“No! I don’t want a portrait,” she says in English, sharply. I’m not expecting this. “You’re not allowed to draw someone’s picture without asking them first. It’s just like taking a photograph.” She sternly explains, still in English. Woah. I’ve only had this kind of negative response three times before—even after six-thousand portraits in ten countries! It never feels good. You don’t want a portrait, and that’s fine, I explain to the white-haired woman in German. But I have a reason for not asking. I can say, ‘this is free,’ ‘it costs nothing,’ ‘it’s just my hobby, I’ve drawn six-thousand portraits before you,’ and people will still ask: “but how much does it cost?” People look at my curly afro and my dark skin and think I am a refugee, who must be struggling for one or two Euros more. I’m American, working here as a software developer, but no words I can say, no way I can ask can break through this pre-conception. She is now surprised. She recognizes that what may be easy for her to do as a German woman is a lot more complicated for someone like me. I’m watching her reaction. I’m not talking for my benefit, I really want her to know this. I really want her to understand this. I really want to challenge her perception of me she began the conversation with. So I seek measured words.
“OK, you’re American, I know Americans. My daughter lives in Colorado. But you’re not really from America, you immigrated there from somewhere, right?” She asks, switching the conversation again to English. Wooph. It’s one of the hardest things you can do: change a person’s mind, when they don’t want it changed. I was born in America. I respond slowly in German, My dad came from this place, my mom from that place, and I studied in California. “You studied art there?” I studied mathematics there. I don’t fit in any of her boxes. As the conversation continues, she is only more and more surprised.
She doesn’t like me, but she can’t stop asking questions. We talk, it turns out, until we reach the end of the line—more than half an hour. I still have more of a journey ahead of me. Before I take my leave, I say a few words: I apologize if I offended you in not asking. But I hope you understand now why I didn’t ask. “Oh, it’s OK,” she says, making a face. “I forgive you.”