returned to the real Bed Bath & Beyond―the sales floor―and were immediately flooded with a barrage of pre-Thanksgiving questions. I watched as customers turned in distaste away from her accent, turning towards me and asking “Excuse me, but can I get help from someone who actually speaks English?” I saw her smiling eyes turn black―wavering ever so slightly.
I’ve stepped on glass before.
My cashier had been promoted to a bridal consultant, and I went to visit her on her first day in the new department. Her hands were shaking while dusting the silverware―she was physically rattled by the idea that her customers were wealthy, and that she, of all people, was expected to give them advice. “Won’t they judge me for not knowing what rich people like?” I dismissed her worries as nonsense. She’s a hard worker and any customer should be able to see the work ethic behind her brandless clothes.
Just then, her first pair of newlywed customers came. She looked back to me for assurance and nervously approached them. Weeks of practice and training had served her well; her mastery of the products was admirable―yet apparently her knowledge was not enough.
The pair looked at her with disdain: “I think we’ve seen enough for today.”
She paused. “Well, um, let me know if you need anything else.”
She picked up the duster and resumed uneasily, walking away from the couple. Before she made it out of earshot, the couple chuckled, “Those kind of people should stick to cleaning.”
The vase she was handling fell to the floor and burst into a million iridescent pieces, the glass reflecting the white ceiling above.
I had to ask for forgiveness today.
The outing seemed simple enough―walk out of the Harvard bubble and explore the sights in Boston to let go of responsibilities and live carefree for a few hours. It ought to be an easy task and I did exactly that. I felt happy with our cheerful outing, but some in the group did not feel the same.
Before reaching our table, the waiter was enjoying a conversation with another table in his native language, laughing. This unfortunately did not amuse my tablemates. They expressed their unhappiness with the service, citing prejudice and insisting fair treatment. “We’re Harvard students,” they reasoned sarcastically. “We shouldn’t be ignored.”