Last night, I got on an elevator to head to an appointment. Inside the elevator’s small confines stood a mom carrying groceries. Her young son, who was probably about 3 or 4 years old, stood next to her. I smiled as I got on and the boy, beaming, said to me: “You ha a bi no!”
I smiled uncertainly at Jacob and his mom, not having understood what he said. I punched the 10th floor button. The boy hopped in excitement, pointed at me, and, giggling, repeated himself. This time, I understood what he said:
“You have a big nose!”
How should one react to that?
On the one hand, I knew I should maintain some perspective. Kids say the darndest things, and Lord knows, Boof and Billup have had their share of blurting out something insulting or embarrassing in the company of adults.
On the other hand, my feelings were kind of hurt. Jacob’s declaration immediately threw me into a whirl of insecurity. Did he really mean it? I’m Japanese, after all: I have the stereotypical wide, flat Asian nose. I hadn’t recalled it looking overly large today, but I’ve lived with my nose for the last 39 years. Perhaps to a 4-year-old boy, it did seem overly large. Perhaps to anyone, it was overly large.
Those thoughts came and went inside my head in the space of a few seconds, and I dithered, not knowing how to react. Jacob’s mom was pretty decisive in her response, though. She immediately scolded Jacob in a slight British accent, “You can’t say things like that out loud!”
Then to me: “I’m sorry—he’s trying to share a joke with you. He has a book that talks about—” She interrupted herself to tell the boy, “That’s not nice! First of all, she doesn’t have a big nose…”
Which, frankly, didn’t sound all that convincing. Consider that she had first said, You can’t say things like that out loud. Doesn’t that sort of imply, “I agree with you, son, but you can’t just up and say to the lady’s face that her nose is overly, grotesquely large, no matter how wide and flat it is”?
I contemplated letting her off the hook, I really did. I almost said to her, “Don’t worry, I have a 14-year-old who still says things out loud that embarrass me.” Which is true. Boof does still say things in earshot of others that make me want to pretend he doesn’t belong to me. And I knew relating that could have eased some of the discomfort building inside that very small elevator. We could have shared a moment of empathy, mom to mom.
But hurt feelings and insecurity are powerful things. Powerful enough to keep one mom’s mouth firmly shut, even as another dies of mortification.