Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Learning how to Talk

What would America be like if we actually lived up to our values?

This is a question I've been mulling over for quite some time - and all the more this year, as I have been lucky enough to visit three other countries. And throughout those visits I have noticed both differences and similarities - I've seen the benefits of socialized healthcare, gun control, and I've seen the legacy of imperialism and racism. 

Australia bears the burden of near genocide, as does New Zealand, as does Canada - so similar to what white settlers did in America. I can't pretend that countries in the British Commonwealth are any less guilty than we are, and I can't just ignore the bleak reality of life for Indigenous peoples. My desire to appreciate life abroad shouldn't obscure the history of the countries I visit.

But there were many aspects of my travels that I did appreciate - not just because I was on vacation, but because I was escaping the depressing discourse of America. I escaped my bubble of suburban security, and I escaped the disturbing hatred of politicians and conservative zealots. I found myself in not only new places but in a new state of mind. 

And in each of those places I heard many different languages. To me that was incredibly beautiful - perhaps to other Americans that would be perceived as a threat.

Growing up, I was always taught that America was the great melting pot, that we were proudly made up of immigrants from all over the world. I was taught that one of our greatest values was pluralism. We were supposed to embrace our classmates for our differences; we were charged to view our country as multi-cultural, with many religions and customs and languages. And what could be better? How else could we overcome the dark past of America, the shame of genocide and slavery and bigotry? That was our lesson; that was our duty. 

But too much of America is segregated - by race, by religion, and by language. 

Ottawa is right across the river from French Canada, and every person we met began a conversation with "Hello, Bonjour." There was no question of adhering to one language, and everything from street signs to menus to tourist attraction pamphlets was in French and English. I remembered that many of the signs I saw in Sydney were in both English and Mandarin Chinese, and I thought about strolling through museums in New Zealand, reading signs in English and Maori. The simple expectation that multiple languages were in use and that they had value cast into stark relief the sameness of my life in Columbia. And how much of America is still caught up in English only? How many videos have we seen, stories have we heard, where angry white people demand that others speak English? 

What are we so afraid of?

Have we really rejected that great American promise, pluralism?

In each of these three countries I tried to imagine my country embracing our most common secondary language, Spanish. I think there are places which do this, and there are more signs and warnings and commercials in Spanish than before. And yet how many of us appreciate, admire, aspire to learn the most important language in America today? How often do we accept that Spanish is both in use and of extraordinary value? Certainly in my neighborhood there are many Spanish speakers, but still, our culture is stuck in an English-only mire, a xenophobic muck. 

On Hilton Head Island, a place I visit often to see my family, there is a significant Spanish-speaking population. And yet the segregation of the island discourages productive cultural exchange. Latinx workers are seen as just that, workers, and other. Whiteness consoles itself, locked behind security gates, cozy on the golf course, confident in its supremacy. 

I can't help but wonder if that supremacy might be dismantled, if only a little bit, by a plurality of language. If we can appreciate that there is more than one language being spoken - if we can accept how important language is to everyone - maybe we can begin to see how beautiful our differences are. Perhaps we could be gently jolted out of our myopia. Differences would cease to be threatening, if only by a commonality of experience. 

And, of course, if we were expected to be bilingual - if our two required language classes in high school were replaced by a foreign language requirement from pre-kindergarten through college - our view of the world would be expanded all the more. We, in ourselves, would be plural. We could cease to be just one thing. 

I think that language is a tool for compassion, and I think compassion is our greatest and most challenging mission, especially right now. The raging and raving minority of this country which elected Donald Trump is devoid of compassion for anyone outside of their linguistic and cultural bubble - a combination of stupidity, selfishness, and cruelty which has become the American hallmark. These people are just one thing - their whiteness, faux-Christianity, nationalism, conservatism, are neatly capped off with a red hat and a feral grin. They feel no need to be anything else. And maybe if they had been raised from infancy to speak Spanish, with the same appreciation and respect they had for English, they wouldn't hate those other from themselves. Maybe they wouldn't be so angry. 

Maybe they wouldn't be so scared.

I hardly pity those people and I struggle to have compassion for them, failing in my duty to have compassion for all. And yet my heart aches for the Americans they could be. I feel almost broken by a narrow-minded adhesion to one set of values, one viewpoint, one way of living - I want more for everyone, and I truly believe that we would be happier through inclusion, through pluralism. Speaking more than one language could never undo what this country has done in the past, but I can hope that being bilingual, to any degree, could change the way we view the world, ourselves, our neighbors.

Language is the most powerful tool that I know. Certainly the writing on this blog operates in full faith that words have meaning, impact, ripples in a pond. Language is how we relate to others and how we perceive the universe. Language is saying I'm sorry, and I'm grateful, and I love you. We should be able to say those things as often as possible. We shouldn't fear saying them, hearing them, with different words. 

I'll leave you with this - last night, while I was watching television, a commercial came on for some cable service or other, and my mind stuttered for a moment, shocked out of sameness, because the commercial was in both English and Spanish. Every single actor could speak or understand both. It was, despite the blatant grab for profit, beautiful. So I must believe, I have to have faith, that we are headed in the right direction. Our country is changing despite a lack of compassion on the intolerant right - I think that by the end of my lifetime I'll be surrounded by more than one language, here, in my home, in my neighborhood, in America.

That change is perhaps what scares conservatives and whips them into a curdling froth of anger. But they can't stop it. Pluralism won't let them. 

And along with my personal quest for compassion, I think I'd better brush up on my Spanish. 


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