Saturday, September 30, 2006

A Dumb American at a Foreign Students' Party.

It was early in the evening on a beautiful campus of a mid-sized university in Upstate New York. The time was the first week of October, the season of foliage and balmy post-Indian summer weather, with just a crisp hint of the approaching winter.

The University housed some 5,000 students among which you could encounter every major, minor and also, every professional and non-professional interest and human race imaginable. The place where students would congregate the most was the large Hasbrouck Dining Hall located not far from the Sports Hall, a large structure in the very center of the Campus. Upon entering the cafeteria, one would be drowned in the clangor of dishes and hundreds of conversation going on at the same time- your typical restaurant noises, that is, but magnified manifold by the huge number of people present.

The University, in addition to its large multi-cultural American student body, also catered to a small minority of foreign students, who, for a few years now were being called “International Students”; the word “foreign” now being considered “politically incorrect”.

The foreign (oops, international) students, who have been saving money for a long time to experience life in America, were, after the initial excitement of being there, a bit disappointed by the social segregation that they were witnessing all around them. In the dining hall, for example, black students would sit with other blacks, Spanish speakers (or those who looked like Spanish speakers) would sit with other Spanish speakers, Asian people would sit in their own groups, and the “real” Americans, meaning, “white” people would also sit at a table with other white people. The groups did not seem to interact with each other, but coexisted in matter-of-fact, peaceful, separate, and parallel avenues of development with very little meaningful interaction among the groups. The groupings were polite to each other, but seemed to be living independently of one another, as if there were several different Americas happening at the same time: the white one, the black one, the Asian one and the Hispanic one.

This was not how many of these foreign (oops, international) students had been imagining America to be. They learned about it from the movies, and one thing they knew was that while there were some bad white people in the US who hated Blacks, most white people were very noble and kind, and extremely friendly and sociable. However, the young Americans that they met at the university seemed to them to be extremely stuck up; very much into their little groups who did not pay any attention to anything that was going outside of their little cliques.

Incidentally, it was also big news to these students that there were actually so many people in the US who had non-white and non-Black features. Are these immigrants? Why are they sitting around and speaking English? They sure can’t be Americans! They don’t look like Americans! And all these brown-looking people! They had never seen them in the American movies before. Were these Americans, too? They later learned that brown people were called “Hispanics” but could not quiet understand what the word meant. Did it mean “Spanish”? Many of them had faces like they were South East Asians, but they spoke English to each other, and, sometimes, they would hear Spanish voices. Were these Americans? They sure did not look like the Americans they saw in Hollywood movies back on the subtitled TV programs in their home countries.

And then, there were many black people but they looked quite happy and confident. They would sit in a group of their own and none would have the suffering expression that so many Blacks had in all those American movies they saw back home; like they were martyrs or something.

The students in the international program have also found out that making friends with young Americans was not that easy. If your English was not fluent, some people would frown at you and give you dirty looks. If you were not American, some young Americans would give you the cold shoulder. And they also became aware of all these associations and clubs that were all over the place- Asian American Student Union, Hispanic American Student Association, and African –American Student Organization, etc. It was as if Americans liked to pull themselves apart from each other. Now which one could you join as an international student? None, as far as they knew. They did not fit the parameters.

You could join some other clubs, such as the Fencing Club and all, but many of the foreign students were too shy or simply did not know how to go about joining such groups. They were also afraid that they would be treated badly because of their accent. So, they just followed suit and created their own group- the International Students’ Association. They had parties, plenums, committees and other goings-on, but there were no American students ever present at any of those activities. The only Americans that they had met were the faculty and staff and these were very kind and friendly people. Meeting young Americans, on the other hand, proved to be very difficult, because of social obstacles on both sides. American students appeared to be too independent and arrogant; plus, foreign students were too shy and too scared to integrate. So, such segregation was accepted as something normal, and the students proceeded with their studies while creating all the social life they needed among themselves. They weren’t going to stay in the US forever, anyway, so why even bother? Many did have a hope of making friends with young Americans, maybe being invited to their homes and just forming friendships but these were not easy to form, unless you paid for a home stay, and many did not choose that route. Plus, a lot of young Americans were also too busy to have time for faltering International Students.

However, one day, something extraordinary happened. On a balmy early October evening, one American student, Bob Hines, stumbled by mistake into an international student party which was held at Hasbrouck Dining Hall, one floor up from Rathskellar Bar in the basement. He was visibly inebriated and was going to attend a dance which he had heard was being held on the second floor, but, instead, he inadvertently crashed the International party at which he was met with friendly curiosity and sincere surprise:

“An American!” “A real young American of our age!” exclaimed the foreign students in unison. “Finally! We are going to meet one of our hosts, our contemporary from the United States. So far, we have not had any chance to make friends with even one of them. Finally, we do. Come in, what is your name?”

“Bob” said Bob in a slurring, drunken voice.

“Hi Bob, I am Kumiko”

“Kumiko? “ What kind of name is that? Chinese?”

“It’s Japanese; I am from Japan”.

“That’s great! Welcome to the United States! Hey, where in Japan are you from? Hong Kong? I mean, the capital?”

“No, I am from Osaka, and the capital of Japan is Tokyo; not Hong Kong.”

“Gees, I always thought it was one and the same. You mean, it’s not?” Bob uttered in his still tipsy voice.” So, how long have you been here in the United States?”

“About one year?”

“That’s great, Kuniko, hey sorry about that Hiroshima and Nagasaki deal, and that recent tsunami. You know, it was all our government; I had nothing to do with it. And I am really sorry your capital city was taken over by them Reds in 1997 and you are now a communist country”.

Keiko giggled in embarrassment but pulled Bob by the hand and said: “Come’ on, I’ll introduce you to the rest of the international students. Here is Mohammed from Malaysia.”

“My-lay- what? What the hell is that?”
The Malaysian student lowered his gaze and shrank away in shame.

“And this is Sutti from Indonesia?”

“Nice to meet you, what was the name of the country you were from again? India?”

“Not, not India; Indonesia.”

“Where is that?” Bob asked in his innocent sincerity. Sutti lowered her gaze and slipped away ashamedly.

Kumiko continued her introductions: “And this is Jonas from Lithuania.”

“Where is that?” Jonas turned his eyes away and moved towards the table to the left pretending now to be nibbling at some snacks. He looked visibly upset and never again made eye contact with Bob.

“And this is Johnny Rodriguez, he is from the Philippines”. “Hi Bob”, said Johnny.

“Wow! You speak English very well, where did you learn it?” “In the Philippines, of course! You know, we are an English-speaking country, actually the third or the fourth largest in the world, and English is the medium of instruction in our schools.”

“Really? I didn’t know that.” “Hey, you know what they say- You live and learn.”

“And here is Somchai; he is from Thailand and that is Ponthip- his sister.” “Somchai, this is Bob, the first young American that came to our party”.

“Hi, Bob, welcome!”

“Cool, welcome to the United States! I’ve got a computer from your country made by what was the name again? The ” BenQ” company”, said Bob.

“No, Bob, BenQ is not Thai, it is Taiwanese. I am from Thailand, not from Tai-Wan”.

Bob scrunched up his features in a grimace of annoyance: “What’s the difference? Thailand, Taiwan? They are all the same to me. Say, so do you guys have big buildings in your country?”

“Yes, we do”, said Somchai, “actually, Bangkok, our capital has huge skyscrapers”.

“Get out of town? And how do you guys get around? Bicycles, mostly, and then you ride elephants to work, like the rich dudes in your country? “

Somchai was now visibly annoyed: “No, actually, we use cars and we have some of the worst traffic jams in the world. I am surprised you have not heard about them.”

“Well, I’ll be! I thought you guys were too poor to have cars there”, Bob said with an expression of sincere surprise. Somchai looked down and excused himself. Bobby hemmed and hawed and talked to Pontip- I think I am starting to remember something about Thailand now. You know, that Asian dude that has just walked away was right- it is a different country from Taiwan. Is that the place where there are many hookers? I saw a program on it once. Yeah, Bangkok, the Prostitution Capital of Asia. Hey, baby so, since you are from Thailand, why don’t we go to my place and you know… I can give you $20 bucks for one whole night.” Ponthip turned red, her eyes filled with tears and she ran towards the exit. Bobby herd the door slam.

“Hey, what’s the matter with all them Oriennuls?” “Can’t they take a joke?”, grumbled Bobby as he reached for yet another bottle of beer.

Kumiko again took Bob by the elbow: “Shall we continue the introductions? Here is Mbugua Mutilili, he is from Kenya, East Africa.”

“Hi, Booger, who gave you that funny name?” smiled Bobby.

“ It is Mbu-gu-a. It is a common Kenyan name.”

“ Africa, huh? Really? So, where did you buy your clothes? London? You dress like us. I thought you guys in Africa didn’t wear any clothes. And also, can I see your bow and arrows?”

“ No, we actually wear the same clothes as you, and I have never used bow and arrows in my life”. Said Mbugua with a frustrated smile.

“And do you guys live in houses there? Or ,like, in trees, with snakes around your necks? Bwahahahah!”

Mbugua straightened up and his eyes became glossed over with anger ” Bye, man. I’ve got stuff to do. Here, talk to my friend. This is Jan Van Buren from South Africa. Jan, this is Bob, the only American student that has ever come to our party”.

“Hi, Bob, nice to meet you!” Van Buren said with his clipped Afrikaans accent. “Nice to meet you, too. Where did you say you were from?” asked Bob.

“Pretoria, South Africa?” said Jan proudly.
“You come from Africa, too???” uttered Bob in complete amazement.

“Well, yes, why does that surprise you?” asked Jan.

“Africans are supposed to be black; how come you are white? And you’ve also got an American name- Van Buren; just like one of our presidents. You are from Africa and you are white, and not naked, and you are not carrying a spear. You are kidding me, aren’t you?”

“No, not at all,” Jan was now smiling with a condescending smile of an adult talking to a child. He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a little green book. It said: “Republic of South Africa, Passport.”

“Get out of town! So, were you parents Americans; related to our President Van Buren?”

“No, actually, my parents and grandparents, and great-grandparents were all South Africans; but sometime in the seventeenth century one of my ancestors migrated to Africa from the Flanders, so, that’s why I‘ve got a Flemish name”.

“Incredible, a white African with an all American name. Just like Michael Jackson, Bwahahaha!” Bob roared with laughter that no one else shared. Jan gave him a half-hearted smile and walked away while Kumiko appeared again and asked him, “Enjoying the party, Bob? “ “Yeah, girl. Anyone else you want to introduce me to?” “Yes, as a matter of fact, there are some people that want to meet you. Here they are: this is Miklos; he is from Hungary”.

“Really? Wow, is everybody Hungry in Hungary? Don’t you love being in America, Mick-whatever your name is? Or is it Milksop? There is plenty of food here. Enjoy, Mick, ‘cause when you go back home, you’re gonna be hungry again”.

Miklos turned red and disappeared. “And here is Jimmy Smith; he is from Australia!”

“Australian? Yeah, I know; just like that action star; what’s his name? Arnold Swarthy- whatever. The one that says “I’ll be back” with that funny accent.”

Bobby thought he was being funny. Jimmy corrected him- “No, that’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, he is from Austria; I am from Australia”.

Isn’t it the same thing? And you speak good English, you sound like a Brit; where did you learn it, taking ESL classes here at the University? I know Arnold had to learn English here in the US, I saw a documentary on him; did you also learn English in Austria, I mean, Australia? From some British teacher? “

“Well, yes, Bob, I did. We, in Australia, speak English. As a matter of fact, one cannot immigrate to Australia if one does not speak the language . And our accent is not really British; it is Australian. If you listen well; you will hear the difference.

“Gee, really? I didn’t know that. I thought only Americans and well, Brits and Canadians spoke English; not the French Canadians, of course.” And you, hey, I am talking to you, man” Bobby was now trying to have a conversation with a lanky gentleman who was leaning over the salad bowl. “Where are you from? “ England”. “England? Cool, man; far out! Say, dude, what language do they speak in England?”

Jimmy and the Englishman excused themselves to ostensibly go to the men’s room, and Bob was left looking for another group of students to talk to. There were two students speaking Spanish, and Bob decided to introduce himself to them. “Hi, I am an American; my name is Bob.” “Hi, Bob, I am Ricardo Mueller from Argentina, South America, and this is Jose Gomez from Puerto Rico”.

“Hey, Ricardo-ooh, you don’t look Argentinean to me. I mean, like you are blond and you’ve got grey eyes. How come? You people down there are supposed to be brown with black hair; kind of like this dude here; what was your name again?” “ Jose”- whispered Jose full of embarrassment.

“Hoe-zay, yeah, man like this here Hoe-zay; hey, Hoe-zay; I am not racist; you know, but aren’t you the guy I see every day working in the cafeteria?” Bob looked at him with mock suspicion.

“Well, yes, I am; why?”

“I mean, like, you know, have you got the Green Card? I don’t mean to stick my nose where it don’t belong, but if you ain’t got no Green Card; you can’t work here in the US, you know that, right? I mean, like you are not an illegal alien, are you?”

“I am from Puerto Rico, Bob; we are American citizens!” exclaimed Jose with rising indignation in his voice,

“Really? “ Bob reeled with surprise. “How come you guys are US citizens? Why? Are you a state of the United States?”

“No, we are not, but we are a US Commonwealth. That makes us American citizens!” Jose was gnashing his teeth now, and his fists were clenched with helpless anger.

“Hey, Hoe-zay, let’s keep it friendly, OK, man? I didn’t mean anything bad; just checking, man; just checking. Don’t want you to get into trouble with the Immigration and get deported back to Costa Rica or wherever you came from”.

Jose bolted away mumbling something under his breath that sounded like: “Gringo Estupido”. Bob was left facing Ricardo Mueller from Argentina. “So, as I was asking you, Rick; how come you come from Argenta, or whatever the name of your country is, and you look like an American; I mean like you are one of us. I mean, like you people from down south of the border are all brown and stuff; we are the ones who are white; but you are blond and not like a Latino; how come? Were you parents, like; Americans?”

“No, actually, not at all. My grandparents were from Germany, but in Argentina and also, in Uruguay, in general, the population is mostly European. We pretty much look like the majority of you, guys”.

“Well, I’ll be darned! I thought you guys and that other country, you-rooh- whatever, all looked like them Mexicans that come to cut our lawn on Sundays, hahahaha.” Bobby again thought he was funny. Ricardo coughed and excused himself. Bobby was left alone.

Not far from him, another young, African-looking man was having a cake. “Hi, I am Bob, Bob approached the man with his hand outstretched, “ I am an American! Whereabouts are you from? Africa or the Harlem?”

“Oh, neither one. I am from Brazil, my name is Joao”.

“That’s cool. Nice to meet you, what was your name again? Chow? Sorry, Chow, I no hablo espanol”.

“Well, I don’t hablo espanol, either,” answered Joao,” in Brazil, we speak Portuguese; not Spanish.”

“Really? I didn’t know that. I thought all of you people spoke Spanish down there. And, also, you mean, like there are black people in Brazil, too?”

“Listen, Bob. I’ve gotta run”. Joao suddenly moved to the other end of the hall. Bobby shrugged his shoulders and approached two what he perceived to be “gay-looking” students. “ Hey, look, fellas, I kind of dig the Village People and some of my best friends are gay, but I am straight so, I just wanna let you know from the start that I am not trying to hit on you, you know what I mean? but I like soccer and you kinda look like a cross between soccer players and Freddy Mercury, so I thought I’d say:” Hi”. The two students looked at him with squeamish expressions on their faces and asked him: “ Where did you get the idea that we were gay?”

“Hey, guys, it’s written all over you, I mean the way you are dressed, for one- the colors- they are kind of bright and you know, then the hair cuts and the mannerism and all.”

“But this is how we Europeans dress and behave, especially we, the French people. We want to look good; we follow the latest fashions, we dress well and in different colors, not just denim and grey and solid colors. And we also wear shoes and not just sneakers, you know. And we do have mannerism when we talk, it shows that we are refined and educated; it does not mean that we are gay and we like to have sex with men”.

“ Yeah, I guess you are right; it is just that when I see a dude dressed like you, I kind of figure he is a homo, you know what I mean? But the fact that you may be a homo is nothing against you; I don’t mind, some of my best friends are gay, no problem with me”.

“But we are not gay!!! We are French! We are taught to be sophisticated and dress well, and we do it to attract women; not men. Francois, let’s get out of here!” And the two French friends made a hasty retreat.

All these people were starting to piss Bobby off. Like they were stuck up or something and did not want to stick around and talk to him. “A bunch of ingrates. America feeds them and helps them, and we teach them, and save their asses in all these wars, and look how they are treating us! I think I am gonna kick somebody’s ass tonight”.

He gulped down three more beers and as the alcohol rose to his brain, he felt brave. Actually, he felt so good, his urge to prove himself in a fight got bigger. Out of nowhere, Kumiko appeared again, and inquired if he was enjoying the party. She took him along to have him try some “international foods”. A tall blond guy with a round face and a pug nose was standing in front of a large dish housing big dumplings with sour cream poured all over them.

“What are these, raviolis? “ inquired Bob? “No, these are Russian pelmenis.” Answered the tall guy. Bobby voice took on sinister, suspicious tones. “ What are you..from ….Russia?”

“Yes, I am an exchange student here, my name is Yevsey Cherkov.”

Bob began frowning: “ And they allow you people in the country?”

“Yes, why not? Our countries have diplomatic relations; we are not enemies, or anything.”

“But aren’t you people all commies and bloodthirsty warmongers and pinko liberals and enemies of the United States and a bunch of faggots, KGB agents and spies?” Bobby was now drunk from the beers and starting to gather momentum for a fist fight; and other students, quickly realizing that something was wrong, came closer. “ Get out of my country, now, you Russkie commie bastard! “ Bob yelled at Yevsey.

Yevsey backed away: “Easy friend, easy, I am just an engineering student here, and I don’t want any trouble”. Another student walked up to Bob and grabbed him by the sleeve of his shirt. “And you, where the f--ck are you from?” “I am from Saudi Arabia?
Bobby was now turning livid- “A terrorist? What are you doing in my country! First a commie, now a terrorist” . Bob’s hand was beginning to form a fist and he raised it above the Saudi student’s face: “ You, Iranian; you goddamned terrorist! Get out!” “I am not an Iranian, I am a Saudi”, said the student. “Same f--king s-it!!!” shouted Bob.

The international students were now frozen in place, faces full of concern and budding fear. As two more students tried to restrain Bob, three security officers, attracted by the noise, made their way through the crowd, grabbed hold of Bob and lead him away. Both the Arab and the Russian students were looking at each other with relief mixed with genuine trepidation. If the security had not been called, who knows what a bloody fight could have ensued.

Bobby was given a reprimand and asked to take a class on “Diversity”. Kumiko found out what room he was staying at and bought him an Illustrated Atlas of the World, so that he, at age 22, could finally learn where at least some countries were located, know something about their basic history and what their cities, and the people in them, looked like.

The International Students continued having parties, but were now a bit more cautious about whom they would let in, and made their gatherings as private and exclusive, and as by-invitation-only as possible. And could you blame them after the unpleasant incident with Bob Hines?

Eventually, Bob graduated, passed the Foreign Service exam and became embassy staff in Papua New Guinea. He is still struggling with the map of the place and is perennially amazed that there are, in fact, black people living there even though it is not Africa or America.

The foreign students had graduated, too, and went back to their respective countries. They constantly tell stories about the incident with Bob on their TV, the radio and to all of their friends, and the American residents there have become laughing stocks of the local communities. The most popular joke that they have played on them is when people walk up to them and ask them: “Where are you from? America? Where is that?” and then loud guffaws follow as the American residents hurry on back to their apartments, red-faced with shame.

And local politicians, having learned about how their constituents were treated at that party, have no qualms now about buddying up to Iran, China, Belarus and North Korea. At least, when they travel to those countries to sign yet another oil, weapon or nuclear deal they know they will not be talking to a bunch of geographical ignoramuses; and when they get there, the general population there will not be asking them every five minutes: “Where is that?”. The hosts do have enough wisdom to know that the way guests are treated now will be the way they will be treated when they, too, become guests, and the former guests become their hosts.


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John Gillespie said...

Nice post and good point well-made.