In my white world, there are exactly two times when it is acceptable to ask how much something costs.
1) SALES. When a white person tells a friend about the great deal they got on apparel or automobiles, it is acceptable – no, mandatory – that the friend ask for both the original price and the sale price.
2) COLLEGE TUITION. This occurs between competitive WASP parents. If a parent brag-moans about how their brilliant child has ruined them financially by getting into an Ivy League School, it is acceptable to ask the price of tuition. (One must then assure the brag-moaning parent that little Carden’s brilliance can only be fully realized at Harvard and declaring bankruptcy no longer carries much of a stigma.)
But to ask how much an item costs unless someone is clearly dying to tell you? Très gauche. Crass. An invasion of privacy. It is NOT DONE.
We don’t even know how to respond to such a question. Witness:
I was in the car with my Chinese-American boyfriend Andy, heading to the Honolulu Airport. We’d just spent several long days with his China-born parents. Jay and Sunny didn’t exactly welcome me with open arms. But they didn’t kick me out of their house, either. I got the impression that they were ambivalent. Maybe, as the first girl Andy ever brought home, they saw me as a hopeful sign that their nearly thirty-year-old, number one son wasn’t gay. I suspected they wanted Andy to ditch me for a sweet Asian girl who didn’t talk back. Or talk much. Or maybe talk at all.
Andy drove in his usual insane style. I next to him, day-dreaming about hiking to a waterfall on Kauai, alone with Andy for the first time in days. Jay and Sunny insisted on sitting in the backseat.
Apropos of nothing, Sunny barked a question at me: “Do you have an apartment?”
“Yes. A little one bedroom.”
“Where is it? By the beach?”
“Oh, no. I live in Burbank, right by the–”
“How much you pay in rent?”
I sucked in my breath. Good God. Sunny had asked The Question You Must Never Ask Uptight White People. I channeled my Southern Debutante Grandmother, and replied in freezing tones: “I. Beg. Your. Pardon.”
“Oh. Is hard to hear, the air conditioning so loud in the front!” Sunny proceeded to speak slowly, over-enunciating every word she shouted. “HOW. MUCH. YOU. PAY. IN–”
My nerve broke. “Eleven hundred! Eleven hundred dollars!” My grandmother rolled in her grave. (Actually, since she was a total racist, Grammy had probably been rolling in her grave since I began dating. I started with a Sri Lankan guy.)
Cantonese chatter passed between Sunny and Jay. I glanced at Andy. He pressed his lips together, trying hard not to laugh.
The Cantonese subsided. Then Sunny barked again: “When are you going to move in with Andy?”
Gah. My white life had IN NO WAY prepared me for this onslaught of prying questions. I tried to punt to Andy. “How about you answer?’
Andy: “I’m…busy…driving.” He was not. He was busy laughing.
“Um,” I answered brightly. Followed by several more “ums” and a few “uhs.” I finally choked out, “I guess after we get married. IF we get married.”
The backseat was silent the rest of the way to airport.
I didn’t know how to interpret this interaction. Maybe they thought I was throwing away money. Maybe they wanted Andy to collect rent from me.
Or maybe, just maybe, they approved of me after all.