Accidentally Harriet the Spy

I really liked my friend Emmett's suggestion to "Spend a significant amount of time (a few hours or a full day) in places where you don't share a language with the majority of the people around you" as an activity for the blog. It touches on learning about learning, as well as getting to know my community. I've had this experience, but usually as a tourist, and there's a different set of expectations as a tourist than being surrounded by a language you don't speak when in your own city. Of course, since I do speak the dominant language here, I can't experience what it's like to be an immigrant or someone who grew up in a non-English speaking household and live in Boston. Also, being a white, English-speaking American whose few experiences abroad have been in Europe, speaking proficient French and a smattering of tourist German, it is just not possible to mentally put myself in the shoes of Boston's Haitian or Brazilian populations, for example. But, spending some time in a restaurant where I'm in the minority for speaking English would get me out of my comfort zone, and into a space where I can reflect about my experience. Only when I get out of my comfort zone do I notice how small my comfort zone is, despite the advantages I have.

In areas of Greater Boston where I regularly spend time, there are plenty of restaurants and convenience stores in which the staff speak something other than English to each other and some of the customers, but at any given time when I walk in, there will be other people speaking English. To find one where this wasn't the case, I looked online for a Haitian place -- I really don't know Haitian food, and that's a gap in my understanding of my city. I found a place in Hyde Park that's well reviewed on Yelp and several people said there weren't a lot of English speakers there (I have some questions as to why that made it into their reviews, especially since the staff I spoke with spoke fluent English, but in this case it was helpful to me). 


A mural that reads "Greetings from Hyde Park" with local scenes inside the letters. Two cars are obscuring part of the mural.
A mural near where I ate.


The person who took my order at the counter assumed it was to go, even though the place was about half full. At first, I wondered if it was because I was an obvious outsider -- a young, white woman in a room mostly full of middle-aged Haitian men -- and worried that I was intruding, but after I was there for a while, I noticed that most of their customers took their orders to go. I heard a few words that I recognized, because Creole is related to French. Simple things, like "├ža va?" (how are you), which is probably spelled differently. But, it was different from traveling to a place where I know a bit of the language -- I knew that no matter how much I listened, I'd only get a few words. The only English I heard spoken in the restaurant was when the server took my order and later asked how my food was, and some ads on the radio. It reminded me of when I studied abroad, because I got in the habit of looking up every time I heard English, not because I missed it but because there was a good chance the person was speaking to me (and this was in the very multinational Paris). There were some advertising fliers on the counter in English as well as in Creole.

I felt a little bit like Harriet the Spy, and not in a good way, sitting alone writing in a notebook about the people around me. I think that this was one of those experiences that's good to have, but not necessarily a good fit for writing about. It was hard to get a feel for the conversations around me, because the radio was loud, but also, there was a long period when no one was talking. Maybe seven different people were eating alone, at tables or the counter, quietly -- some of them watching the soccer game on TV. A bit later, the same people were still there but now they were talking to one another -- one man put his hands on the shoulders of two others, and they chatted amicably. I guessed that they were regulars, or people who knew one another from the neighborhood -- not friends who came to eat together, but happy to see each other. I think the fact that I was getting everything from non-verbal cues make me feel especially like I was awkwardly studying the people around me. I had originally thought I might get an iced tea after my meal and sip it at a leisurely pace as a way to stay and absorb the environment longer, but it didn't feel like the kind of place where non-regulars loitered, and I felt like that might cross the line into actual intruding. People-watching feels different when it's fewer than ten people in the room.

The thing about the whole experience that struck me the most was actually not about language, but transportation. I know intellectually that transportation to the non-white parts of Boston is much worse than to the white parts. It's a very segregated city, historically and today, largely due to discriminatory housing practices -- look up "redlining in Boston" if this is new or confusing to you. I've been to some areas that are only served by buses despite being within city limits, not the suburbs. But, I had decided to go by public transit, not car (for practical reasons, I wanted to spend my transit time knitting or reading) and honestly, it was more than I bargained for. Sitting in South Station, one of the downtown transit hubs, I figured out that I could take one of two commuter rail trains in the next half hour, but a one-way trip was $6.25, and if I waited 50 minutes, I could take a commuter rail that cost $2.50. There were also buses, but they would get me there later than the 50-minutes-later commuter rail. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I hope it's better during peak commuting times. I also hope that I was just being particularly naive about transit in the area, and that there were better options if I had known where to look, but I don't think I can chalk it up entirely to my inexperience. The system is a mess.


A mural with local scenes, including a commuter rail and Black Civil War regiment. The mural has water and mineral damage coming down in big streaks from the road above.
A mural under an overpass right next to the commuter rail station.

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