Friday, September 11, 2015

On September 7: An Independence Day Parade and Scouting in Brazil

On September 7, my son Jack and I marched with the Scouts during the Independence Day here in Juiz de Fora. It might not seem like much, but both of us were excited. It was Jack’s first time marching in a parade of any kind and my first in well over 40 years. So why on earth would this event turn into a blog post? Well, there are a lot of reasons, all of them very personal, very much mine. It was special to me because I am not yet a Brazilian. Almost, but not yet. I’ve applied for citizenship and, hopefully, it will be granted in about a year.

 This was a civic celebration, a patriotic one by definition. As someone who has been heavily innoculated by the excesses of mindless, knee-jerk attitudes that are passed off as patriotism in the US, to discover that patriotism can be a force of good is a pleasant surprise. Brazilians, like Americans, love their country. Unlike Americans, however, they feel free to recognize its failings. Back home, to criticize our country for any reason, no matter how legitimate, is often taken as an attack on the country itself.

So, what is the difference between American patriotism and Brazilian patriotism? A lot, from where I see it. And, as an almost Brazilian, I have thought about this frequently. In fact, I thought about it while marching down Juiz de Fora’s principal avenue. I was very aware that I might well have been the only non-Brazilian in the parade. I’m the only foreigner in my Scout group and I know of no others in our city. When I took my Scouting promise, mine was different than the one Brazilians take. They promise to do their duty “to God and my country.” As a non-citizen becoming a Brazilian Scout Leader, that promise was “to God, to my country, and to Brazil”. Brazilians are non-exclusive. You don’t have to turn your back on who you are to become a Brazilian. You can be both. No one expects me to quit being an American just because I immigrated to Brazil. And when I become a citizen? It won’t make any difference. For Brazilians, I will be Brazilian. Period. That I also have another identity is not important. It is recognized as being part of who I am.

Anyone who seriously looks at how immigrants are received and viewed in the United States knows that this is not the case there. My oldest daughter Georgia, born in Brazil, is also a natural born citizen because of me. When she was a teenager, upon crossing the US border after a few day trips into Mexico with my wife Rosangela, she was repeatedly questioned about how she acquired US citizenship. She was interrogated far more than my wife, her stepmother, who was a legal resident of the US, not a citizen. Even when immigrants naturalize in the US, they are still all too frequently viewed as foreigners.  In Brazil, we’re just Brazilians. In fact, I have been called a Brazilian and have been cited as a citizen simply because of my attitudes, for doing what is right, for doing what should be my civic duty. Brazilians notice – and are pleased – when they realize that I say “we” when speaking of this country. I’ve seen and heard too many examples of Americans questioning immigrants, even after being naturalized, for using that inclusive word “we”.

We need look no further than Donald Trump’s strident rhetoric to further illustrate this. If that isn’t enough, there is always history. We can start with the mass detention and internment of Japanese and Japanese-Americans during World War II in the name of “national security”. (Sound familiar?) Don’t forget that the latter, including George Takei and the late US Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, were all US citizens.  Need more: how about the euphemistically called “Mexican Repatriation” recently featured in a story on NPR (“Mass Deportation May Sound Unlikely, But It's Happened Before”, September 8, 2015). Up to two million “Mexicans” were deported, the vast majority without the benefit of due process. It is estimated that 60 percent of them were actually US citizens. Do you want more up-to-date examples: how about all of the rhetoric surrounding those Central American refugees, many of whom are unaccompanied minors, crossing our southern border? Or our stinginess regarding today’s refugees from the horrors now engulfing Syria and Iraq? Lest we forget, our nation is largely responsible for the ongoing chaos in both of those regions. I could go on. Our reception of different waves of refugees and immigrants has always been hostile. What about the 1939 “Voyage of the Damned”, when over 900 Jewish refugees from Germany on board the MS St. Louis were denied entry into the US, after being turned away from Cuba? Forced to return to Europe, as many as a quarter of them would perish in the Holocaust. Irish and Italians immigrants were seen as threats to“American values” for the longest of times. And then there is our historical penchant for renaming things when other nations displease us. Do you want some “Freedom fries” with that? Or a big bowl of “I Hate the French” vanilla ice cream? Does “Liberty cabbage” ring a bell?

To counter this, to show you what Brazil is, does and thinks, let me offer this. The following link is to a musical video in which 50 refugees from 12 different countries collaborated. They are singing their thanks to this country for opening its arms and welcoming them. It expresses my feelings about my adopted country in a way that is far more beautiful and far more moving than anything I am capable of. This immigrant agrees wholeheartedly with those refugees:

(This is a short, minute-and-a-half cut. The video caption contains a link to the full video and an accompanying story in Portuguese. It is well worth watching, even without understanding the language. Just make sure you have a handkerchief or Kleenex handy.)

And so how does Scouting figure into all of this? Like anything else, Scouting reflects the society  into which it has been inserted. The Boy Scouts of America is a reflection of American society. It historically has been xenophobic and homophobic. This is one of the main reasons I was reticent when my son, Jack, initially became interested in becoming a Cub Scout. That reticence reflected my own exposure to Scouting in the US, not in Brazil. Since his Cub Scout pack required an adult to be present during his first four meetings, I began attending. They tell you that they want you there in case your child has trouble adjusting to the program. I suspect, though, that they have ulterior motives. They want you involved, too. I began to see and experience what I cannot call anything other than Brazilian inclusiveness in the Scouts. That was not really what I was expecting. When I followed my son in and became a Scout Leader, this foreign Muslim was openly welcomed by our group, Scouting Group 72, Liz do Amanhã. It was founded by a Catholic priest 25 years ago and features a chalice and communion wafer on the group neckerchief. You can’t get more Catholic than that. Nevertheless, at the first encampment we attended, I was asked to give a Muslim prayer. And, as for homophobia, there is none. Period. Our training literature does not encourage us to foster the acceptance of Scouts’ sexual preference in all of its diversity, it commands us to do so. I have witnessed adult Scout Leaders here campaigning against changing the definition of family in the Brazilian family code to include homophobic, non-inclusive language. And when the US Supreme Court recently made its historic ruling in favor of marriage equality, some of the most vocal celebrants I saw in Brazil were Scouts and Scout Leaders. Contrast that with the BSA, which is being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century only under the threat of being forced to do so by US Federal Courts as they correctly interpret the Constitution and supporting federal laws.

I have interacted with Scouts of all ages and Scout leaders of all kinds. The rainbow quality of our group, like all of Brazil, is not for show. All races and many diverse religions are present – and no one seems to notice. That’s just how Brazilians are. And religion? I answered that above. It’s the same.

So next year, Jack and I will once again march in the Independence Parade as Scouts. Maybe, by then, I will even be a citizen.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

On Charleston

Top row: Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton 
Middle row: Daniel Simmons, Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, Tywanza Sanders 
Bottom row: Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson

Warning: this is a rant.

Watching the horror unfold in Charleston on Wednesday from a distance of 6,000 miles (or 10,000 km, if you prefer), I felt compelled to write. In reality, I felt compelled to scream, pull out my hair, gnash my teeth, rend my clothes and cover myself in ashes. Enough. This insanity must stop.

I am also at a loss for words. In my 62 years, this insanity has seemed to become a recurring theme but the truth is that it has always been present. We only need to look at the long history of lynchings, both “legal” and extrajudicial in this country. We need only look back at the long history not only of anti-Black racism that brought us slavery, Jim Crow and this, we must also look at the wholesale slaughter of our indigenous populations, the lynchings – again both “legal” and extrajudicial – of Spanish-speaking residents of this country along the Rio Grand Valley by local whites including the Texas Rangers of old, the internment of Japanese and Japanese-American citizens of this country during World War II. The list goes on and on, ad nauseam. It also includes our constant, seemingly perpetual state of war and the long list of countries that we have invaded, often because we just didn’t like their governments. (Of course, we are always presented a bill of goods, a pretext, to justify those atrocities.) Our history is steeped in cutting down in any and every way possible those who don’t quite fit the ideal profile of what some would call “typical Americans” or those opposed to our so-called values.

And today, the clown car Republican presidential candidates and their ilk jump in justifying, denying, diverting, obfuscating in a nauseating display of irrational denial. Perry: prescription medication caused an accident; Huckabee: because they weren’t armed; Jeb Bush, who doesn’t know that it was racism;  others who call it a mistake, an accident... And then there is Charles Cotton, a member of the NRA board of directors, who blamed one of the victims, the late Rev. Pinckney, because, as a state legislator, he voted against expanded "gun rights". Not a single one of those deigned to admit that blatant racism was the cause, in spite of the shooter's very explicit statement, “You’ve raped our women...”

One would hope that we had made progress in the last fifty years, since the height of the Civil Rights movement. Sometimes we even pat ourselves on the back for having done so. After all, didn’t we elect Barack Obama? Doesn’t that make us “post racial”? No, not at all. Progress? In 1963, Klansmen used dynamite to blow up a church in Birmingham and murder four young girls – Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair, ages 14, 14, 14, and 11, respectively. Two days ago, a young man walked into a church in Charleston and proceeded to slaughter the nine people named in the photo above using a .45 pistol he had been given by his father as a birthday present. That’s progress? The only “progress” we’ve really seemingly made is that access to guns today is easier than it was fifty years ago. That’s why the Klan used dynamite back in 1963 and Dylann Roof used a gun this week. That access does not make it easier for us to “defend ourselves”. It only makes it easier for racist psychopaths to kill. And Roof? He’ll be described as mentally ill rather than as a terrorist, but if his name were Muhammad or Achmed? We all know the answer to that question. Trayvon Martin, 17, was called a grown man and a thug without ever having been arrested, and, yet we’ve already seen the pundits calling Roof, 21, just a young boy, in spite of his having been arrested twice on various charges earlier this year. That’s not progress either.

I want to believe in our country, in the promise that I was taught the United States represents as a young boy in Ardmore, Oklahoma, but I was taught that in segregated schools in a state where it was still illegal for Blacks and Whites to get married. Hell, we couldn’t even sit together at the movie theater or drink out of the same water fountain when we were children. I remember seeing the Freedom Riders' buses burning on the evening news in 1961 and reading reports of the 1964 killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi in the local newspaper. Those assaults and killings never stopped. The promise was never realized at home.

And what will our response as a nation be to this latest unspeakable but sickeningly familiar act of brutality? While those on the extreme right will refuse to even acknowledge that this attack, this act of terrorism, was thoroughly and undeniably racist, the rest of the country will wring its hands for a few days, expressing our indignant “outrage” and then will proceed to do nothing. Most will go back to their relatively comfortable lives after congratulating themselves on having expressed that outrage. Afterwards, life will go on. More Blacks, Latinos and others will continue dying at the hands of racists, gays will still be beaten and refused service, Muslims will forever be profiled, and psychopaths of all stripes will purchase arms impediment free. Ignorance runs rampant and unchallenged in our society. Our will to do the work to make necessary changes remains nil.

I cannot pretend to know what the Black experience is, as I am not only a white male, I am a white Southern male of a certain age. That being said, however, I do know our country’s history and have lived with my eyes open (Here's a special shout-out to, among others, my former students at Millwood Public Schools, a predominantly African-American school district in Oklahoma City, who taught me far more than I can ever begin to acknowledge.). However,  just being who I am gives me a pass from growing up knowing that society will never accept me. No one follows me around the store as I go shopping, people don’t lock their car doors or cross the street when they see me approaching. Most of my interactions with local police have been amicable and respectful. Even as a Muslim, my white skin and English name allow me to pass through airport security and society in general unperceived. I am lucky. The victims of past, present and, unfortunately, future acts of extreme racism in our country were not, have not been, nor will be afforded that privilege.

I have no answers. I don’t know what I can do other than to raise my children to be aware of the world in which they live and to value the lives of all people and the concepts of liberty and justice for all, where “all” literally means just that: all.  May the Lord have mercy on us all. I’m not so sure that many of us, as Americans, actually deserve it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

My Father and I - the American Narrative

My father, Cecil E Shelton on  shore leave in the
 Philippines after the invasion of Okinawa, 1945.

My father and I had a fraught relationship for the last forty years of his life. What I did not know until just a year or two before his death was that he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). No one told me this nor, as far as I know, was he ever diagnosed with PTSD, but I finally put it together, with the last pieces of that puzzle falling into place because of a conversation with my aunt, his sister. She told me of his nightmares, his crying and screaming in his sleep – things she had learned from my mother, and of his experience relayed through his conversations with another aunt, also his sister and a World War II veteran in her own right, while on leave during the War.

This, however, is not about him. It is about trying to understand him and the war that made him who he was. In order to do so, I must look at that war, and the peoples who fought that war, including those he fought against. It is about trying to come to terms with what I was taught as a child and the things I learned growing up. It is about trying to put in context those very few things I heard him talk about that war – almost never to us, and to put them in a broader context. It is about my father, the United States, Japan and the Japanese, and how a generation of young men and women on both sides grew up under the influence of the mutual experiences of that war.

In the past forty years or so, I have read a fair amount of literature about World War II. Most of it has been about the war in the Pacific, for what should be obvious reasons. I have not, however, chosen to read about the heroics of American troops, battling their way across that ocean, storming ashore on islands that are now hallmarks of American military history: Tarawa, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, the Philippines. Nor will I deal with that here. There is no need. We – those of my generation, the children of that war’s veterans – were weaned on those stories. Whether what we heard was embellished or not, we know them. We know of hero Marines and evil, subhuman Japanese. Never were the Japanese given a human face in those stories. We might know of the Rape of Nanking, but not of the fire bombings of Tokyo and almost every other major Japanese city. We know nothing of those who lived through or died during those bombings.

This odyssey of reading began when I ran across an English language copy of Saburu Ienaga’s Pacific War: 1931-1945  in the early 1980s. (I still have that book.) Although somewhat dense and assuming knowledge of Japanese history that I did not have, this was the first glimpse I had of a Japanese perspective. And what does this have to do with my father? When I told my father about the book, the vehemence of his “Why would you want to read that?” eliminated any further mention to him of learning about the ‘enemy’s” perspective.

Sometimes those who have experienced traumatic events create narratives that justify those events. It is a form of self preservation. “What I went through was worth it because...” In his case, he and his fellow Americans had saved the world from the “evil Japanese”.  He had seen American soldiers killed on the beaches of Okinawa as he ferried them to shore. Although some of those deaths were by friendly fire (I heard him mention this once when I was really young. He didn’t realize that I was listening to his conversation with other Pacific veterans.), he had to see the Japanese as completely evil in order to live with those experiences. He never questioned that narrative, just as many veterans of all wars from all countries do not question the narratives they have constructed and/or accepted. This is not a criticism of my father. It is an attempt to understand him for I, too, have created a similar narrative for myself. After all, that narrative, which he never saw a reason to question, was largely constructed for him.

It is a narrative that has been made necessary to sustain our constant state of war, our frequent foreign interventions, our seeming need to invade and impose our will on other countries. It is the narrative that we are the good guys, wearing the white hats who have sacrificed so much so people around the world can be free, without considering the incredible amount of destruction that we have caused and how little “freedom” has been the result, be it in Vietnam fifty years ago, Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years or against our native peoples in the more distant past. It is a constant in our history that precedes our founding as a nation... It is the underpinnings of phrases like George Bush’s now [in]famous “They hate our freedoms” and his “You are either for us or you are with the terrorists.” It creates a conformity that views anyone who would dare question our country’s motives for its constant wars or who wants to understand another country’s perspective or another people’s reasons as suspect – and that is what caused my father’s and my divergences over so many things.

One powerful word is sadly absent from that narrative: reconciliation. We are taught to hate them. We are not taught who they are and, when it is over, we move on to our next enemy du jour without either looking back or forward, without reflecting. Today, it is the “hajis” and “ragheads”. All Muslims are suspect. Yesterday, it was “gooks”, represented by the Vietnamese and, earlier, by Koreans and Chinese “chinks”. Before that, we had the “Japs”, the “Krauts”, the “Huns” and myriad other epithets, each reflecting the war from which it arose. And, in between wars, what do we do? We talk about our might and how it makes us right. We seek to keep out those we don’t approve of. Brown people, black people, red people who are within our borders are subjected to the same treatment because they dare to question our narrative. When they ask about their perceived exclusion from “Liberty and justice for all”, we use epithets, other justifications, without attempting to understand why they would feel as they do. After all, it goes against the narrative. We even come up with new epithets to substitute those that are no longer deemed acceptable. Does anyone really wonder why the protesters in Baltimore and Ferguson were called “thugs” and, yet, the bikers in Waco were not, even though more people died in Waco than in Baltimore and Ferguson combined?

And, so, how do we get to reconciliation? How do we attempt to humanize our “enemy”, especially once our so-called reasons for hating him have ended. Perhaps we can look at people who have gone beyond, have attempted to understand not only what happened to them, but also why. We can begin by looking at examples like that of Eric Lomas, a British soldier and prisoner of war of the Japanese, and Takashi Nagase, a Japanese officer and Mr. Lomax’s interrogator. Without going into details, both were wracked with trauma from their years of war - Lomax for what he had endured and Nagase for what he had participated in. Mr. Lomax suffered severely from PTSD. He had been brutally tortured while Mr. Nagase served as interpreter during those interrogations. Nagase knew he had been both complicit and silent during the torture of Lomax and other prisoners. He knew the narrative that he had been told and believed in was a lie. His remorse led him to become a Buddhist priest and to work for reconciliation. The short version of this story is that, in order to deal with his PTSD, Mr. Lomax found Mr. Nagase years later and forgave him. They both became friends and both continued working for reconciliation between former foes. It is an uplifting story, portrayed in Mr. Lomax’s book The Railway Man and the 2013 movie of the same name. Theirs is one story among many from different wars involving different people that are largely unknown. Those are the stories that my father never heard, largely because they ran against the narrative. Would they have helped my father deal with his trauma? I honestly do not know, but it would have also required him to step back from the narrative a little in order to avail himself of them had they been available.  I don’t know if he could have done that, but those are also the stories that we, as humans, need to learn. They are everywhere. They remind us that, in the end, we are all the same. Without them, we are doomed to continue hating, and fighting, and letting our wounds fester rather than heal. We can do better than that.


Monday, May 11, 2015

Rachim: My Friend, My Brother:

How can you hate people you know? When you get to know the supposed enemy – by breaking bread, sharing stories, helping one another, it becomes difficult to hate. I wrote the following several years ago, but shared it with only a few friends. With the constant and ongoing rattling of sabers about Iran, I think it might now be appropriate to share with a larger audience.

In Memoriam: Mohammed Rachim Rezaizadeh

On my road to Islam, there have been many influences.  Some have come from simply meeting and getting to know people from Muslim countries, interacting with them, seeing that they were good people, that we shared a common humanity, that we want and desire the same things, be it a reasonably comfortable life or social justice – or both.  One of those was a friend from my days at the University of Arkansas in the mid-1970s: Mohammed Rachim Rezaizadeh.

When I met Rachim, he introduced himself as “Ray”, assuming that, like most Americans, it would be easier for me than using his real name.  I insisted on learning his real name – the one given him by his mother and his father. When I successfully pronounced “Rachim”, he smiled and we instantly became friends.  Even though he has long since departed this life, I still think of him often.  Because of him I developed an unending love of his country and his people and a much deeper appreciation of what family means and does not mean.  From him, I learned... well, let me tell you the story.

In order to truly write about Rachim and why he is so important to me, I will also have to delve into my background and into what was happening in my life at that time.  It was 1976 and I was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science at the U of A.  I had been extremely active politically, working with both the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the early 1970s.  As a result, I had been expelled from the United States Air Force Academy, where I had been a cadet.  I later went on to participate in the siege at Wounded Knee in 1973, where I had been fingerprinted and photographed upon our surrender.  I also had spent some jail time, about six weeks, due to my two convictions for trespassing on a military installation and subsequently failure to appear for sentencing on the second conviction.  (I had chosen to go back to Wounded Knee instead of to federal court.)  Consequently, I was under fairly close surveillance by the FBI and would soon flee to Mexico, with the approval of my attorney.  At this point, enter Rachim.

At the time I met Rachim, I was feeling very isolated.  I had been working with a (very) small Marxist group for about a year before, but they had shunned me because I was “hot”. They were afraid I would bring unwelcome attention from the local Feds.  I got along well enough with and had many acquaintances among non-political students, but very few if any real friends.  I honestly no longer remember how I met Rachim.  I was involved with a young women, Pam, and he began dating her twin sister, Patti.  (I’m not sure if he began dating her before or after we met.)  Rachim saw himself as secular Iranian, but, given his name – Mohammed Rachim – his family obviously was not.  He was vocal in his opposition to the Shah (This was 1976), but understood that the SAVAK (the Shah’s secret police) had long tentacles.  I had only a vague idea about what was happening in Iran and the rest of the Middle East.  I knew virtually nothing about the culture and history of Iran and very little about that of other countries in the region.  That, however, was about to change.

Rachim introduced me to this new and exciting world.  Through him, I began to meet and make friends with Iranian and Arab students from a variety of countries.  There was not talk of Persian or Arab superiority, no Shi’a-Sunni split, only brotherhood and sharing.  These were young men who saw themselves as anti-imperialists, who spoke of social justice and equality, who seemed to be longing for the same things I was.  We spent many long hours – Iranians, Arabs and myself – seated around the hookah, smoking, sharing, talking.  It did not matter to them that I did not speak their language – they all spoke excellent English, which they spoke to me.  Speaking among themselves, they reverted to Farsi or Arabic, unless, of course, they did not speak the same language.  They also knew that I was not uncomfortable around people who spoke different languages.  As for my being the subject of unwanted attention from the authorities, that was par for the course for them.  They also were.

Theirs was a brotherhood and I was welcomed into it with open arms.  I would not know for some time how important this was.  I only knew that, because Rachim knew and trusted me, they came to know and trust me.  Rachim, like all of them – the Iranians, the Arabs from various countries, everyone within this circle of friendship, spoke of each other as brothers – me included.  I had never heard the expression, “My brother and I against our cousin, my cousin and I against the world.”  We were all brothers, cousins.  Rather than go on, let me relate one incident, which also marked the last time I saw Rachim.  It speaks volumes about who he was.  It also speaks volumes about his world, his people and his culture.  It also speaks of a debt that I now have with him, with all Iranians and, by extensions, all people from the Middle East and all Muslims.

In the fall of 1976, my position in the US had become untenable.  The Federal harassment had increased and I made the decision to flee the United States.  Pam and I packed an old car and drove it to Brownsville, Texas, accompanied by her sister’s three year old daughter Bianca.  They would serve as a “cover”, giving us the appearance of a family, albeit a hippy family, driving down to the coast.  Patti and Rachim would join us in a couple of days, which they did.  After we arrived, things did not go well for us (the details are not important.).  Our money soon ran out and Rachim had to return to Arkansas.  He knew that I had a brother living in Dallas and suggested that I go with him, so I could ask my brother for help. We pooled our money and, calculating how much we needed for gas to get to Dallas, we gave the rest to Pam and Patti.  We then proceeded to Dallas, where we spent the night with some of his friends.  The next morning, I called my brother and made arrangements to meet him at the DFW Airport, where he worked,   Rachim took me there and agreed to pick me up in about an hour. To make a long story short, the only help my brother offered was to find me a matchbook so I could light my cigarettes.  Other than that, he was unwilling to do anything.  When Rachim picked me up, I was extremely depressed.  Here I was, facing the prospect of leaving the country, perhaps forever, with no money, not knowing where to go or what to do, and my brother, my flesh and blood, had been unwilling to help me, just as my father had refused a couple of weeks before.  (That story need not be told here.)
Noticing my state, Rachim went into action.  He told me that he needed to visit some cousins in Weatherford, about sixty miles to the west.  He also mentioned that one of them was a fairly good barber.  As my hair was well below my shoulders, he thought it would be a good idea for me to “clean my act up” before crossing the border, so as not to arouse any suspicion on anyone’s part.  What I did not realize until later is that this was merely a pretext for me to accompany him.  
We drove to Weatherford in relative silence.  (I am not very talkative when experiencing a serious case of the mulligrubs.)  Upon arriving at his cousin’s apartment, we found him and another half dozen or so Iranians in a rather heated discussion with their landlord.  I do not remember exactly what the discussion was about, but always enjoying a good verbal fray, I jumped right in, citing municipal codes and tentants’ rights, much to everyone’s delight – with the obvious exception of the landlord.  (It’s probably not necessary to say that I was citing codes from Fayetteville, Arkansas – not Weatherford, Texas.)  After the landlord left, Rachim introduced me to everyone as his friend.  We visited and, a short time later, I noticed that everyone had disappeared into a back room.  Rachim soon came out, took me out onto the walkway in front of the apartment and put fifty dollars in my hand, saying that this was all he and his friends had on them and that, if I could wait until the morning to leave, they could come up with at least $200 more.  I was stunned at their generosity.  They did not know me, had never seen me before but, based upon Rachim’s word and friendship, everyone had delved deeply into their pockets.  “My cousin and I against the world...”  I was a friend; thus, I was family – and family had nothing to do with blood, but everything to do with human solidarity.  This was their way.

I was anxious to leave, so I asked Rachim to take me to out to the highway, where I would begin hitchhiking back to Brownsville and then cross the border.  When he let me out, we said our goodbyes.  I was never to see Rachim again.

Fast forwarding, when the Iranian Hostage Crisis started in 1979, I began to read in the Mexican press rumors of an impending crackdown on and deportations of Iranian students in retaliation for the seizure of the embassy compound in Tehran.  I went to the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Mexico City where I, the supposed enemy, was graciously received.  They were unable to give me any information on the impending deportations in general, much less on Rachim’s case in particular.  (One must remember that at that time, Iran and the United States did not – and still do not – maintain diplomatic relations.)  Several years later, after returning to the United States and reencountering Pam, I learned that Rachim had left the US voluntarily.  (He and Patti had gotten married, in a vain attempt to forestall his eventual deportation.)  After the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, Rachim was drafted, sent to the front and disappeared.  Presumably, he was killed and his body was never recovered.  Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un.

It has been thirty-five years since I have seen Rachim and I only knew him for a relatively short period of time and, yet, I think of him often.  Today, I realize that I really knew – and still know – very little about him.  His mother was still alive back then, but he hadn’t talked to her in three years (until I told him to call her on my telephone just before I left – I had no intention of paying the bill.  They talked for over two hours.)  He was from a city three hundred miles to the south of Tehran whose name I do not remember, if memory serves me correctly (which it probably does not).  I have no photos of him and today cannot even remember his face.  He was about my height (I’m short for an American male raised in the “Heartland”) and he had black hair, a dark complexion and dark eyes – but I just managed to describe the vast majority of Iranians.  I do not know anything about the rest of his family, save the cousins that I met so long ago.  What I do know is that Rachim introduced me to a sense of family and human solidarity that I so desperately needed, because my own family and my own society had failed miserably in that regard.  He showed me the human face of another region of the world and of other peoples, societies that my own country would come to vilify and paint in the most brutal terms.  He was raised in a religion that would be demonized, but that I would come to love and accept.  He showed me that those future characterizations were lies before they became so commonplace in our country.  He also showed me that his ethos was not his alone, but belonged to many other peoples, peoples that time has taught me to love and respect.  He taught me that, if I were to see him today, the correct greeting would be “Assalamu Alaikum”.  He also taught me, perhaps unintentionally, that every time I meet people from his country or from his region, I would be encountering people with whom I had much in common.  I am, after all, a member of the same community.  I, like Rachim and all others, am a human. We would all do well to remember that.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

On Bilingualism and the American and Brazilian Ways of Life, Respectively.

Q: What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
A: Bilingual.
Q: What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
A: Trilingual.
Q: What do you call a person who speaks four or more languages?
A: A polyglot.
Q: What do you call a person who speaks only one language?
A: An American

The joke cited above, told throughout the world in countless languages – with the notable exception of in English in the United States, illustrates a free ranging conversation I recently had with my niece Deborah. Among other things, we touched on the subject of people speaking other languages in public. She mentioned angry reactions that she got from people because of her effort to learn enough Spanish to communicate with customers at the convenience store where she worked. As she lives in Idaho, those customers were among the many migrant workers who flock there to work in the potato harvest. Most,  presumably, are Mexican. Deborah felt that she was doing a good thing by attempting to help others out and delighted in telling about the positive reinforcement that she received from those Spanish-speaking customers, who helped her learn vocabulary and corrected her pronunciation. Those customers were extremely appreciative that someone –  anyone – cared enough to try to help out. Some of her other customers and coworkers where less thrilled. They criticized her with that overly-trite and repugnantly dismissive attitude that “They’re here. They should learn English.”

No one – including those migrants – disputes that learning their new country’s  language is not only desirable, but also necessary. Anyone who has studied the question likewise knows that many of those being raked over the coals for not doing so are adults whose children go to school.  They know that their children will learn the language and, more often than not, act as interpreters for them. Language acquisition as an adult is more difficult than it is for a child, especially if those adult have lower levels of education and / or are working long hours at low pay in order to support their families. This, however, is not the point I wish to address.

Deborah’s comments confirmed my own personal observations back home in Oklahoma, both as a bilingual and as a casual observer. I am, as most readers already know, a native born and bred Oklahoman, and spent over 40 years of my life in that state. My wife, however, is not. She is Brazilian but lived in Oklahoma from 2005-2011. Because her English is rather limited, we always spoke Portuguese both at home and in public. Consequently, I was able to observe other people’s reactions to what they perceived to be non-English speakers – and what I observed was often not very pretty. We were subjected to hostile stares and occasional snide remarks. (Those making remarks never realized that I am a native speaker of English. They simply assumed that I didn’t speak English because I was speaking another language.) Rudeness was the norm. Solidarity was rarely expressed. We were shown that we were not wanted... “You’re in America. Speak English!” was what we saw in their eyes and felt in their attitudes.  “Go home!” was the unspoken message.  Most, upon learning that I was already “home”, assumed that I was the child of immigrants. (I’m not. I’m sixth generation Okie.) They simply could not conceive of why anyone would ever bother to learn another language. After all, you only need to know English because this is ‘Murica, right?

In contrast, Brazil is totally different. I have always spoken only English to my children. It is my language and it is how I choose to communicate with them. This is as true for Georgia, now 23, born in Brazil and raised in the US as it is for Jack and Melissa, ages seven and five respectively, born in Oklahoma and growing up in Brazil. We have never been subjected to scornful looks, dismissive attitudes or anything else negative because we speak English in public. Period. (Okay, there is one exception to that which I will mention later, but those involved were not Brazilians, even though it happened here.) We are greeted with curiosity – supportive curiosity. Brazilians, unlike the folks back in the States, realize that bilingualism is not only a good thing, it is an amazing gift when you are able to give it to your children. People ask us where we are from. They ask if we are visiting or if we live here and are ALWAYS pleased when they find out we not only live here in Brazil, but are locals, living in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais. They comment on how cute it is to see our small children speaking English and then be able to turn around and speak Portuguese. Jack and Melissa are fluent for their ages in both languages and separate them with ease. English is for Daddy and Portuguese is for Mamãe. They also speak without “foreign accents” in both languages. My small fries own both languages, which is how it should be.

Okay, so what was that exception? Georgia’s grandparents were immigrants from Portugal who arrived in Brazil in the late 1940s and 1950s. They lived in a neighborhood in São Paulo with many other Portuguese immigrants, including close relatives – brothers, cousins, nephews and nieces, also all Portuguese. Being more insular than Brazilians, they were none too happy that a foreign (i.e., non-Portuguese) interloper had somehow managed to penetrate the sanctity of their family and, consequently, would complain that they couldn’t understand what I was saying when I spoke to Georgia. They wanted me to speak only Portuguese with her in their presence. My response was, well, not very acceptable, at least to them. I would simply inform them that I would speak to my child in my own language.

That somewhat less than civil answer is also what I expect anyone else to give, no matter who they are and no matter where they are. A person’s language is part of that person’s identity. To be expected to not speak your language is to be expected to deny a very important part of who you are. My ex-wife’s family never understood that, just as many people back in the good old USA also do not understand that. Their attitude was very similar to the attitudes of the xenophobes back home who feel insecure when faced with another language, or with anything else with which they are unfamiliar. In short, they are uncomfortable with the “other”.  It is not an attitude that I frequently encounter in Brazil.

As a middle- and high Spanish teacher in Oklahoma, I often had students who complained about people speaking Spanish in the grocery store. “They’re talking about us, making fun of us!” was a refrain that I heard more than once – far more than once. “No,” I would tell those students. “I’ve listened to them. They’re complaining about the prices, wondering if the bread is fresh, talking about what happened at work. In short, they’re talking about the same boring things you and I talk about at the grocery store.” And I would then shake my head because, no matter how much or how often I reassured them, those students weren’t willing to accept what I said. After all, their attitudes had come from a lifetime of reinforcement in their homes from their parents, grandparents, siblings and from society in general. “The other” is, by definition, suspect.

To finalize, one of the greatest disservices that we, as a nation, commit to both ourselves and to everyone else is our unhealthy attitude in regard to the rest of the world, as exemplified by our refusal as a society to learn other languages. That refusal reflects the arrogance for which we are known throughout the world, be it as obnoxious tourists or as Marines attempting to inject the world with a little democracy.  By that refusal, we are telling the world that we are better than everyone else and, therefore, the rest of the world needs to accommodate us wherever we are and whatever we are doing. We, obviously, have no need to accommodate them. That is what “American exceptionalism” means to the rest of the world.

POSTSCRIPT: Check out this link. It beautifully illustrates the above. You can’t make this stuff up.