I'm staring out the window of the bus when the two young men sit down next to me. Lost in a half-doze, I don't notice them until one bumps my leg with his backpack. I look up and shift a little and he turns his face to smile an apology. I see his friend, sitting opposite, looking at me with an openly appreciative smirk on his adolescent face. It bristles with stubble, and I instantly know he's proud of it. In the same instant, I can see his expression change as he realizes he's made a mistake. He's misread the puffy parka, pirate beanie, baggy green combat trousers and boots. I'm not in his age group. He nods a little stiffly and I say hello, to make the awkwardness pass. His face lights up again, then he remembers to be cool and pretends to ignore me. I look out the window again, to hide my smile.
He and his friend begin to talk. They have powerful south London accents, and I listen carefully, picking through the "innits" to understand their conversation. Covert glances at their attire permit me to see that the one across from me has left the sticker that shows the size of his baseball cap on its bill, though his black hoodie almost obscures it. I wonder if this is deliberate. To my delight, they shortly provide the answer. One tells a story about being in a shop and having a salesperson stop him and tell him that he still had a tag on his cap. The disdain in his voice for the ignorance of adults almost sends me into giggles. They exchange a few more mumbled sentences that I can't understand, and then I feel the one next to me digging out his wallet. I glance over, and he's pulling out several tags, of the kind that are typically clipped from items of freshly bought clothing and discarded. They admire one another's collections. The one across from me catches my eye again and smiles.
They return their wallets to their pockets. The one next to me reaches into his jacket and pulls out a bit of paper that's falling apart along the creases and shows it to his friend. They begin an animated discussion of electric pedal bikes, some of which are apparently designed to look like scooters but don't require a license to operate. I glance over again.
The one next to me turns and asks, "Excuse me, do you know where I can get one of these pedal bicycles?" He exaggerates the last two words, pronouncing them with greater clarity than I've heard during the preceding portion of the bus ride, and points at the wrinkly picture while he says it.
I blink. "I'm sorry, but no."
He nearly drops the paper. "You're not Chinese?"
I stare at him. Should I point out that just because I look vaguely East Asian, it's terribly ignorant to assume that I must be Chinese? Should I point out that, in fact, there are a lot of East Asians in the world who speak perfectly good English? Should I point out that not all East Asians run restaurants, electronics and cycle shops? Should I point out that if someone were to assume that he spoke only Swahili, or that he made his living selling weed, he would probably be mightily offended?
Should I squinch up my face and say, "I sorree, I no unnastan, HEEHEE?"
Fortunately, his slightly less thick friend solves my problem by starting to laugh, pointing at him and convulsing. I patiently explain that no, I'm not Chinese, by ethnic or national origin, and that I moved to London from California. (He knows where that is. Or at least, he knows that Long Beach is there.) They disembark at the next stop.
"I'm sorry," yells the one who was across from me as he hops off the bus.
The last thing I hear the one who was next to me say is, "What you apologizin for?"