Today, at our Chinese New Year party, I heard a most disturbing story.

A friend of mine, someone who lives in our small community, made an appointment to visit a doctor a few weeks ago, at one of the two biggest healthcare institutions here in Washington, which had a branch office in our little town. My friend was eight minutes late and was promptly told by the receptionist that the appointment was, hence, cancelled.

Eight minutes late, folks. By THEIR clock.

Angry but not wanting to pursue the matter, my friend then asked for the phone to call her husband, who had dropped her off at the doctor’s office. The receptionist said no because the number was a Utah number (they’d not changed it since their move), and the office phones could not be used to call outstation. My friend then asked if the receptionist would lend her a cell phone because her husband would not return until 50 minutes later and she did not want to wait that long. The lady said no. My friend then offered to pay her back for the phone call. The lady, again, said no. Becoming increasingly frustrated but still calm, my friend then asked to make another appointment. There was a slot open at 2.30pm that afternoon. My friend agreed, but noticed that the receptionist did not seem to be writing anything down in her little appointment book.

That afternoon, my friend returned to the doctor’s office at 2.32pm. The receptionist looked at her and said, “You’re late.”

My friend answered, “I am two minutes late.”

“You are 20 minutes late,” the lady replied. “Your appointment was at 2.15pm.”

Long story short, my friend and the receptionist, along with the two other desk clerks present, exchanged some heated words.

After a few minutes, the clerks simply left the front desk and retreated into the office, leaving my friend to fume at the lobby alone. When they did not return, my friend took the hint and left.

When this story was related to me by my friend today, I could feel nothing but a sad, reddening anger. As I listened, I was struck dumb by the fact that this had happened just weeks ago, and not ten years ago, and in my town, and not some Godforsaken place a million miles away. In fact, the clinic she had visited is just a one-minute brisk walk away from my house, two in the cold Seattle rain.

What interests me about this story is that my friend is an Iranian. She has long, dark hair and beautiful, serious black eyes. She wraps around her American English a thick Middle Eastern accent, perhaps with a hint of Eastern European (her Hungarian husband’s). To a stranger, she may look severe and unapproachable but my friend is by far the funniest person I know here in America. Her humour is self-deprecating, her wit razor-sharp and her honesty humbling, and ultimately, she can be described as the best kind of surprise one can ever find underneath a perpetually furrowed brow.

What saddens me is that, no matter how much I want not to jump into conclusions about anything, a big part of me believes that this is a case of racism and discrimination. Why? Because like it or not, there are still people out there who are just plain idiots. These people are everywhere – small town America or big city Asia. They look at a person, they look at their clothes, listen to their accents and make judgments and summations and peg you as what they think you are so as to be able to survive the next few minutes without submitting into fear or anger or hatred and losing all control. Or they just do what they do to make themselves feel better.

I was in Hong Kong many years ago on assignment, and I’d walked into a noodle shop for dinner one evening. Not being able to read a single Chinese word on the menu, which was made up of pieces of coloured paper stuck on the walls, I’d looked across to the next table and noticed a lady eating some sort of chicken curry. I decided to take the easy way out and pointed to it to the ‘waiter’.

Presumably a Hong Kong Chinese, he smirked and as he walked back to the kitchen, muttered in Cantonese, “Chinese person, can’t even speak Chinese. What kind of Chinese is that?”

The fact was I could (and still can) speak Chinese and I could understand what he said. I just can’t read it and did not want to risk ordering the wrong thing. But what did he care? He’d made a snap judgment about me which I was never going to correct without making a fool of myself. And those ladies at the clinic, in my opinion, made a snap judgment about my friend, who was made a fool that day when they’d all walked out of the reception. The difference here is that I may have deserved a little of what I got, being a ‘banana‘ and everything. Did my friend deserve the sort of treatment she was subjected to, as though she’d been a plain criminal? How else can you explain why she, of all people, was treated in that manner? Was it really random? Were all three of the nurses having a bad day? And twice in one day?

I’m almost tempted to make an appointment there myself (living right next door and all) and then be eight minutes late, to see if I’d be treated the same way.

I don’t know. I just might.