Go Ask Alice for the Right Word

For a woman who loves words, sometimes finding the right one can be an elusive exercise.

by Elizabeth Titus • More.com Member { View Profile }

I am fascinated, and sometimes terrified, by words.

This fear is with me every day, made worse when I have to find the proper way to describe a person who is anything other than Caucasian, as I am. Or am I white?

Sandy, one of my closest friends, is black. Or, I should say, African-American? When we talk about people we know or read about in the news, I never know which words to use. Like the time I was telling her about a young woman I recently met who lives in Harlem, where my friend sells real estate.

“Oh,” I tell her, “You have to meet this young woman! She is amazing. We volunteer together on a project to help Afghan women write. She’s …”

I stop to think before I go any further. Uh… not black, exactly, and not white, a lovely coffee color, I think. Oh, shit, I should just ask her. What are you? Or, I mean, how do you like to be described? That’s not what I mean. What ethnic group are you part of? Is that it? No. What box do you check on forms? No, a terrible question.

I am hosting an 18-year-old Afghan woman at my home in Connecticut. I attended her graduation from a Catholic boarding school last week. She was lovely in the white dress we found together at Banana Republic. She also had on the white leggings that we rummaged through the shelves of triple XL sizes at Walmart to find them along with a white leotard with long sleeves. No skin could show, it seems, according to her religion, Islam. Best of all were her shoes. I did not help her with these, and that’s why they were so perfect — tall pumps, or were they more like sandals? What's the word for this hybrid shoe/sandal? With a silver buckle sort of detail. I had in mind flats of the ballet slipper type. Wrong, again.

Fortunately I have my Lili, now away at college in Boston, to guide me in fashion matters. Lili is Chinese-American. I know that for certain. My late husband and I adopted her in China in 1994, when she was nearly a year old and was called Wei-Xin Fei.

My late father-in-law, an old school Connecticut Yankee, always said that his granddaughter, whom he adored, was Oriental. He can be forgiven for being completely behind the times, I’d tell myself. And yet, it grated. When I read notes written to my Afghan friend from professors and administrators at her school, I found the word Moslem several times. Moslem? What does that mean? Is it the same as Muslim? Or is it like my father-in-law and Oriental, just ignorant and outmoded? I’d have to look into this.

Lili became a U.S. citizen when she was four, at a ceremony in Lower Manhattan just for kids. To me this is when she became Chinese-American. She marched onto the stage in a checked black dress and red Doc Martin boots clutching her “fag.” Her American flag. I still have that tiny flag. “My fag,” she’d say. “Not fag,” I’d correct her: “Flag.” What if there were fags there that day? Oh, no, not fags, gays. No, not gays, homosexuals. Or lesbians.

When my daughter told me she was attending LGBT sessions at college to support her friends, I was impressed. This is EXACTLY the daughter I wanted to raise! After all, she helped me plan the wedding of our friends Charlie and Tom, who traveled from Santa Fe to Connecticut the minute single-sex marriage became legal here. She designed banners and balloons and gave them the “honeymoon suite” in our house. They laughed. There were in their sixties by then, honeymoon long over. Or just beginning.

I asked what the other initials following LGBT today mean. Oh, she said, there’s pansexual. I nearly drove into the Hudson River as we were driving into New York City.

“What is pansexual?” I asked. I love words, as I told you already, and when a new one gets sprung on me, I do not like it at all.

“Mom,” she replied, “it’s kind of like, you don’t always go one way, you go both ways, you know?”

“I know what both ways means, my love,” I told her. “It means you are bisexual. And guess what, I even know the slang words for bisexual. Switch hitter. AC/DC. Bet you haven’t heard of those, luvvy.” We call each other luvvy these days.

“No, mother,” she said. “I have not heard of those words.”

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