I was riding on the bus one day recently when a bedraggled oldish white man looked me in the eye.
People around us were speaking a world of languages -- Somali, Vietnamese, Spanish... and he and i were the sole Caucasians to be seen. The bus was crammed full of recent immigrants, first and second and third-generation peoples going about their business using public transportation. A crew of old Vietnamese ladies crowed and laughed loudly over their inside jokes. Two Somali women seemed to be coaching each other about the geography of the urban landscape on 82nd Avenue, and the Spanish speakers were talking about getting off the bus (i understood that conversation...).
Just then the oldish white guy looked to me.
"No one speaks American anymore," he said, continuing to look at me.
I felt the fire bubble up. Two generations ago my great-grandmother left the farm in Sweden as a young teen. Her father had been here and back, but her mother refused to leave their homeland. My great-grandmother, however, learned English as she traveled around the U.S., from east to west to middle. She didn't teach her son Swedish, besides a few prayers.
"There's no such thing as American," I replied, trying to stay calm.
This is usually how i react to this type of impromptu bigotry. Some offhand remark, so easily misconstrued and not at all what i really wanted to say.
This one fellow white person on the bus could have taken what i said as a lament for the fact that indeed, few people were speaking English on the bus. But what i meant was the fact that 1. "American" is not a language, and 2. our nation is one of immigrants, and while English is what is commonly spoken, we don't have an official language, and that's just fine with me.
Unless that man was the whitest native person i have ever seen, his family too likely came to this country speaking some other language than English. His family members probably grouped up according to country or race, just to have someone else to relate to while they navigated this wild country, full of possibility and overwhelming variety. Very likely, it took a generation or so for everyone in his family to speak great English.
I wanted to scream to him that he looked like he'd wasted his chance at the American Dream, what with his scraggly facial hair and breath that stunk of booze, mid-day.
How could i tell him, in a moment on the bus, that just because we shared a skin color, we did not share this particular mindset of otherness? That otherness should be celebrated, because it is what our country was founded on, and what we should all embrace? That it's beneficial to speak more than one language, and that a part of keeping heritage alive is speaking your native tongue? Indeed, i wish my family spoke Swedish as well as English.
It was a lost moment when all i could manage was to say "there's no such thing as American." Yes, it might not be a language, but what "American" really is, is a group of Vietnamese old women cackling together. It's a Somali woman coaching another on where to get Halal meat on 82nd Avenue. It's a group of Spanish speakers, joking around on the bus as they get off.
And sadly, it's the white guy, fighting it all in his mind, and looking for a fellow Caucasian to commiserate with...
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