Wednesday, January 30, 2019

How do you pronounce Huawei?

I noticed today on NPR Morning Edition that in one story, Senator Mark Warner, the host Steve Inskeep and White House correspondent Ayesha Roscoe all pronounced Huawei as "Wah-wei." I was about to email NPR to tell them that their pronunciation guide is wrong, but first googled "How to pronounce Huawei" and found this video, which is produced by Huawei itself (on Gizmodo Australia), but they pronounce it wrong! They say it should be "wah-wei", but in Chinese it should have an "h" before the "wah". It is not a common sound in English, but if you can say the Spanish name Juan ("hu-ahn"), then you can say Huawei ("huah-wei", two syllables).

Interestingly, the Gizmodo video/commercial was produced by Huawei to teach foreigners how to pronounce the company name. From my point of view, it makes the common Chinese assumption that foreigners cannot pronounce Chinese, and gives up. They butcher the name, but it's "close enough" and they assume at least foreigners will remember the name. But there is no reason why Americans, at least, should not be able to say Huawei correctly (I can't be sure about the Brits, and Italians can never pronounce an initial "H" so for them it is hopeless.)

Some on the web (e.g. this Quora reply) speculate that some Chinese are mispronouncing it because the Cantonese pronunciation of the character 华 is "wah", but the name of the company is romanized in Mandarin, so "wah" is definitely wrong. But the company is based in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, so it does make me wonder whether their marketing person was a Cantonese speaker who could not hear the difference between "wah" and "hua." Unlikely, but possible.

Part of the reason it is important to pronounce it correctly is so Americans do not sound stupid to the Chinese. It is often a sign of disrespect, I think, to not pronounce names correctly. And the first part of the name, Hua, happens to be a character or word that means "China" in Chinese, so it is pretty important to get that right.

I am not the kind of person who, when speaking in English, pronounces "Mexico" and "Guatemala" in Spanish. Doing that was a marker of being a true "lefty" and "in the know" in the 1980s, e.g. to say "nee-kah-rrah-guah" (with a rolled R for best effect). I don't think my insistence on pronouncing Huawei correctly is in the same category. I think of it as just pronouncing it correctly within the limits of what one's native language allows. And I'm not going to insist on getting the tones right; the vowels and consonants should be enough.

This is why I also complain about the way Americans mispronounce Beijing; the "jing" should be pronounced like "jingle bells", but may pronounce the "j" like "je" in French, which only serves to make Beijing sound French and exotic. There is no reason why Americans can't pronounce "Beijing" correctly, and pronouncing "Beijing" in French is wrong.

We're going to hear a lot of news about Huawei; we may as well pronounce it correctly, as close to the Chinese as is easily possible.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Is it OK to say President Garfield was cute?


Is it OK to talk about people's looks when it has nothing to do with their job or anything else? Or is it naïve, even overly PC, to complain about “lookism”? 

A recent episode of NPR’s Planet Money (transcript here) has two female co-hosts making comments on the attractiveness of 19th century former presidents. I can’t help but feel that if male hosts talked similarly about the looks of, say, the Suffragettes, people would rightfully be angry.

Here is the dialog: 
[Heather Cox] RICHARDSON [a professor of American history at Boston College]: James A. Garfield from Ohio. You know, a Civil War veteran.
 [Sarah] GONZALEZ: Is Garfield the one with the nice blue eyes that you keep mentioning?
 RICHARDSON: Yes, exactly.
 GONZALEZ: Oh, I can see the eyes. Yeah. I can see that.
 RICHARDSON: (Laughter) See?
 [Ailsa] CHANG: Wait, I want to see what he looks like.
 GONZALEZ: All right, let's Google him. OK, look at this. OK, but, like, if you had to choose a cute president from the late 19th century.
 CHANG: I don't think he would be the one.
 GONZALEZ: All right. Fine. James A. Garfield, to me, takes the 19th century cake, but whatever.
 This was in the program itself. Then, after the credits, where podcasts often add humorous bits of dialog that ended up on the cutting room floor (metaphorically, of course), they added: 
CHANG: I would go for Franklin Pierce.
 GONZALEZ: I don't even know who that guy is. That doesn't even stand out as a president to me.
 CHANG: Google. Google. Tall, dark and handsome.
 GONZALEZ: That is not dark.
 CHANG: (Laughter).
 GONZALEZ: Dark doesn't happen till...
 CHANG: 2008.
 GONZALEZ: ...2008.
 (LAUGHTER)
Ha ha.

I’m puzzled that the hosts and NPR editors think this kind of frivolous commentary is acceptable. Men making similar comments about women’s looks would immediately raise red flags. It might happen in private, but would surely not be put on the air. Given the history of how suffragettes were portrayed as ugly and unwanted, people are rightfully sensitive about commenting on women's looks. And it is also a fact that journalists and pundits comment on female politicians’ looks and clothes in ways they would never do for men (see here).

 On the other hand, there is a kind of egalitarianism here in that we have women talking about the appearance of powerful men, a reversal of powerful men talking about women's looks. But are we not supposed to be getting beyond this focus on appearance?

At the same time, sometimes people’s appearance is relevant to a discussion, and we cannot make it taboo, pretending that we don’t notice looks, or that it is too sensitive to talk about. No one can deny that good looks generally help in one’s career.

Still, the frivolity of these comments offends me. Who looks at pictures of presidents from the 19th century to see if they are “cute”? Seems weird.

This is the kind of double-standard that annoys people on the Right. Some people are quick to criticize men for commenting on women’s appearance, and here we have women gabbing about men’s appearance in a way that would be unacceptable if the genders were reversed. Without being too prudish or PC, the journalists should have had the good sense not to include this as part of their podcast. It was not funny, really.

Actually, it was offensive. Just as it is when men comment on women’s looks when it is irrelevant.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Frog's Eye View of the Election

There is a Chinese saying, 井底之蛙, the frog at the bottom of the well. I refers to the narrow view of the sky that a frog has when it sits at the bottom of a well. Anthropologists are like frogs in that they study a village, a school, a lab, or a few families, and try to learn something from knowing their viewpoint in great depth. In that spirit, I have a few observations on the midterm election from my corner of the US, my little well.

All the major media focused on Josh Hawley's victory over Claire McCaskill, which was a major race in the Senate. Now all but one state-wide positions are held by Republicans. The only exception is the post of Auditor, which is held by Nicole Galloway, who was just re-elected. What is very surprising, however, was how narrowly she won. (The table below is from the NY Times.)

This election should not have been close. Here is how the St Louis Post Dispatch, St Louis' only newspaper, editorialized on the race:
State auditor: There is only one qualified candidate on the ballot, Democratic State Auditor Nicole Galloway. Her performance since becoming auditor in 2015 has been impeccable. Her GOP opponent, Saundra McDowell, has tried hard to distract voters from her own numerous, disqualifying shortcomings, including a years-long track record of unpaid debts and court judgments. Galloway is the only viable choice. Vote for Nicole Galloway.
Granted, the Post Dispatch tends to be liberal and pro-Democratic, but this case seemed pretty uncontroversial. McDowell, the Republican candidate, had won a four-way primary with only 33 percent of the vote, and did not seem to be a strong candidate (see details of her financial problems here). One weakness of Galloway may have been that she had been appointed by the previous Democratic governor when the previous auditor died, so she had not run for the office before, and perhaps did not have name recognition, though she did have an advantage as an incumbent. Plus, Galloway was considered effective, and there were no scandals or problems during her term. My friends here assured me there was no way the Republican McDowell could win, even though a poll in August showed McDowell ahead. They claimed the Republican party was not supporting McDowell.

It is therefore all the more astonishing that she got 44.6% of the statewide vote.


Look at the Hawley-McCaskill race in this light. The Galloway race shows Hawley began the campaign with at least 1,060,000 hard core votes (what the Taiwanese call "iron votes" 鐵票). Missouri is clearly a solidly red state. This is not only clear because all state-wide officials except Galloway are Republicans, and because of the map showing that McCaskill only won in the cities (though note that the cities have much more population than the rural counties, some of which only have a few thousand voters, compared to almost 400,000 in St Louis County. You can see the county by county numbers on the original of this diagram at the NY Times.).

It is also because even when a qualified Democratic candidate runs against a very weak Republican candidate, she can barely win. McCaskill was very popular in certain areas, but the consensus is she lost the race in the rural areas. What the auditor's race shows, however, is that an increasing number of voters in Missouri are "cultural voters," voters who vote for the party that they feel best represents their values, not for a candidate based on qualifications or even on current issues.

This is why Hawley was not hurt by becoming a national joke (as my local liberal newspaper put it) for running an ad claiming he wants to protect people with pre-existing conditions, even though he is one of the state attorney generals suing to undermine the Affordable Care Act, which sets that requirement. If his lawsuit succeeds, it ends the requirement that insurance companies accept clients with pre-exisiting conditions. And this is why he was not hurt by a story uncovered by the Kansas City Star that Hawley had hired consultants on the state payroll to tell him how to run the Attorney General's office. If the vast majority of voters are voting on cultural issues, on resonance with the party, then debating rationally about policies and goals is pretty pointless, even irrational.

Missouri used to be considered a bellwether of national trends, but no more. It is now solidly a Red state, like most of the old Confederacy.





Monday, October 08, 2018

On Bureaucrats and the Government

One of the big differences I have found between Chinese and Taiwanese on the one hand, and Americans on the other, is that Chinese generally look to the government to solve problems, while many, perhaps most, Americans, seem to believe that the government can do nothing right. Of course we have ignoramuses like those who tell congressmen to keep the government's hands off Medicare, but that is only an extreme form of the idea that the government can do nothing right and should "leave us alone." This is an interesting libertarian, almost anarchist position that has deep resonance in the US, especially, of course, in the Republican Party, but not only there. As Mariana Mazzucato points out (see her Freakonomics interview here), that ignores the role of the government in funding most medical research, as well as creating the Internet, and GPS. Elon Musk is widely hailed as an entrepreneur, but few note that he has received $5 billion in government money for his various ventures.

The real scandal is so-called "entrepreneurs" who try to personally profit from government spending. For example, the owner of AccuWeather has been trying to prevent the National Weather Service from releasing weather information to the public. He says his company should not have to compete with the government. Sounds reasonable, except that AccuWeather does not do any data-gathering on its own: it uses government data! It actually wants to profit by repackaging government data. Thankfully, decades of efforts on his part have so far failed. But now, Trump has nominated him to head the National Weather Service, but even in these times, that has been too much for the Senate to stomach, so his appointment has been stuck in the senate, at least so far. But his case does illustrate the danger of corruption with government spending. This corruption would be less likely if we actually valued the governments' services.

It is not only in Asia that people value the services they get from the government. NPR's Planet Money did two stories on Denmark in 2010 in which they were incredulous that Danes did not mind paying relatively high tax rates; the second program was even titled "Please Tax Me", to along with The Awesomest Economy. Basically, the Danes felt they were getting a good deal: free education, good healthcare system, low crime. Yes, tax rates were high, but they were satisfied with what they got in return. In the US, on the other hand, it is common to treat all taxes as theft; there is even a Wiki page on "tax as theft" in addition to libertarian pages that make the argument (such as this one).

Michael Lewis is one of my favorite writers, and he has a new book on risk. It is called The Fifth Risk because when he interviewed people on what risks they were worried about, he said most could name three or four, but not five, and it is the risks we cannot imagine that are the most dangerous, because we will not be prepared. He shows that the Trump administration, by leaving hundreds of positions in government empty, and by naming unqualified and uninterested or conflicted people in charge of various departments and agencies, makes risks much greater than they were. He was interviewed in NPR's Fresh Air last week.

But at the end of the interview, Terri Gross gave him an open-ended question, asking if his understanding of the bureaucracy had changed in any way from his reporting. He became very animated as he replied:
Oh, my God. So I didn't know what I was going to find when I started knocking on the door of the Energy Department or the Agriculture Department or the Commerce Department. And I turned out having exactly the same experience that political people have when they're appointed to these jobs running these places and have these - some preconception but vague preconception of what the bureaucrats are like.
I expected to be briefed and be - you know, be kind of informed by these people. I did not expect to be inspired by them. The kind of person who is still working in our government despite all the abuse the government takes is a mission-driven person. They're not paid well. They're there 'cause they're interested in the task. The people in the National Weather Service are people who have had a passion for the weather since they were little kids.
 The people in the Department of Energy are scientists who've had a passion for their particular science since they were little kids. Essentially it's - essentially what they are - all these people are firefighters in spirit. And there's something really moving about groups of people who are doing what they're doing not for money but for mission. They have a purpose in life. And it just jumps off the page. I mean, it jumped - it's jumped into my mind dealing with them. And so I came away from it thinking, wow, I can't believe we as a society have treated this slice of our society - these kinds of people, who are really the best among us, as badly as we have.
And, yeah, the structure's screwed up. That's what's screwed up. It's not the people who screwed up. It's screwed up that it takes 106 days on average to hire someone new in the federal government, or that you don't know your budget when you're planning, or that you make a slightest mistake and you become public enemy No. 1. But you do something really great, and no one pays any attention. All that's really screwed up, but that's not their fault. That's our fault. And that's what sort of needs to be fixed because in a way what we're doing is wasting the greatest spirits in our society.
One can't help but wonder whether young people will continue to seek government jobs, or whether the growing wage inequalities and huge salaries earned in finance, plus the constant berating civil servants suffer, will lead many young graduates to choose other careers and thus undermine this hidden strength of American society. In Taiwan, many people still value and respect government jobs. In the US, on the other hand, they are accused of being "swamp creatures." It is difficult to address this problem if Americans do not even realize, or admit, how important the government is for the functioning of a modern civilized society.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Observations on the Kavanaugh Affair and the Musical 'Oklahoma'

These ideas may not be politically correct or popular, but here are three observations about the controversy over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh.

1) Dr. Christine Blasey Ford said she is completely sure it was Brett Kavanaugh who assaulted her when she was 15. After her testimony, no one doubts she was assaulted. A few have tried to suggest she might be misremembering, with Ed Whelan going so far as to name another classmate as the perpetrator in a tweet. He later deleted the tweets and apologized. Republicans have tried to suggest she is wrong about the perpetrator. Many Democrats and feminists are very angry and upset at any suggestion she might be misremembering. In fact, however, we should all recognize that memory is fallible and plastic. Our memory is not like a hard drive that records information; memory is re-recorded every time we think about it and talk about it, and can easily change gradually over time. There is much research that shows this, and Malcolm Gladwell devoted two episodes of his podcast Revisionist History to this important idea (see here and here). Trauma does not make memory become more seared in one’s mind; as in Brian Williams’ case, a story can evolve over time. Anthropologists write fieldnotes not only to avoid forgetting what they see and learn, but to avoid exaggeration and embellishment that happens naturally with memory.

In trials, witnesses cannot admit they are mostly sure they’ve identified the correct perpetrator; you have to be completely sure. A friend told me that when she said she was 80% sure person number 3 of 4 in a lineup was the criminal, the police told her she had to be 100% sure or they would not proceed with the case, so she said she was 100% sure. Trials force everyone to take positions of extreme certainty. But we are often only 90% percent sure, if we are honest. And we should also recognize that even memories we are sure are accurate could, in fact, have been distorted over time.

2) Brett Kavanaugh was a minor (17 years of age) at the time of the assault. He should have known better, but in the US, we usually treat mistakes by minors as less serious than those of adults. In this case, the #MeToo movement makes us more sensitive to his alleged crime. His denials, however, make this line of defense impossible. He cannot claim he was young and foolish at the same time that he claims to be sure it did not happen. There is also, of course, the fact that indiscretions of a minor are more likely to be overlooked if your family is white and rich; poor and minority kids are regularly put in juvie or given a police record if they are caught drinking or using marijuana.

3) In some cultures, lying about embarrassing things is expected and accepted. Not so in the US. Honorable people, people with character, should be honest. For Americans, it is better to be honest and seek forgiveness than to lie. In the case of Watergate, it is not clear at what point Nixon was involved with the dirty tricks and the cover-up, but it is often argued that Nixon’s biggest mistake was lying about the break-in and leading the cover-up, not the break-in itself. And in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it was Clinton’s lying that led to his impeachment, not the affair.

Kavanaugh has clearly been untruthful. He has dissembled about his work in the Bush administration, about his drinking, and even about the meanings of “boof”  and “devil’s triangle”. Many commentators have made the point that he is lying (see SlateCurrent AffairsEsquire), and a sociologist who studies class in American argues that people like Kavanaugh, who go to private prep schools and Ivy League universities, are told they are special so come to believe that rules and laws do not apply to them, and that they are lying for the greater good of the nation (see here).

Today, on the Monday after the Thursday testimony, it is not clear how the wind will blow and what will happen (it will seem overdetermined once we know the outcome). It will be interesting to see if the gradual realization that Kavanaugh has lied about so many things begins to spread an makes it impossible for Republicans to force through his confirmation. It is hard to say whether public opinion about lying is enough to overcome the raw will to power--expressed here as determination to confirm Kavanaugh--of the Republican leadership.

This weekend, my wife and I went to see the musical Oklahoma. In part it was for nostalgic reasons; I had played a part in our high school production. I thought I knew the show well, but given the #MeToo Movement and Kavanaugh Hearings, the show takes on new meanings and was actually uncomfortable to watch at times (though the acting and singing was great). Ado Annie, who sings “I’m Just a Girl That Can’t Say No” basically admits to being seduced by every man she’s with. (She literally says she loves whoever she’s with.) And Ali Hakim, the “Persian” peddler, is a sexually predatory character who in the end is forced to marry Bertie (with the heinous laugh) because her dad discovered them in the hayloft. (And don’t get me started on the anti-Semitic or even pseudo-Italian overtones of the character of Ali Hakim. Even though the subplot of Oklahoma supposedly centers on whether Ado Annie will marry the peddler or Will Parker, there is no doubt in the audience’s mind that she will pick Will; even though he is so dumb he cannot add, or keep himself from spending money, he’s white, and Ali Hakim is not.)

And then there is the lead, Curly, who goes into the smokehouse, where the hired hand Jud Fry lives, and bullies him by suggesting Jud might hang himself, and then sings about how great his funeral would be. He even calls Jud a rat living in a hovel. When we performed the play in high school, I thought of Jud as a bit socially awkward, a guy who did not know how to woo a girl. He seemed to have a chip on his shoulder, because in several scenes he accuses others of thinking they are better than him. I thought he was overreacting, and I did not have much sympathy for him when at the end of the story he became enraged like a psychopath because Laurie did not marry him but chose to marry Curly instead. Now seeing the story again, I see Curly acting like a bully, taunting Jud in his home, humiliating him by outbidding Jud for Laurie’s hamper in the auction, and speaking badly of Jud when he is not there. Jud was right; Curly did think he was better than Jud. And Curly was a bully; he wanted Jud to stay in his place, at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Maybe our country has changed since I was in high school, and it is time to retire Oklahoma from the cannon of “frequently produced musical classics.” And I wonder if the revelations about high school drinking and partying change parents’ and teenagers’ ideas of appropriate teen behavior. In my high school days, I resented being considered a “nerd” for not drinking; as far as I was concerned, my classmates’ drunkedness made no sense and took away from the fun of watching high school basketball games. Some of the “popular” kids were a bit like Curly, and like Kavanaugh and his friends. I remember boys making “slut jokes” about a pretty cheerleader (which I realize now were done more to impress male friends than they were about the cheerleader). Some of Kavanaugh’s testimony brings back bad memories of high school. So it is also with a bit of surprise and schadenfreude that I look at these pigeons coming home to roost.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

On Cultural Appropriation

Ever since I first heard about "cultural appropriation," I've had a skeptical, eye-rolling kind of reaction to the term. As an anthropologist, I recognize that all of culture is borrowed from other places, and the notion that some cultural practice or object "belongs" to one "people" makes me uncomfortable. One of the more famous articles in anthropology, "Body Rituals Among the Nacirema" by Horace Miner (1956) points to the foreign origins of many daily customs.

So I reacted with the same "eye roll" when I read Amy Qin's NY Times article about the American controversy caused by a high school girl in Utah who wore a qipao 旗袍 (a dress usually known in English by it's Cantonese name cheung sam 長衫) to her prom. Qin's article does an excellent job of showing how problematic the notion of "cultural appropriation" is for the qipao, since it is not originally Chinese but Manchu, and only took its current tight-fitting form in the 1920s. Most interesting was that Chinese living in Asia thought it was positive that a "Chinese" style was viewed as beautiful and popular in the US, and could not understand what the objections were.

The question of cultural appropriation has been debated for a long time (see for example here). Some feel very strongly that it is a form of theft, or they object to politically powerful groups using styles of weaker groups. Of course, it is problematic when these styles are worn as costumes, in ways that could be viewed as mockery (like at Halloween or Carnival). But it seems very different when people wear a style because they think it is beautiful.

I think the specifics of each case need to be examined to see whether it is a case of appropriation or appreciation, though I generally do not accept that any culture "owns" culture. Today's NPR Morning Edition had an interesting example. The singer Angélique Kidjo from Benin has just released an album that is entirely a cover of all the songs on the Talking Heads' album Once in a Lifetime. She commented on how when she was in Paris in 1983 and first heard Once in a Lifetime, she knew right away that it was African music, though her friends did not realize it and even argued it could not be. She says of cultural appropriation:
I always say, when you are inspired by a music, and you acknowledge that source of inspiration, it is cultural expansion. But when you deliberately take somebody's music and put your name on it, it's not even cultural appropriation, it's stealing — period. Cultural appropriation doesn't exist.
The Talking Heads, when they released this album, in the press release they acknowledge the fact they were listening to Fela [Kuti] when they did this album. They were reading the book [African Rhythms and African Sensibility] of [John Miller] Chernoff, and they tell people, "You want to understand our album? Listen to Fela and read the book."
I also feel like cultural appropriation does not exist. But that does not mean I'm comfortable wearing any kind of "ethnic" clothes. Shanghai Tang has been a luxury fashion house that opened in Hong Kong in 1994. They have created a "Chinese chic" style, intended to celebrate and modernize Chinese fashions. I have always admired their elegant mandarin-collar suits, and my wife has worn their clothes. But I have never felt like wearing one of their suits (and not only because they are extremely expensive!).  As a white guy who speaks Chinese, I feel like wearing a mandarin collar suit would be a bit too much, like saying I was trying to pass as Chinese, or to be Chinese. It is true, of course, that when I was doing fieldwork, I did all I could to fit in and "pass." But that only involved shaving my mustache and buying local versions of Western clothes, not something as Asian as a mandarin collar suit. Going around Hong Kong dressed in a sort of chic "national suit" seemed a bit over the top. Maybe if I had more panache I could pull it off. And if others with panache blaze a trail, perhaps I'll follow.

I have worn a mian-ao 棉襖, the padded cotton jacket that is arguably more "Chinese" than a Shanghai Tang suit is. Mian-ao are warm and very comfortable. I have a thick one with a silky exterior, and a thin one of rough cotton from Silk Alley in Beijing. When I lived in Hong Kong, I learned to avoid wearing them outside the house, or people would comment on it and laugh a bit. The cotton padded one is actually kind of old fashioned; it is something grandpas seem to wear. The lighter one from Silk Alley was more trendy, but it was still seen as odd or somehow incongruous on a white guy. You could say I did not have the courage to wear it. After all, the clothes you wear are a statement about yourself (whether you realize it or not). I don't like my clothes to be flashy; I just want them to make me fit in.

So it was not because I was worried about "cultural appropriation" that I did not wear a mian-ao or mandarin-collar suit, but because because of what I thought others might think I was trying to say.

Mainland Chinese tourists in kimonos at Sensō-ji shrine.
Cultural appropriation was not a worry for the Chinese tourists in Tokyo, Japan, who dressed in kimonos for photos at the Sensō-ji temple at Asakusa. The kimonos are clearly cheap imitations of the beautiful kimonos that you can occasionally see Japanese women wearing. Initially it struck me as odd that Chinese tourists would want to dress like this and take photos. But the more I have thought about it, the more I see this is a good sign. Despite all the nationalistic fervor being whipped up by the mainland government against Japan, and despite national antagonism on both sides, these women were willing to pay money to put themselves not just in Japanese people's shoes, but in their clothes, at least for an hour or so. One can only hope that this kind of cross dressing leads to at least a little cross-cultural understanding.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

The ambiguity of discrimination

Last week I stopped briefly at the supermarket to pick up a few items. When I was done, I approached the checkout counters from the far end of the supermarket, passing stations 17, 16, and 15 that were closed. In most American supermarkets, each checkout counter is really in a lane, flanked on both sides by "impulse purchases" like candy and tabloid newspapers and scandal magazines. The checkout lanes have tunnels of about 5 meters before the conveyor belt actually begins. I saw that stations 14 and 13 both had their lights on, meaning they were open, and as I came up to 14, I looked down the tunnel and saw the cashier handing the customer the receipt, so I knew I could enter and immediately get checked out. As I turned down the lane for counter 14 and got ready to put my few items from my cart onto the conveyor belt, I heard a voice from the other side of the tunnel (in lane 13) say, "I can also take you over here." I looked up and saw the head of a blond woman speaking to me; she was the cashier from lane 13, walking in her "tunnel", perhaps re-arranging the candy on the shelves. Since there was no one in front of me, and especially since my cashier in lane 14 was African-American, I was not about to switch lanes. That would have required backing up and going around the candy and magazine racks to enter her lane. My daughter had just emailed me two days earlier with a story in the NY Times about the rules readers "of color" follow to avoid being harassed by security or store attendants, rules like "don't throw away your receipt before you leave a shopping center," "put your American Express Platinum Card next to your driver's license so a police officer will see it when they ask for an ID" and "do not wear a large purse or many layers of clothes when you walk into a store." So I was not about to switch lanes. I just started putting my items on the conveyor belt. After I had put my items on the conveyor belt and walked up to the cashier, the cashier from lane 13 said to my cashier, "They never see you when you're old."

I was stunned. She thought I was discriminating against her for being "old." I had barely seen her face, did not know her age or think of her as "old," and was not thinking about that at all. I was concerned about not appearing to discriminate against an African American, but more importantly, I just took the first empty lane! I was mostly trying to save time. The cashier in lane 13 apparently did not realize that I could not actually see that her lane was empty as I approached the checkout counters; because of the "tunnels" of impulse items, I could only see each lane as I came up to it. I had taken the first empty lane.
In this photo, I returned to the scene days later. Lane 14 is not open this day, but you can see that one cannot see the cashier over the displays.
From my point of view, it is clear I was not discriminating against an old person, but maybe other people do discriminate. And this is what makes claims of discrimination so difficult to prove. I can easily dismiss this instance, but I cannot say that it never happens. Indeed, I suspect that the cashier in lane 13 has probably experienced some discrimination, which led her to impute discrimination in me. It would be easy for me to accuse her of being oversensitive, or of imagining things. But that would be missing the point. People who do not experience discriminatory treatment can easily dismiss it, and not admit even when it really does happen.

I sheepishly told my cashier, "I just took the first empty line." She just smiled.