January 19, 2011

Ice Cream Boy

Istanbul, Turkey

The boy was standing under an awning just off the sidewalk, which sloped uphill toward the Blue Mosque. Short, and looking neither old nor young, the boy was holding an aluminum utensil that looked like a crowbar. Although it was December, the weather was sunny and mild and Takayo and I had talked about getting some ice cream earlier. As we approached the boy, he immediately began stirring one of the three holes in the big, metal box.

"Where you from?" he said. 

Since arriving in Istanbul three days earlier, I’d been asked that question at least 50 times. It was mostly slick-haired vendors waiting outside rug shops or restaurants. As a conversation starter, it has a singular knack for stating the obvious. Yes, we may be strangers on the street. But before I try to separate you from your money, let’s discuss race, shall we.

“I’m from the States," I said.  “Do you have chocolate?” 
“You from England?"
"No,” I said, “the States. Chocolate?”

I’m pretty sure I would have kept walking if he hadn’t looked so peculiar. I mean, nobody has ever stopped me in the street in, say, Frankfurt because they were dying to know where I was from. Then again, so long as I don’t open my mouth, I’m pasty enough to pass as German.

“No,” I said. “Not Australia.” I should have just lied and said yes, but instead, I uttered the one word I was trying to avoid:  “America." 

I don’t remember when it started, probably after moving to Suzhou, China, but if a salesperson asks where I’m from I’ll say “the States” instead of “America.” It’s not that I’m ashamed to be an American – far from it. I prefer saying America, but the fact is I’m tired of getting stuck with the America price.

In Istanbul, much like China, unless there’s a barcode, price is negotiable. A pair of underwear might cost as much as a tee shirt. And, depending on the mood of the shop keep, a tee shirt might cost the equivalent of a week’s worth of groceries. I don’t know why, but saying “the States” is anticlimactic. It just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “America.” Coincidently, it’s the same sound a cash register makes.

The boy’s eyes lit up as soon as I said it. "Ohhh,” he said. “Ameeeerica.”
“That’s right,” I said.

Because there’s no single person to blame, I blame television. After all, TV shows are dubbed into every language. It seems silly to think that all Americans live like they do in sitcoms, but, when we hold up the mirror, is it much different than the belief that all Asians know karate? I’ve seen street fights that would have made Bruce Lee turn in his grave, but I haven’t stepped foot on American soil since Obama’s been president. Nothing against him or his politics; it’s more a matter of logistics.

            “Yes,” I said to the ice cream boy. “Obama.”
“Obaaaamaaaa,” he repeated, reverently. 
“Yes, Obama. Now make me a Chocolate cone.”

He used the crowbar and began dipping the ice cream onto the cones. He handed Takayo hers first, and then held out mine. When I reached for it, as a joke he pretended to drop it. The boy had a singular talent for making me feel uncomfortable. I stared at his hand. He had dirt under his fingernails. 

Next, he stuck the ice cream in my face like a microphone and said “here, taste it.” Perhaps this was some kind of ancient Turkish custom. Here, my brother. Let us lick each other’s ice cream.

In spite of tradition, I took my cone and paid him the equivalent of seven dollars. As we walked away, above the sound of passing cars and his crowbar clanging inside of the ice chest, I heard the boy softly chanting "Obama...Obama…Obama."


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