Thursday, September 8, 2011
Lessons Away from Home
I was unpacking boxes in the school bookstore when Greg, a fellow student, walked through the door. "Did you hear the news?" he asked. Tracy—my co-worker— and I said no and kept working. "The World Trade Center towers are gone- flattened; nothing is left." My stomach tightened as he told us the rest of what he knew. Later, as many of us gathered around the TV set, I sat in silent shock at the pictures I saw. I didn’t know anyone in all of New York State, but I had never felt more distinctly American than that day.
Growing up in a Caucasian, Christian family in small-town America, I never stood out in the national or international scene. I have never dealt directly with racism or violence. I have never been surrounded by war. I still have yet to visit Washington D.C. and many other places in our country, but in September of 2001 I boarded a plane for France. I went to spend the school year learning French, traveling Europe, and meeting people. Suddenly I was not just another college student; I was one of the Americans.
That evening of the attacks, while it was still early afternoon in New York, rumors were circulating about who had attacked America. Our school met in the girl’s dorm chapel to worship and talk about what had happened. When a Croatian student came up to my friend and me to tell us how sorry he was, a mixture of emotions enveloped me. That someone from a war-torn country was expressing his sadness to me, an American, was touchingly ironic. I found myself feeling guilty. But what did I have to do with any of this? What right did I have to be sad?
Over the next month all the American students were glued to the news, and our professor Pierre often interpreted in English for us. I heard students speculate that we might all get sent home while others said we were safer just to stay in France. I had visions of my country in war while I hid in a tiny French town a step away from Geneva, Switzerland and the comfort of possible safety in its neutral boundaries. Traveling was suddenly a scary idea. Without knowing it, I wore America like a name tag, as if an American flag were tattooed on my forehead. Our school trip to Paris was in October and fears were growing that our rowdy American group might not be safe. Stay together, speak French as much as possible, and when you speak English talk quietly. Don’t wear loud American clothing and don’t show off the fact that you are tourists. These words of advice were especially important in the days after September 11; though we were not expected to go around living in fear, we had to be sensible. I didn’t know if I was proud to be American or scared to death that someone would hate me just for being from the United States.
In a Chamonix bookshop, the woman at the counter interrupted my broken French with excellent English and asked me where I was from. I replied, "Washington," referring to the state where I attended college. "Try to find your smile again," she said. A little taken aback, I realized she might have been talking about the attacks, perhaps even assuming, as many people did, that I meant I was from Washington D.C. The French don’t like Americans; I had heard the stereotype all my life, but I was discovering that one act of kindness can overpower negativity.
I wasn’t home to experience all the good stories of strangers helping one another, Americans pulling together, but as I read the newspapers, I also read of hate. America was supposedly uniting more than ever, but it was dividing too, splitting itself off from other parts of the world. Americans of Middle-Eastern descent were targeted. In just a matter of weeks, my pride was definitely shifting. Okay, so I am American, I thought. But I am much more than that; I am human first. I was standing out as an American in France, but it wasn’t just Yankees and Frenchmen. My school included people from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Romania, Croatia, Brazil, Argentina, Madagascar, and many other countries. My travels by plane, train, car, bus, and boat took me to Paris, Barcelona, London, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Bastia, and Florence. I stayed in homes where only German, Romanian, or French was spoken. Many times I could not communicate because my language was so limited, but always the smiles told me how welcome I was. For every bad encounter I had with someone, there was a positive experience to replace it. People knew I was American and either loved me for it or in spite of it. They cared about me for who I was not where I lived. I did feel a responsibility to be the best American I could be, but it started with being the best person I could be. I learned a great deal from the kindness of "foreigners" in their native lands, and it wasn’t hatred.
When my friend and I traveled around France for two weeks in April of 2002, we were two American girls alone leaning on our fair to good French-speaking abilities and the kindness of strangers. Riding the rails and late-night subways, we came across the people of our fears, but we also met angels. From a young Moroccan man in a Paris hotel, to an old man on the island of Corsica, the number of people who went out of their way for us was amazing. I clearly remember the hot day we walked for a couple miles with our heavy packs on our backs and finally located the rental car agency only to be told that 23 was not old enough to rent a car. We were near tears from exhaustion and hopelessness and the man and woman made phone calls for us, got us a ride, and another gentleman found us a place to stay for the night until we could catch a bus in the morning. Numerous people from various countries and backgrounds uplifted us and helped two Americans have the vacation of a lifetime.
Returning to America, I wondered if I would face culture shock after having started to adapt to my French lifestyle. As I walked around my neighborhood and saw the smiles and waves that thrive in a small town, I felt at home and remembered similar experiences in Europe. Here I see people being kind, friendly, and happy. I no longer say bonjour when walking into a store, but I can say hello. This is what I know. This is not just a value I learned in my country or from my parents. I am American by birth, but compassionate by choice. This is my America, but this is also my world.
(a slightly modified version of an essay I wrote nine or more years ago—it needs work, but I wanted to share it first)