Every once in a while the state of the American political landscape and discourse gets me down. What is a caring citizen, one who thinks every day "I am lucky to live here!" followed closely with "I am lucky to have employment and health insurance," to make of all of the cringe-worthy things that go on? This is all the more problematic because I have to keep up with who said what to who, and who is trying to stop who from kissing or talking about kissing in any official capacity, and who is being called a "slut" on any given day. It's my job, I guess. But it is hard.
Every once in a while I have something of a redeeming experience. Today was one of those days.
I decided to go get a haircut.
Normally I am not very chatty in the barber chair and, frankly, neither are the barbers. This is unusual I know but there it is.
My barbershop used to be run by a guy named Bill who finally retired after I don't know how many years as a neighborhood fixture. A taciturn man, Bill would disappear for weeks and then come back to work. Mostly he would be off fishing.
A couple of years ago he sold out and the shop was redone (painted, TV's, child-friendly magazines, etc.) and reopened by a guy from Mexico, a former steel worker. He was joined by a guy from Uruguay. Good haircutters, the pair of them.
The Uruguayan cut my hair today and we started talking, first about Junior Seau and then the New Orleans Saints "Bountygate" (why, oh, why do we need to put "-gate" after everything these days?). I ventured an opinion about football players and TBI.
Now, as those of you who know me, conversations like this are far and few between. Today was the first I heard of Junior Seau, ever.
Eventually the inevitable question comes up "What do you do?" "Ah," I say, "I teach political science." "Oh," he says, "I love politics" and off we go.
"Why is it," he asks, "that we don't celebrate May Day in the United States?" An interesting question and I hazard an answer along the lines of we have labor day and May Day is tainted by radical politics—"International Workers' Day." He tells me that his mother told him there were some one million people marching and listening to speeches in Montevideo yesterday. An exaggeration? Perhaps, but that would be impressive to see.
Pretty soon we are talking about Buenos Aires, a place the Uruguayan loves, Argentina and Uruguay in general, economic inequality. Fascinating.
And then he tells me, ever so naturally and without fanfare, that he became a US citizen yesterday. Wow!
He came here seeking political asylum in the late 1990's, earned permanent residency, and finally took the oath this week. Why asylum? I am not sure, we didn't get into that. He landed in NYC and found a job on his second day, eventually moved to Seattle where he was struck by how laid back the city is compared to the Big Apple. And, then he said the felt so lucky at all the opportunities he has had.
And that made it all better.
Here was someone who obviously loved both his homeland and his new home and who was excited by what was special about this place.
It got me thinking about a student I had some years ago, an elderly man from Vietnam who was going through the citizenship process. He insisted on taking my American Government course to prepare (not really the right thing but who was I to argue) and struggled with the language barrier. We spent hours in my office going over lectures and readings and he shared his story. After 30 years in a re-education camp for being on the losing side of that war he had moved to the Seattle area to be with what family he had left. He had already outlived one son.
One day he told me that he would be taking the citizenship test the next day and asked if it would be OK to miss class. Absolutely!
Two days later, there he is, sitting in the front row. I asked him how it went. He beamed, it was great. I asked if I could announce this to the rest of the class. Yes. I could. I did. They gave him a standing ovation and he had happy tears streaming down his cheeks. Perhaps not the happiest day of his life but it surely would be up there.
A truly special moment that I'll always remember and now I have another one. Two stories out of millions.
And somehow, those stories put it all into perspective.
America takes work but it remains a special place (especially if you have a job and health care).