December 11, 2009

I'm Proud To Be an American, Where At Least I Know I'm Free

"At least"? What does that "at least" mean?

Okay, the whole song makes my skin crawl, not that I myself am not glad to be an American, because I am, though what I feel about it isn't pride, exactly, but extremely lucky I got born where I did. Makes you wonder why all those other people didn't choose to be born here, huh? I mean, what's the matter with them? The song bothers me the way "Dixie" bothers me when old men sing it slowly and solemnly. Again, not that I don't occasionally wish myself in the land of cotton. My old times there will definitely not be forgotten.

But here I am in downtown Philadelphia, where a lot of this America stuff got sketched out, so while I'm going avoid politics (I avoid politics religiously), I'm going to float an observation or two.

First, if there's a heaven, it's liable to be a lot like the Reading Terminal Market.

Second, and this gets me back to the whole America thing, I committed two social errors yesterday (which admittedly sounds like a pretty good day for me ... and incidentally I would have used the term faux pas, but I'm too ignorant of the Anti-American Freedom Hater language to know what the plural should be ... Fries, anyone?). See, I like talking to people. If I'm interacting with people professionally, be they a salesperson in a conference booth or an "engineer" from the hotel who comes up to fix the internet connection, I'm liable to strike up a conversation. If they sport accents that indicate that they're not from around here, I'm liable to ask them where they're from. It interests me.

But it turns out that people really don't like that at all. The foreigners I've met in the U. S. recently haven't been too comfortable telling where they come from. Even the British guy ("our staunchest ally") who was trying to sell me a big expensive piece of software was hesitant to acknowledge his origin ... though eventually we were talking about his adopted home in Atlanta, his dogs and his wife, who is a cancer survivor, and his lower middle-class education, which involved learning a higher than upper-class Oxford accent. All of this was after we established that I wasn't buying the software. I should have asked him to sing "Dixie."

Hours later, I was in the hotel room trying to get some work done, and the scandalously expensive internet connection quit on me. The tech--excuse me, engineer--who came to my assistance is clearly Not From Here. Still comfortably stuffed full of my dinner (carryout from the Reading Terminal Market) of falafel, hummus, grape leaves, tabbouleh, etc., I asked him where he was from. "South Phillie," he replied, stiffly. "Oh, okay," I said. "I thought I heard a little accent." Turns out he's from Egypt, not from Cairo but from farther north. He told me a little bit about it, we joked about the weather, and then he fixed the internet connection and got the hell out of there.

In my line of work we spend time in conferences and meeting rooms talking about "celebrating difference" ... and we feel pretty good about ourselves when we do so. But the barriers to doing so are many and complicated.