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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Melting Pot and the Salad Bowl

Strangest thing just happened. And by strange I mean just that. Don't read between the lines and take this as criticism of race or religion. It isn't.

This country is changing. Demographically the U.S. looks different. It sounds different. It feels different.

There are more people from non-English speaking countries than ever before moving here. And I'm all for cultural diversity. It's healthy, and makes us more worldly wise.

I disagree with that whole melting pot label though. The U.S. isn't a melting pot. That suggests the great variety of ingredients blend nicely together. And the truth is a lot of folks don't get along, because of their differences. So I'd say this country is more of a tossed salad than anything. The ingredients can be in the same container, but don't necessarily mix well...unfortunately.

Anyway, back to this morning. I was in my back yard weather-proofing the deck, when I heard my doorbell ring. The wife was in the shower so she couldn't get it.

I walked to the front and onto the porch when I saw 'em: two Jehovah's Witnesses. Now, I'm not gonna dog one religion or another. Believe what you want. But strictly in terms of proselytizing and neighborhood ministry, the JWs are relentless like U.S. Marshals. Gotta give 'em an "A" for effort. And they saw me too. So I knew there was no point in me turning around, ducking behind a cabinet and running back to the deck.

I answered the door, and both women, smiling ear to ear and clutching Watchtowers, nodded at me. Then the one in the front extended her hand and said "Buenos días!"

I know enough Spanish to know that was "Good morning!" So I responded in kind.

Then she continued to speak...in Spanish. When she paused I smiled ruefully and said truthfully "Yo no hablo español."

She then gave me a shocked look, the look that says "I can't believe what I'm hearing!" And in a slightly exasperated tone she said in broken English "Well, I only speak Spanish." She then shook her head, her annoyance showing through a little more, turned to her companion and gestured that they should go.

And I was left to ponder for a moment this woman getting upset with me because I wasn't able to speak Spanish. It took a second, but I was scratching my head saying to myself "Wait a minute. Why do I feel guilty after this exchange?"

When I do have kids I plan on making sure they learn at least one language other than English, because we really do live in a global society. I want them to be able to connect with all sorts of people. I'm trying to learn more Spanish myself.

But if I ever move to a country where English is the second language I swear I won't be presumptuous about my new neighbors' ability to communicate with me on my terms.

And for those of you who find something politically incorrect to gripe about in every opinion that's not yours, this posting is not an indictment of anyone. It is my opinion on my encounter with one person.

24 Comments:

  • I think it's great to live in a diverse community, but diversity goes both ways. When you live in a country other than your own, make an effort to at least learn the language for basic everyday communication. We all have to have some common ground to integrate and get by with everyday interactions.

    This is one of the greatest pet peeves about my community. For Spanish-speaking people to put on airs and attitudes of entitlment is like, well, dealing with a small child who is a brat. The issue here is not being Spanish-speaking, moving here and struggling for a better life. It's the freakin' attitude.
    I have traveled abroad many times and I know that when you are struggling with a language but your attitude is open and friendly, people tend to warm up to you. This is just human nature. Those people who just assume everyone speaks Spanish don't even bother to ask you if you do.

    And look, I'm Cuban American and speak both languages. Talk about a being rude ... it irks me so much ... sometimes I want to pretend I don't know Spanish. But then I realize, I'm being just as much of an a-hole.

    When you go to Little Havana, you expect to have to order your media noche in Spanish. Here in my hood, where there are a lot Israeli Jews and I hear Hebrew all the time. But in general? Learn the freakin' language!

    Anyway, James, my ex bf #2 once yelled through the door "I have a machete" to some JWs. So don't feel guilty!

    By Blogger Manola Blablablanik, at 1:09 PM  

  • That has to be one of the most odd exchanges I have ever seen documented (and I come from a state where pets owners are "guardians".)

    Of course, on the bright side, her abrupt departure meant that you were not subjected to that woman peddling God like tupperware.

    I kid, I kid...

    By Blogger QofD, at 2:05 PM  

  • I don’t want to live in a melting pot sort of McSociety where everything and everyone is in lockstep, all equally bland and lifeless, but on the other hand, why do I have to select English or Spanish before I can swipe my debit card at the local grocery store? It’s not like I live in an urban center. I live in smack in the middle of frigging white flight suburbia. How we got here is a whole other rant, so I’ll stick with this one for now. I never had the opportunity to learn another language until I went away to college, and evidently I missed the window on brain malleability on that one. I did make certain that all three of my children got early exposure to languages and it paid off. My oldest speaks excellent conversational German, my middle child is fluent in Spanish and also can converse in French, and my youngest is fluent in both French and Russian. When a friend of mine who lived in VA moved back home to Miami about 20 years ago, she was surprised to find her 4th grader in a science class that was taught only in Spanish. Her child did not speak the language, so the normal A student made D’s and F’s until half the year was over and he finally picked up enough to make it through. Perhaps occurrences of that nature made it easier for the JW’s to become a bit righteously indignant at your divergence from their world view, or maybe God had told them you spoke Spanish. That gives me an idea. I remember a little German 101. Next time the omnipresent JW’s land on my door step I’m just going to keep repeating “Ich spreche nicht Englisch”.

    By Blogger wordsonwater, at 4:43 PM  

  • A machete! That is too funny MB. I once said I had explosive diarrhea through the door to get a sales person to go away.

    I've found the grosser your excuse for not coming to the door, the more effective.

    And Q of D, I feel ya. Strange indeed, but this is also a state where pets are people too.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 5:05 PM  

  • James, put yourself in her place for a moment. Suppose your goal were to convince English speaking people in a foreign country to come to your church. You don't speak their language and you don't know who speaks English till they talk to you. So you greet them by saying, "Good Morning!" If they shrug their shoulders and give a quizzical look, you break out your best "excuse me" in their language and leave. However, if they respond in kind, you begin your spiel. At your first pause, they say, (in perfect English,) "I don't speak English." Now tell me you wouldn't shake your head, annoyed, and walk away. You said this woman was getting upset because you weren't able to speak Spanish. Yet you did just that. I think she was upset because she may have felt someone was messin' with her head.

    By Blogger The Sarcasticynic, at 8:03 PM  

  • Sarc, I appreciate the thoughtful Devil's advocacy. However, I think it's a stretch to believe this woman thought I was messin' with her head. Anyone who's seen a Disney movie or a commercial for a Latin- or South American-themed chain restaurant knows "Beunos dias" and "no hablo Espanol."

    And you miss the point. She wasn't proselytizing on behalf of the Spanish language. She was proselytizing on behalf of the Kingdom Hall. I challenge you: place yourself in her shoes in a country where English is not the first language. Would you get annoyed with someone if you spoke to them in English and they couldn't converse with you? No. You'd reasonably shrug it off and say to yourself "I'm (wherever). The odds were high he spoke (whatever language) anyway."

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 8:17 PM  

  • One more thing, Sarc. If I was at your door pitching religion I definitely would try not to get visibly annoyed with you over something like a difference in language. It wouldn't be a very good selling point - "not very Christ like," as my grandma used to scold. I'd chalk it up to fate or divine intervention and move on to the next door and hope that they understood me.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 8:21 PM  

  • My Indian buddy gets off his cell and I can't resist.

    My best gruff redneck voice: "You mean to tell me you people can understand each other talkin' that ching-chang-chong--whyontyall learn English!"

    Then he tries to tell me that people have beeen speaking Tamil since Europeans were covered in piss-stained animal hides (not sure how that differs from the modern European).

    Anyway, that is some kind of balls to assume you'd speak Spanish and then to get annoyed w/ you for it! I hate how they're so chauvinistic sometimes; pisses me off!

    You're the one selling the product so you should be embarrased. Wow, that's some nerve. Would a white man have gotten the same deal, I wonder.

    Yup, I couldn't agree more w/ the tossed salad analogy for today's assimiliation of immigrants, particularly the Mexicans and Central Americans.

    Btw, I'm quite certain that the 50% of black men in New York City who are unemployed (and those among the other half who are underemployed) are absolutely thrilled about illegal immigration.

    I dunno, I really like living in the city and I appreciate my African American friends and my good Indian friend and fully see the value of that but there are definately going to be conflicts.

    For example, I had a conflict recently with a fresh Cental American immigrant at the grocery store. No one else in sight, he felt the need to press right up against me in line, as he was from a "close contact" society. I think he knew that made me feel uncomfortable but thought that I should conform to HIS cultural practices.

    What's the deal w/ that? If he can touch me, can I do the same? I'm sure he wouldn't have liked it if I patted him on the head or put my arm around his shoulder. Couldn't believe it.

    My Indian buddy said not to worry about it as this fellow was probably "low class."

    But man, I understand the conflict you had with those ladies and how it felt. She insulted you. She should have graciously apologized. Your a man in your own country.

    /endrant

    By Blogger Matt, at 8:21 PM  

  • When I meet Spanish speaking people, I like to use one of the handy phgrases I used in High School Spanish. My favorite is "Yo tengo un gato in los pantalones". When the spanish people her me say that, they usually smile real nice and run like hell.

    By Anonymous og, at 8:57 PM  

  • Og, I have to say if I heard you say that in any language I'd turn and run too. And I like cats!

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 9:05 PM  

  • An interesting take, Matt. Honestly though, I didn't perceive any sort of racial slight.

    I am curious as to why you'd think the black men in NYC would feel strongly about illegal immigration one way or another.

    I had no issue with her trying to speak Spanish to me. The reality is we live in South Florida, where a sizeable portion of the population speaks Spanish as a first language.

    My only issue with this woman was that she apparently got salty with me because I couldn't speak Spanish.

    And now I'm going to play debate moderator: Not picking on you, but what in your experience (other than the guy in the grocery line) makes you think that "Mexicans and Central Americans" have a tougher time assimilating in this salad bowl of American culture?

    I ask, because almost everyone I've ever met from another country has had a litttle bit of a tough time adjusting in the U.S., because there seems to be no strictly defined single culture here.

    Funny thing is the Americans I observed trying to settle in overseas tended to be more offensive to their new neighbors, because they tried to hard to display local mannerisms.

    So we may be the worst "adjustors" of all.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 8:07 AM  

  • It would've been funnier to let her do her full rant for a few minutes - and then tell her afterward you didn't understand a thing she said.

    By Blogger The Dummy, at 11:00 AM  

  • Has anyone thought for a second that she was frustrated with herself? People react the same way if they are disappointed in their own inabilities. I know paranoid older people that think that computers are the devil's work because they don't understand them. Sounds like personal frustration directed outward. She probably hears "No habla espanol," about 10 times a day and is forced to acknowledge 10 times a day that she is the one unable to communicate. Multiply that by 7 days and you get the picture.
    That's my take on it anyway. ;-)

    By Blogger I. Ambrosia, at 2:45 PM  

  • Hey James,

    Actually, I think I had a bit too much Cabernet last night.

    That's good that you didn't feel any racial slight, given that the English language is part of your ethnicity as (presumably) an African American. Some folks get offended when people presume that they speak a language other than the dominant language here.

    Black men in New York City probably don't have a strong opinion on illegal immigration one way or the other. I was just thinking of one lousy conversation I had with a black man who said he was annoyed to see recent immigrants doing better than him... And then there's the whole cheap labor issue wherein wages and salaries are depressed to some extent by any importation of cheaper labor. There's really no such thing as "jobs Americans won't take" because the labor market is probably one big market, just as oil sanctions don't really work on some states b/c the market for oil is global.

    On the other point, I have had numerous encounters with such Latin American immigrants in the Washington, DC-area. I am probably a little too sensitive about my space proxemics. On good days, I just try to smile and be friendly.

    Interesting thing: at times I've gotten annoyed w/ them for cutting me in line and now, in retrospect, they might not have perceived me as even being in line given that I wasn't riding the next person in line.

    Well, I didn't mean to say anything offensive. I just think it's funny that you got punked at your own house. She should have bid you "Good day, Sir!"

    I agree w/ the other guy. You should have let her go on a bit....

    By Blogger Matt, at 3:30 PM  

  • JB
    I'm with you on the attitude part. You move away to live permanently in another's homeland, the least you could do is respect their language and make a go of learning it conversationally. When soemone moves here and doesn't learn English, it seems like a slap in the face to people who live here. That attitude from a lot of recent immigrants seem to project is basically "I think your country and language are sh*t--I'm just here to make money to send back home and I'm not going to make any effort to learn something so beneath me".

    In this place called America, not only do we reject such snobbery on political and economic grounds, but on social ones as well. "All men are created equal" was not written in Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian, Farsi, Urdu, Japanese, Bantu, or any of the thousands of Cantonese dialects. It was written in English. It has no meaning outside of its meaning in the English language. The English language defines the terms of that freedom--its ideas are created by someone thinking in English. To truly understand this place, you must understand what people think--you will never do that unless you think in the same language. Every language has its own idioms and inflections that lose meaning in a translation.
    That freedom espoused in so simple a phrase (along with Emma Lazarus' poem)is the reason many people leave their sh*thole in another country to come here (which poses another dilemma--If the people who make it to America to provide a better life for the peeps back home represent the best and brightest residents of that country, does that mean that everyone else back wherever someone came from is not only stupider, but ruder as well?--Just an aside) It is inconceivable to me that someone who comes here voluntarily would have so much contempt for the home language.

    That being said, what you should have done is invited her inside for a lengthy discussion of why religion is the work of the Satan and how her faith in God would be better served encouraging people to learn how better to interpret the language of mathematics. That's the language God uses when it show humans how its body (the universe) works. This space marble could certainly be a better place if people understood fractal engineering half as much as they understand Paris Hilton.

    By Anonymous Big Daddy, at 3:38 PM  

  • I see your point about the salad bowl bit.

    I think that Latin Americans are not necessarily having any more difficulty adjusting to we Americans but that many are less incentivized to make that adjustment given that they sometimes don't have to cross over. Mexico is close by for those in the southwest and many Latinos can choose to associate primarily w/ those in their ethnic group, which would compose 1/4 of all Americans by mid-century.

    It's not that they are any less adept at learning and adjusting, but are less apt to do so than, say, my Indian friend who has a much, much smaller community of Indians in this area.

    Anyway, I sure was speaking in generalities. I'll blame it on the merlot.

    By Blogger Matt, at 3:39 PM  

  • No worries Matt. I wasn't offended. Rarely am. I was just curious.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 7:41 PM  

  • The JH must have been out in full-force because they showed up here too.
    I lost my patience with that organization over a dozen years ago when they gave my then & year old neice a watchtower with a picture of an aborted fetus on it. I learned that day that a few choice curse words can go a long way.

    Working in retail in the south, I ever-so-often come across the spanish-speaker who gets upset that I do not fully understand espanol & it incites me for two reasons...one because I am trying desperately to understand them and two because they are getting mad at me. necesidad de diccionario? poco habla espanol

    By Blogger skinnylittleblonde, at 9:49 PM  

  • Hi James, if you've been following any of the News from the UK you'll know that the current 'melting pot/salad bowl' debate over here (UK) is about people who are overtly Muslim. Particuarly women who choose to wear the full face veil.

    Which is the same debate as you're having re: Spanish speakers, but with added 'edge' because, in the past couple of years, self-avowed Muslims have gone out & blown up themselves & others on London Transport.

    The general view here is along the lines of:-

    OK, if they want to advertise their religious affiliations, that's up to them. Though isn't it all rather repressive (to the women at least)?

    Besides which, if they've chosen to live here then they should make at least some effort to integrate with the rest of us!

    Which seems reasonable to me.

    Meanwhile - on the business about them working 'here' & sending money 'back home' to support others. If we were maybe more interested in trying to ensure that conditions 'back home' were better - better sanitation, some healthcare, some education, peace (no, don't give me that guff about enforcing 'Democracy' & certainly not at gunpoint) then maybe people wouldn't want so desperately to come 'over here' in the first place?

    By Anonymous bronchitikat, at 7:56 AM  

  • As a 'gringa' with some knowledge of Spanish, I answer the phone at my job "Good Morning, Law Office, How May I help you?" It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who then rattle off in another language and when I try interrupting (in English/some Spanish) to explain I don't speak Spanish, or Por favor, espere un momento, they tsk tsk me, and get offended that I can't help them. I used to say "lo siento, no hablo espanol" or "i'm sorry" but I stopped doing that. Why should I be apologizing and be put on the defensive?
    We have plenty of clients who begin the conservation by asking if I speak Spanish or if they can talk to someone in Spanish. Whether they ask in either language I'm always very polite and get someone to help them.
    I just don't like the assumption and the rudeness of the first group of people wh act like it's my fault they can't communicate with me.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:23 PM  

  • Maybe she thought you were pretending not to speak Spanish so she and her cohort would go away. Hence, the pissed, huff, and walk off! LOL

    I'll have to try that the next time some unwanted solicitor shows up on my doorstep.

    By Blogger Angie, at 4:40 PM  

  • I do that, with the straightest face. "No hablou espanoul".

    Big Daddy, "Todos los hombres son creados iguales" has meaning in many languages, probably all. It came from the Bible.

    By Blogger Alex, at 5:17 PM  

  • I know this is a late response, but I just read the post and I couldn't agree with you more. Also, the way you focused solely on the lady's attitude without making sweeping generalizations that too many people make is to be commended.

    Ironically enough, a Jehovah's Witness showed up at my door yesterday and spoke perfect English. In Kendall. Just goes to show that there's diversity even within the Jehovah's community!

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