Posts Tagged ‘citizenship’

Last Thursday, I raced to the airport to catch a plane to race to another plane to race to a hotel in a city where I would offer myself up for alteration.

As anticipated, Friday morning the transformation began–the way I think, the way I behave, the way I define myself.   By the end of the six days, I was more than proud of my new citizenship–citizenship of the world.  I couldn’t wait to get home and read about different cultures, governments, traditions, religions, histories.  I looked forward to a quiet, relaxing trip home.

But the Fates would have none of that.

My taxi driver made it clear the moment he shut my door for me that this would not be a silent trip.  He launched into a discussion of the weather, the landscape outside and how much he loved to drive.  I relaxed into the conversation enjoying the charm of his accent and his pleasant ramble.

He was from Afghanistan and very proud of his heritage.  He told me of his flight from his country during the Soviet invasion, his father’s plot to save the family, the journey across Europe and eventual migration to the United States.  He told me how he couldn’t find a job here because he didn’t speak English, but how his wife went to work almost immediately inspiring him to learn the language, primarily by listening to the radio and talking with his new neighbors.

Soon he spoke well enough to drive a taxi.  He loves to drive.  He takes long trips with his wife to Canada to visit family and friends.  Canada is cold, he doesn’t like that.  But it’s beautiful.  Vancouver is the second most beautiful city he’s ever seen.  What’s the most beautiful city?  Tehran.  He drives across the U.S.A. just to see the landscape.  He likes to see how different the signs are in each state.  He hates signs that are too small.  He follows the laws of the road.

When he drives, he often likes to help others who aren’t so lucky as him.  Once, he helped an elderly couple change a flat.  Their spare was flat too.  “No problems.  I still fix it,” he told them as a police car pulled up behind him and watched as he found the hole, patched it and then put it on the car.

“The elderly man didn’t look so good.  He had diabetes.  He needed something to drink.  It was hot,” he tells me.  “I gave him my diet coke.  Then the police man came out of his car to ask what we were doing. I know he is important man, but I wonder why he couldn’t see we were fixing a tire!”  I laugh nervously hoping the story doesn’t continue with the police officer disgracing our culture with ugly racial profiling.  Fortunately, the old man who had guzzled the diet coke told the officer how kind my taxi driver had been and the two thanked him profusely.  His wife told him he must be more careful.  Not everyone is trustworthy.  My taxi driver shrugs as if to say, “so what.”

I worry for this man and silently pray to my God that he is always protected from the things his wife is wise about.

He launches into stories about diabetes, osteoporosis, allergies and asthma, then asks what I think about health care.  I talk generically though I feel strongly about the issue.  He relates health care to freedom and a little of my passion slips out “yes, we have freedom.  But what most don’t realize is that we must also accept the responsibility that comes with that freedom.  We have freedom to eat whatever we want–we could eat McDonald’s everyday–but we then must accept the consequences of obesity, diabetes, and all the other illnesses that come with it.  We seem to have forgotten that.”

“Ah, yes” he shakes his head solemnly “that’s because you Americans are not free, you are entitled.”  He slips seamlessly into another ramble, this time about how much he loves french fries and fish and chips from Chili’s restaurant chain.  He looks for Chili’s everywhere he drives so he can have fish and chips anytime he wants.

We arrive at the airport and before we’re even to the terminal, he tells me he doesn’t shake hands, “especially with women. Especially, especially with beautiful women.  Especially, especially, especially with beautiful business woman.  My God forbids it.”  He smiles at me and pulls up to the curb, alighting quickly to run around and open my door.  He pauses as if he has something to say, but isn’t sure he should.  He does.  “You should find yourself a nice man and let him work hard for you,” he advises while pulling my suitcase from the trunk.  “You are much too young and beautiful to have to do this work for yourself.”  I thank him, placing my right hand over my heart and bowing.

He gasps and his eyes moisten.  “You honor me and my culture,” he says before returning the gesture.  I smile and walk into the airport, thankful that I had learned something useful just days ago.

The line is long, and I feel exhaustion creeping into my bones as I wait.  The three women in front of me at the security checkpoint are wearing headdresses and talking loudly in a language I don’t recognize.  One of them is motioned aside.  She begins to complain loudly about racial profiling.  It’s because of her skin, her headdress, her accent, her ethnicity, she protests.

I, too, am pulled aside.  There is an alarm on my bag, same as the other lady’s.

“Are you travelling together,” we’re both asked.  “I don’t know this white girl,” yells the other woman.  “No.” I say unnecessarily after her response.  They start with the wands on both of us.  “Did either of you use hand lotion today,” we’re asked.  “What does that have to do with anything?  What do you care?  That’s personal information.  I don’t have to tell you anything,” yells the other woman.  “Yes,” I say.

They immediately stop patting me down and ask me to put my hand under a light on the machine where they’re checking my luggage.  It sets off another flashing light somewhere, and they stop searching my luggage immediately.  “Excuse me,” I ask the security guard who is now zipping up my bag for me. “Why did you ask about my lotion?”

“Lots of lotions contain a glycerin; glycerin is a component in some explosives.  It’s a real pain in our industry, but we’re trying to keep everyone safe,” he explains.  “Thank you for your patience, miss.  And have a safe flight.”  He hands me my bag and offers to hold my elbow to steady me as I put on my shoes again.

“Why does the white girl get to go?” yells the other woman again.  “This is unfair.  You’re racist.  I’m going to tell my lawyer about this…”  The security guard silences her “Ma’am, she gets to go because we know why her luggage triggered the alarm–it was her hand lotion.  We still don’t know why yours did, so I can’t let you go yet.”

My head begins to hurt, and I hope the flight is quiet.

We board the plane, and I find my seat by the window.  The plane fills up and soon so does the seat next to me.  A middle-aged man who looked to be of Middle Eastern decent and wore the look of someone who had been beaten by the world sat down and started wringing his hands.

I’m ashamed to admit, the first thoughts that went through my mind were not ones of compassion for the man, but thoughts of fear.  And I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t start talking with this man because I was concerned for him, but rather concerned for me.

I’m ashamed because never in my life have I seen such deep soulful eyes as this man’s.  Never in my life have I heard first-hand such a sad tale.  Never in my life have I wished I was more aware of the world around me.

The man was on his third of four legs from Detroit to Jacksonville where he worked as a gas-station attendant seven days a week in 12-hour shifts.  He had to open the gas station at 6 AM and wasn’t expecting to arrive home until after midnight.  He was tired of his life and wanted nothing more than to be able to watch one of his six televisions at his house.  And sleep.

He had been in Detroit for a meeting with his lawyer–a lawyer who was representing him in a case against the hospital where his wife had died two years ago after being given an overdose of the wrong medication for a minor illness.  He had worked for 10 years with GM, proud that he landed a job in the U.S.A. within weeks of arriving.  But his wife had gotten sick with pneumonia a couple winters ago.  She had to go to the hospital, and the next morning after he got off his shift he found her cold, stiff, and unresponsive.  When he rang the nurses station, they grumbled at him about bothering them.  They didn’t know she was dead.  She had been dead for hours, and no one knew.  No one cared.

Because of her untimely death, his son was taken from him by his family who insisted he couldn’t raise the boy alone.  Now he was the one who was alone.  He hated Detroit.  It made him feel death all around him.  His life ended there.  He had nothing to live for except to avenge his wife with this court case.  But every time he had to deal with the case, he missed his wife more.  “I love her still so much,” he cried.  I handed him my clean handkerchief, and he tried to recover from his grief.

He asked about me, where was I from, what did I do, did I have pictures of my daughters, did I like sports…  I obliged him and shared snippets of my life as he asked.  He used to be a well-known soccer player in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, but when the Soviets left, his family had to flee.  He was proud of the fact that he had seen a lot of the world during that time.  It seemed to help him to fall back on his book, for he had been working on his Ph.D. in Philosophy at university at the time of his exile.

I asked him the most beautiful city he’d seen.  “Istanbul….and also Phoenix.  I would like to move to Phoenix in Arizona,” he said.  He asked me the most beautiful city I’d seen, and I laughed.  “I’ve seen so little of the world,” I admitted, “but the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen is Yellowstone Park in Wyoming.”  “You should see the world, it’s very important,” he advised almost as a command.

He asked me what languages I knew.  “Only English,” I said ashamed.  I asked him. “Arabic, Russian, Turkish, Hungarian, Italian, Spanish, French, and English,” he listed.  “You should learn more languages,” he commanded me.  I agreed.

The flight was over, and I was honestly sad to have the conversation end.  He waited for me to step off the plane after him and he shook my hand solidly thanking me for being a good listener.  “It was an honor to talk to you,” he said.

I strolled slowly to my connecting gate, trying to keep the fuzz of exhaustion from invading my senses.  “Excuse me,” someone said at my elbow.  I jumped, startled, and turned to see an older man with a crying young woman and a teenage boy.  “Would you help us please?” he asked in an accent I recognized immediately as German.  “Certainly,” I said curiously.  “What’s wrong?”

“Our ticket…see, it says Daytona Beach B12.  But B12 says Dayton OH.  The lady at the desk told us we were stupid and walked away.  I don’t think we have much time…”  I looked at the tickets he extended to me, comparing them to mine.  Indeed, they said B12 just like mine.  But the flight number, the flight time and the destination were different.  I looked to the monitor projecting flights and departure gates above me.  Dayton Beach was not listed.

“Sir, you are not stupid,” I said feeling compassion for the anxiety of these people.  “These tickets are wrong.  Let’s find someone who can fix this.” I handed him his tickets and walked up to the desk at the adjoining gate and smiled brightly at the lady working there.  “Yes,” she said in a bored tone.  I brightened my smile and explained the situation to her as the German gentleman handed her the tickets.  “What’s wrong with them?” she asked after glancing briefly at them.

The German gentleman started to explain again and the woman blew a bubble with her gum while he talked.  I raised my hand to stop the gentleman and raised my voice to the woman behind the counter.  “Excuse me.”  She turned to me and waited for me to continue as she chomped her gum in my face.  I held my stare and waited too.  “What is the problem?” she said again, but stopping the chomping.  “The problem is that you’re not listening,” I said evenly.  “And this family is in danger of missing their flight because of it.  I need you to look up where the 9:35 flight to Daytona Beach is departing and probably arrange quick transport for this family to that gate.”

She began typing on the computer in front of her.  She harumphed and glanced up at me from her computer screen with pursed lips.  Then she flipped her phone receiver up and called for a cart to take a party of three to concourse E.  She glared at me, chomping her gum loudly as she dialed another number and asked the woman at gate E7 to hold the flight for three passengers who were “lost.”

I thanked her for her help…or more accurately, I thanked her back because she had already turned and was walking away without saying anything more to us.

The German gentleman looked at me expectantly and confused.  I smiled at him and explained that they were supposed to be at gate E7, that a cart was coming to take them there, and their flight was being held for them.

He smiled and pumped my hand, turning to his daughter and grandson to tell them in German what was going on.  Soon she was shaking my other hand and thanking me in German.  I smiled and accepted their invitation to wait with them until their cart arrived.  They were on holiday and had been excited to come to America.  They were hoping for warm weather and some reading time.  The daughter was reading Walden.  I told them I was just finishing Emerson’s Essays and flashed the book I’d been holding in my hand.

The German gentleman, in a scene I can only describe as parallel to a scene from Little Women said “Yes, Transcendentalism is based on German philosophy.  Emerson, he was a fan of the fatherland and our scholars.”  He asked what I thought of his philosophy and I gushed a bit.  Yes, and I was a fan of Emerson.  We talked about his essay Circles until the cart arrived and then the three took turns profusely pumping my hand again.  I wished them well and leaned against the post behind me. My flight was just getting ready to board.

“I get it.  I’m a citizen of the world.” I said aloud to the Fates, knowing they were listening.  “Now, please let me sleep on this flight.”

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