Monday, December 12, 2005

Culture at Social Security

I had to go to the friendly local SS office today to help another student, and the hour and a half we sat there provided the opportunity for some amazing socio-cultural observations. First, it appeared that the more affluent/educated (and white) people made appointments, and therefore did not have to wait until their number was called. Rather, they had their names called and only had to wait a fraction of the time of we of the rabble. Of course, they still had to wait a while, but not nearly as long as the rest of us.

The exceptions, those who looked higher class but did not make an appointment, were the only ones who ever vocally expressed frustration and irritation at the process. One Lycra-legginged came in, apparently after missing her number being called, and complained rather bitterly about how she had been here twice already today and done all the errands she could do, now couldn't she just drop off her original birth certificate? Umm, lady? We've all been sitting here patiently and I'm sure we all have better things to be doing too, but we're smart enough to know that the Social Security Office is well aware that they are far more powerful than pretty much any single American, so sorry, but you're just gonna have to pull another number. Why not try actually WAITING this time!

Other observations were more cultural than economic. I was there with a female Japanese student, who is pretty in the way that most 20-ish Japanese women are. This man, who was definitely there to get his SS check, so he was no spring chicken, kept looking at her and not in a friendly way. He was downright creepy. There was a moment when I was distracted by a Spanish-speaking mother asking me for help (more on her later), and while I was looking away, Creepy Man used the chance to start a conversation with my friend. Umm, if your conversation wasn't creepy, why not talk to her when I was paying attention? Yeah, because you knew how creepy and dirty your intentions were. I could just see the thoughts going through his mind: "innocent, pure Japanese woman" and all the horrible steroeotypes/fantasies dirty old white men have around that ideal. Yuck! I'm not sure if she understood what was going on, but I'm glad I was there for her.

So the Spanish-speaking mother I mentioned was the cutest thing ever. She was MAYBE five feet tall, looked like she could have passed for a very young teenager, or less, and had two adorably chubby-cheeked little boys with her (the only reason I thought she was older than 12). She stood in a corner by the door for a while, didn't take a number or anything, and didn't make any indication of needing help. After a while, I heard her say something in Spanish about knowing Spanish (to me, closest person to her). I told her I could speak a little and told her she needed to take a number and fill out this form. She said she would go to her car and fill it out (I think), but my Spanish wasn't good enough to understand more than that.

While she was in the car, another vaguely Hispanic looking couple with a little boy came in. They were clearly more well-to-do, their little boy wearing an adorable mini shearling jacket and tiny boots. We smiled at them and the little boy, as he managed to spit out more of the apple slice that he was eating than he actually ate. They were attractive, young and middle class. When the other woman with her two boys came back in, I asked her if everything was fine, and she said "No," and then something I couldn't understand. I turned to the other Hispanic couple and asked if they spoke Spanish. They said yes, and she went over to sit next to them. What happened next, I never could have predicted.

I presume the young mother had her question answered, but I couldn't tell for sure, since I don't think they spoke more than five words to one another. Oh, the middle-class mother seemed nice enough to her, but I could sense the waves of discomfort. Could it be that these people thought they had worked hard enough to not be mistaken for one of "them"? The young mother and her boys were clean and dressed neatly, but not stylishly. Her lack of English strongly suggested a recent immigration, or at least a lack of assimilation. Or could it be old country prejudices? The middle class couple looked like they might have had more Spanish in them, lean faces and light skin. The young mother and her sons were much rounder and definitely darker. It was easy to imagine them coming from a remote village or at least being predominantly Indian or mestizo.

For the time we remained sitting across form this cultural divide, the middle-class woman either didn't meet my eye like before, or she sent me uncomfortable glances, since I was the one who put her in that position. I never meant to imply anything about them or what I thought of them; all I knew is that my Spanish wasn't going to be able to help this woman through the maze of Social Security, and if someone had a better command of the language, they would better be able to help her.

Thankfully, we got through it all, my friend got her SS card, and it only toook us an hour and a half! I can't wait for the day I have to go to change my name to my new married name. Sheesh, is it worth it?

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