Cultural sensitivity is important. The lack of it takes on many forms and can be found in many places. My most recent encounter occurred at my local BevMo! I’m a little mad, but feel I should share this story.Read more
My glass is empty
Saturday, I was out of some spirits and decided to replenish my supply at the BevMo! located in Auburn, CA. I did my shopping and stood in the checkout line behind a man trying to purchase a six-pack of beer. The cashier was chatting with the man. As I caught the tail end of their conversation some red flags went up.
“… it’s a great book dealing with death and our approach to the topic,” said the cashier. The customer stood there with his hand extended hoping to get his receipt so he could be on his way.
“I can write the title and the name of the author on the back of your receipt,” continued the cashier.
“No, thanks,” said the customer grabbing the receipt and then scurrying out the door.
The cashier looked at me and began scanning the bar codes on the back of my gin, tequila, and vodka. He asked for my phone number so that I could get my BevMo! points (or whatever the reward is for consumption of alcohol purchased there). I recited it and he entered it into his terminal.
“Thomas?” he asked.
“Yes…No. It’s Tomás,” said.
“Is that spelled right? It looks like there’s an H missing. Want me to put it in?” he asked.
“No. That’s how it’s spelled,” I responded. “It’s Spanish. My parents were from Mexico and that’s how it’s spelled there.”
How we got here
When I was entering my teens, I wished my name was Thomas (with an H). Life would have been so much easier, I imagined. I’d be able to blend in with the other kids in my school. No one would notice that I was really the child of hard-working immigrants. My parents worked hard to provide us with new clothes (few second hand or used items). Our shoes were always new. Nonetheless, I grew up constantly feeling that other kids could tell I was an outsider.
When I became a father, I began to realize the enormity of the accomplishments of my parents. The effort it takes to overcome the challenges faced by immigrants is something that most Americans don’t understand. Especially immigrants who came here 70 years ago. To be an immigrant parent, who speaks little English, even more.
As I acknowledged these challenges, I realized that I needed to honor my father by using my given name “Tomás” (I’m named after him). I stopped using “Tom” and began insisting that people use my given name.
All of these challenges came flooding back as I looked at that BevMo! cashier.
Setting it straight
“No. I said. That’s the proper spelling.”
A woman who had queued up behind me stated “My uncle’s name was Thomas. He spells it with an H.” The clerk nodded approvingly, his fingers still on the keyboard, ready to fix what he perceived as an error.
“Actually,” I began, channeling my best possible man-splaining tone, “it’s only the English speaking countries that spell it with an H.” Being someone who enjoys learning of other cultures, I know that there are many variations of “Tomás” all of which eschew the superfluous H.
I plucked the receipt from the cashier’s hand, took my box-o-booze, and headed out the door.
I hope this helps
Why write this? In my 60 years of life, I’ve encountered similar situations many times. I probably will encounter more in the years to come. I am writing this in the hopes that someone at BevMo!, or whoever else reads this post, realizes that in our great country, there are a great many cultures represented.
As we get better at acknowledging this, we will encounter (hopefully) many names we’ve not seen before. Rather than asking “do you want me to fix the spelling?” instead offer “that’s a beautiful name; I’ve not seen it before.” You never know: a wonderful conversation may ensue. You may learn something about a culture that is new to you.
No, there is no H needed in Tomás.