"Bob," said the telephone voice, "my name is Frank Shema. I live in Alexandria, and there's something that galls the heck out of me."
"What's that, sir?"
"When I tell people my name, they say, 'What kind of a name is that?'"
"OK," I said to Frank. "I'll bite. What kind of a name is that?"
"Well, it's Czechoslovakian and Austrian, actually," Frank said. "But I usually just refuse to answer. I usually say: 'It's a damn good name, that's what kind of a name it is.' "
"You know, sir, I really agree with you," I said. "Why do some people need to stuff others into an ethnic cubbyhole before they can even speak to them? How does it advance the relationship to know that you're Czechoslovakian and Austrian?"
"It doesn't," Frank Shema said. "All it is is thoughtless and offensive. All it is is warmed-over bigotry."
"Still, I'm not sure it's always meant that way," I said. "I'll bet that half the time, it's just a way for a socially awkward person to break the ice. The guy just doesn't know how to relate to you. So by asking what kind of a name Shema is, he's saying something with just as little sting as: 'Read any good books lately?' "
"But even if I tell him that I'm Czechoslovakian and Austrian, it doesn't provide him any information. There's no well-known ethnic stereotype for either country. If I say Italian or British or Jewish, he gets a picture. But with me, he never gets a picture."
"But being Czechoslovakian and Austrian is a significant part of who you are. Why not admit it? Most people who ask the question aren't interested in sending you hate mail."
"Bob," said Frank Shema, "I'm Frank Shema. I'm not a piece of Czechoslovakian and Austrian hamburger. I insist that people relate to me as Frank."
"Sir," I said, "I salute you. I just wish everyone with an ethnic name had as much guts as you."