“Next time I come back, I want your English better.”
These words had Italian-born Denise Scalari needing to take a break from behind the counter after they were yelled at her across the café.
Scalari, a barista at Nelson’s Sublime Cafe, said the “pretty rude” male customer made her so upset, she had to gather herself and “breathe a little bit”.
It was the worst encounter she had experienced, but she said there were a few customers who looked panicked when they had to order from her.
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“They get anxious. If I ask them something, they are looking around like: Save me.”
“Come on, my English is not so s….”
But mask wearing, and the assumption that basic English names were widely known, didn’t help Scalari’s cause. Lip-reading was no longer an option, and common English names were “not typical in my country”.
“Even if for you it sounds like a normal name, for me, I struggle a lot.”
Scalari said she had heard similar stories from fellow backpackers.
One backpacker was told to “go back to your own country” by a woman wanting to get into a car park taken by a traveler, while another who had tried to correct the spelling of his name was told: “I don’t give a s…, just take out whatever you have in your mouth” in response to their accent.
English isn’t Scalari’s first language, it’s her fourth. Born in Italy to a Croatian mother, she moved to Spain at age seven where she spent her school years. She speaks Italian, Spanish and Catalan, and picked up English with her nomadic parents, traveling the world.
She said speaking a language that was not your own was “courageous”.
After her experience, Scalari took to a Facebook Nelson Community group to remind people to be respectful, which prompted more than 200 likes and dozens of supportive comments.
One person who read the post was English Language Partners center manager Luke Scowcroft.
He reached out to Scalari offering a poster and business cards for the cafe, pointing to a volunteer program which helped migrants and former refugees settle into Kiwi life while locals taught them English.
Next time she encountered someone who didn’t have patience, he told her to “point them in our direction, … to help change their perception”.
He said it wasn’t uncommon for refugees and migrants to have these negative experiences, and those who projected unkind words and attitudes lacked acceptance and understanding.
“If you want to get down to the academics behind it, people’s identity feels threatened when their language is not understood.”
It was “a matter of education”, he said, “to show that migrants and refugees contribute enormously to whatever region they end up being part of culturally and economically”.
“And the diversity we’ve seen is a boom to any region, not a drawback.”
The impolite customer Scalari encountered returned to the cafe some days later, she said.
But supported by management and staff, a team member politely asked him not to come back.