I spoke that line to a woman in BJ's today. She was 'entertaining' Cloud by activating a scary, singing, dancing Mickey Mouse on the shelf. Cloud watched from a safe distance in morbid fascination. The woman kept pushing Mickey's On button, and at one point I warned her not to take it down and try to get Cloud to touch it, because he prefers those creepy moving toys at a distance.
She said to me, "You're not his mother, are you? You're the babysitter?"
I was extremely polite and controlled. I figure that correcting her mistake was embarrassing enough for the old lady. She didn't mean any harm, and she'd been caught by a stranger in the act of prejudging.
I later learned that she'd once kidnapped her own children illegally, and she really wanted to talk about it. But social convention didn't allow her to. (And I'm not THAT much of a street psychologist. No thank you.) So she said something vague about it, I made a vague but supportive reply, and we parted ways.
As my son becomes braver in public, and not so joined to me at the hip, I suppose I will increasingly resemble a babysitter to some people. He was, at the time, eating a BJ's food sample and dragging his feet while he followed me around the store. But so far I've only been asked about my status as possibly not his mother twice.
Much more frequently, strangers assume he's adopted and they want to gush over adoption in general or over the adoptions that occurred in their families.
I guess it's a good thing for the majority of people that they assume correctly. I mean, I could be the babysitter, and he could be third-generation Asian-American with parents just as Asian as him. You never know until you ask.
What question is so open-ended, though, that it doesn't include any assumptions? "So, what's your story?" Hmm. No. That has a certain subtle rudeness to it that even "Is he adopted?", also a somewhat rude question, doesn't have. "Is he adopted?" is rude just because it's presumptuous. "So, what's your story?" is outright prying.
Okay, it's all prying.
It's so hard to deal with all the prying and still stay polite. But I like being polite. Rudeness burns bridges, and I don't have that many bridges.
Fortunately, strangers in general aren't as prying as they were a year or six months ago. I think it has something to do with Cloud's age. People still dote on him left and right, but more and more often, they just say, "He's so CUTE!!!" And made other casual, generalized observations. He's so tall, he's so friendly, etc.
(He's not tall. He's just skinny - or, as I put it to be politically correct, wiry.)
I don't have any stunning revelations about awkward social interactions to give you. Unfortunately, this experience is par for the course in an obvious adoption. I guess it says something about people's awareness of adoption. People, especially older people, know something about interracial adoption and they're interested in learning more about it. They wish to make contact with adoptive families. They want to interact with the darling Asian children.
(I can't do a comparison of races from personal experience; the only reason I single out Asian children here is because Cloud is one.)
It's about them, really. Not about us. And if the person's point of reference is very, very different, as was the case with the old woman we met today, the results can be... odd.
Maybe even disturbing, if one lets oneself be disturbed. However, that is not their intention. Their intention is simply outreach. Contact. And I bet that Cloud's age is a MUCH bigger factor than his ethnicity or familial status. Old people love children.
Maybe their children are my age and their grandchildren hardly ever come to visit.
Maybe they have holes in their hearts because something went wrong in their families.
Maybe people my age would be coming up and doting on Cloud, too, but they're too shy. Social convention doesn't allow for that very much. In China, it does, but not here.