"Where Are You From?"

From a "foreigner"

Despite living in Memphis for most of my life, I feel like an outsider socially. Even among people who I have known for a long time, I find myself struggling to fit in. I believe part of the reason for that (other than my overall social ineptitude) is in how I talk. With an accent that isn't either "Southern" or "black" enough by most standards, most people hit me with the question "where are you from" when sizing me up. Even after affirming my Memphis roots, many locals perceive me as not being like them. Maybe my inability to fit in is a consequence of being perceived as foreign or weird (or to use a term that a vapid waitress has bashed me online with, "creepy"). I would be lying if I said that it doesn't bug me, but I do my best to assimilate in spite of it. Still, being me is a hard row to hoe in Memphis, especially when doing it alone.

One of the most glaring examples of my "foreigner" status was an encounter last June at a convenience store in West Memphis, Arkansas. I went there for lunch because it was down the street from where I was working as a "temp." The 7th Street Food Market (also known as "Seven Food Mart") is a typical Southern gas station and convenience store that serves takeout Soul Food to working class people who prefer a fresh meal over fast food. Among the things that I ate at the 7th, the most impressive was the macaroni and cheese mixed with ground beef. A likely version of Hamburger Helper, the beef in it was well seasoned and very tasty. The cheese was thick and creamy, complementing my roasted chicken well. Speaking of that, the chicken and greens were okay and the cornbread was so-so (to be honest, I'm not much of a cornbread person). Given what I ate, I'm safe in saying that the food at 7th Street Food Market is decent but not worth a twenty-minute trip from Midtown to get.
Overall, it was an average meal on its own that wasn't worthy enough to blog about. However, what made it noteworthy were the ladies working the lunch counter who reminded me of my outsider status. After waiting behind two black guys (apparently "locals") before placing my order, I got hit with a "where are you from" blast after uttering my first words. Whether it was something in my voice or the manner that I spoke, those ladies seemed a bit put off by me. So, despite being a black Southerner (with a patriarchal grandfather born in Arkansas), I came off as a peculiar outlier to those African-American women. Usually in these types of situations, this kind of reaction isn't that blatant, but I rolled with it without any fuss. I'm not sure what to make of it, for the service itself was good but the ladies' reaction kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Although I'm sure it wasn't intentional (after all, they were courteous), I didn't feel completely welcomed at the 7th. As someone who seeks to be a part of the community, encounters like this are discouraging and make me less inclined to go out. However, I don't have the luxury to live in a cocoon so I have to persevere despite being an oddity.

SIDE NOTE: I want to stress that my encounter at 7th Street Food Market isn't strictly a "black thing." I get similar reactions from Asians, Hispanics (including a guy who glossed me as "Benson") and even white people.

It seems that no matter what I do, I will always be the odd man out in Memphis and possibly other places. Fortunately, I have friends who accept me as I am and are very supportive. With them, I can be myself without worrying whether I come off as an oddball or something distasteful. As for everyone else, stop asking me where I'm from.

NOTE: I apologize for this unconventional review. This was more about getting something off my chest than anything else.

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