One of the most interesting aspects of my job is that one week could find me in Anchorage, AK, the next in Los Angeles, CA and the week following that in deep Dixie. Places so diverse that they may well be on different continents. That is the greatness of this land where one can meet, enjoy cultural experiences and have conversations with people of so many cultures and countries. The next best thing to experiencing the cultures and having conversation in those places themselves. “A continent masquerading as a country” was the phrase used by my favorite publication to describe the country of my birth India. It is quite an apt description for my adopted country as well. Another, more interesting aspect is the people I get to meet. Now, I am not a very social person in my private life. Quite the opposite actually. As an example, consider this: My seven year old got so tired of my recluse of an existence that he took it upon himself to make friends in the neighborhood we live; because he probably (and rightly) figured that left to my own devices he would have no friends. When I introduced myself to one of my neighbors she said: “Oh yeah. We know who you are. You’re Arjun’s dad. He’s a great kid. He came over and played with our kids last week.”
I relate that anecdote only because it is odd then, that the interaction with people of different ethnicities is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job. I am not a particularly gifted observer or conversation maker but I do like people watching. And when I meet someone new I try to find a common thread we can discuss. Something I know a little bit of but want to know more about. Say, discussing perestroika with someone of relatively recent Russian origin. Or discussing with someone from Iraq ancient Mesopotamia and the part the Euphrates and the Tigris played in bringing about the cradle of modern civilization; or Muqtada al-Sadr’s party winning a lot of seats in the the just concluded elections. Or asking a former Marine how it was visiting all those places and meeting all those different people when he was on active duty. He replied, and I found it funny, because I really enjoy dark humor : “Oh it was a lot of fun meeting new people….. And shooting them.” In all these conversations I broach something I think could be of common interest, never for once assuming I can completely understand their circumstances. Empathize? Yes Try to understand? Possibly. To know what exactly it was like? No. Because I may read about a certain topic and a certain place but it is no substitute for having been there and lived those experiences.
My experiences interacting with, or talking to people with diverse ethnicities are hardly unique and nor do I have any special ability to get people to tell their stories. Which means such interesting stories are everywhere waiting to be uncovered. Sometimes just showing that I am interested goes a long way in learning about people and cultures, which consequently enriches my life. It also gives me ammunition for the arguments against the bigots. So consider some of the other people that have, over the years, in no particular order as they are presented here, enriched my life and broadened my horizons:
Two Iraqi gentlemen who made their way to America by way of a special visa program, for which they were eligible in 2015 (or 2016) after working as IT technicians for the US Embassy in Baghdad for twelve years after the 2003 invasion.
A gentleman of Laotian descent who was brought here as a child by his parents fleeing the civil war in that country. I asked him, how of all places he ended up in Little Rock, Arkansas? He replied that his father, when asked by the US authorities where he would like to live in the States requested to live in a place that had all four seasons. So Little Rock is where they ended up.
A gentleman of Russian descent who arrived here around the same time as me, just around the time Boris Yeltsin, whose alcoholism was taking a toll, was getting ready to hand power over to Vladimir Putin who has ruled Russia since. This gentleman was a young adult during Gorbachev’s perestroika. He thought the topic dominating the news cycle; the Russian meddling in the 2016 elections was a “circus” and “two faced”. By the latter I presume he meant the United States’ foreign policy which has left untouched no continent in the world by installing dictators and gross human rights violators as long as they are our “allies”. As FDR said of Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua: “He may be a sonofabitch but he is our sonofabitch.”
A quote that is attributed, likely apocryphally, sometimes to Kissinger, advising Nixon what to make of another other notorious abuser of human rights: Yahya Khan of Pakistan.
A Yonsei man whose Issei great grandfather had been interned in one of Roosevelt’s infamous camps during World War II; at the very time his Nisei grandfather had been fighting the Italian Fascists as part of the legendary 442nd Infantry Regiment.
A gentleman of Chinese origin in his late fifties who recalled what it was like to be a teenager during the terrible times of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and a young boy during the misery of the Great Leap Forward.
A German colleague who remembered, as a little boy, being told to be very quiet one night as his father and mother bundled him and his siblings into a car in the middle of the night to flee Communist Czechoslovakia.
A Jewish gentleman of Russian descent whose father had been a holocaust survivor and who, according to his own telling, on the very day of the coup against Gorbachev, at the very minute tanks were pointing their guns at the White House (the newer, less famous one in Moscow), was presenting his case to the visa official in the US Embassy in Moscow for asylum in the United States. He said that the visa official at the embassy took one look at his father’s application, commented on the tanks rolling in and said that there need be no explanation and that his visa was approved.
An African American gentleman who, like me, was an Army brat and spent most of his childhood in West Germany during the cold war.
A gentleman of Swiss origin whose girlfriend was from Dresden in former East Germany and bore some resentment about the reunification. He said she felt she was looked down upon by those from former West Germany and sometimes pined for the simplicity of those days, despite the conditions. She must be one of a very small minority of Germans that felt that way I would imagine.
Compared to all these stories, the humiliation of queuing up at the US consulate standing hours at a time in the muggy oppressive heat of Chennai (then Madras) for a student visa to be approved or rejected at the whim of someone likely with no more than a GED or high school diploma seems trivial. I realize that the part about no more than a GED or high school diploma comes across as incredibly demeaning to those that may not have had the same privileges and opportunities to get an education that I had when growing up, and I’m sorry for that. But that is exactly how I felt at the time. It is also the story of hundreds of thousands of other Indian immigrants who got here on a non-immigrant visa and decided to stay on to become green card holders and eventually citizens.
Why one may wonder I bring up these people and stories? Most of these people and stories have one thing in common: war, strife or turmoil in the mother country that led people to leave those countries in search for better opportunities for themselves and in some cases their families. There is also another common thread in all but two stories (of the German coworker and Swiss gentleman). After one of my work trips, sitting in an airplane going over the trip mentally, I chuckled to myself recalling the events of the week. I recalled that earlier in the week I was one of four people cooped up in a conference room over the better part of a week discussing cyber security strategies for a large hospital in the nation’s capital and none of us was American born. The others being the aforementioned Iraqi gentlemen and the gentleman of Russian origin. In other words, exactly the kind of people the current occupant of the White House and many of his supporters don’t want here.Exactly the kind of people to keep America as great as she already is. What exactly are we trying to make great again? And why? It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out that it is code for Make America White Again. Even if with his “understanding of a fifth or sixth grader” intellect of a brain — a quote attributed to his former Secretary of Defense — managed to figure out what exactly Make America Great Again means, he can take his plan and stick it up his you know what. We don’t need the current occupant of the White House’s permission nor direction to keep America great. We’re doing it as we speak and have been at it for several years. Speaking of codes, I have another post, the content of which I originally included in this one but this is getting way too windy. So I decided to do a separate post on just what I have learned is code when someone wants to say something bigoted or racist but can’t overtly. That is to to follow at some future date and time.
Thanks again for indulging me if you made it this far.
09/15/18, Prosper, TX.
P.S.: There is another common thread. The conspicuous absence of any women or people of Hispanic origin and only one African American in these conversations. Unfortunately, that is quite representative of the industry I work in. It is mostly male dominated, white and Asian at that, where women and other ethnicities are woefully underrepresented.