Tuesday, September 4, 2012

But Ain't That America?

During an Operations simulation/game designed to show us how badly -- and how quickly -- supply chains can become screwed up, even in the face of constant consumer demand, I sat next to a Qatari classmate.  She is an observant Muslim who wears a hijab in public.

I asked her whether she had lived in the States prior to starting her MBA, and she replied that she had finished her last two years of undergrad in Boulder, CO.  "I really liked it there...I had a great time," she said, before continuing on that, "Everyone was great to me, but they kept warning me that 'this wasn't the real America.'"

Not really knowing how to interpret that, she next spent some time working in Austin, TX.  Guess what?  In Austin, she got the exact same response, along with the 'real America' line.  At this point, we were both laughing a bit, and I explained to her that there are many people in Texas who would dispute any statement about any place in Texas not being the "real America."  But on she went.

Prior to coming to Cambridge, she had spent time in Washington, DC, where...you guessed it -- people were exceedingly friendly, but cautioned her that this was also not the 'real America.'

By the time she got to talking about Cambridge, it was no shocker that she had heard the same thing here.

We didn't get to talk much more about it, but I thought this was pretty fascinating.  Yes, she had spent time in university and government towns, which are admittedly a skewed sample of the overall national population.  But before we get too carried away in those towns' other-ness, I'll refer back to what the Pakistani visitors who came to Lowell and Andover said this summer (it felt remarkable to them to feel so 'unremarkable' walking in places like Main St (Rte 28) or Merrimack Street).

The common thread in all the places the Qatari student had visited was that people were not only welcoming/friendly, but they felt the need to pre-emptively apologize for the 'other' or 'real' Americans who would not be so nice and wonderful.  Fascinating.

In light of that, is this country a xenophobic place?  You're damn right it is, I would say.  I would say the U.S. is xenophobic in the same way that I'd say democracy is a bad form of government or that capitalism is a bad economic system...all technically true until you wield the comparison tool.

The perspective that comes from serious time spent living abroad helps to shape that opinion.  Not that I condone ANY form of xenophobia (not even doing a double-take towards someone who looks *foreign* at your local Wal-Mart), but to really get a sense of perspective, YOU might try walking down the street in Karachi, looking exactly as you currently do.  Now try that while wearing an outward symbol of your religion.

And beyond condemnations of people in the 'flyover states' who you've never met, you can help in your own way to affirm American values of openness by treating people who come from other lands as individuals.  Just as it's wrong to leer or glare at people, it's not right to exoticize them, either.  Unless someone is really doing things that are "awesome" or "amazing" every five minutes, lay off on the superlatives a bit.  Don't refer to garb they wear as a "costume."

And don't feel the need to constantly offer unsolicited apologies for the ignoramuses among you who haven't memorized the Five Pillars of another religion, or learned how to find the Persian Gulf on a map.

1 comment:

C R Krieger said...

I thought the "fly over" states were the real America.


Regards  —  Cliff