Sheltered Views, Exanding Horizons
I have edited this entry over and over with insight from many people and even more experiences, realizing that my reflection back on the U.S. is in fact jaded. I love my country, all that we have and hold dear. But I am challenged when I hear someone from another country hold the U.S. on an artificial pedestal of perfection. I feel the need to establish a balanced reality. Perhaps this is a knee jerk reaction. Perhaps it is my own frustration with the current state of affairs leaking through. I see the U.S. as an incredible marketing engine, its corporations and even the government excelling at the portrayal of a strong “Be like us!” campaign.
I recall a radio ad for a travel agency, a few years back, which closed with the catch-phrase, “So much like the U.S., you’ll never know you left home.” How horrible that instead of offering an experience, instead of offering the view to a new horizon and an opportunity to come home having learned something about another culture from which one may reflect and learn, this company sheltered its customers with the ease of travel.
At the bank yesterday, I spoke with the woman who greets the customers, explaining that I had Kenyan shillings to exchange to U.S. dollars. She gasped, exclaiming, “Were you scared? Did you feel safe?” I restrained a lecture, instead saying, “For every horror story you hear about on the news, there are a million people who enjoy completely fulfilling overseas ventures.” She nodded, hearing by not truly understanding what I had just offered.
Monday morning an NPR story told of the on-going battle for English v.s. Spanish as official languages in the U.S., even the Spanish speaking television station Univision caving to pressure to not ask questions of the presidential candidates in both languages, the post-event rhetoric stating that the candidates dual-language responses “diminished the quality of the event.” To see the presidential debates in Kenya in both Swahili and English was fantastic, the candidates flowing into and out of each language seamlessly. It did not detract from the debate in any respect.
How narrow a view! We are one of just a few countries in the world to not encourage, if not make mandatory a second language in the home, at school, and places of work, to not have street and airport signs, classes and manuals and tests in at least two languages. How can a country founded by immigrants who carried to this land dozens of languages come to uphold the statement that if one does not speak English, then that person is not American?
Language is beautiful! It is the fundamental foundation of our cultural heritage. It is the way we think, communicate, and live. A world that speaks only one language would be very sad, indeed, for it would quickly collapse the diversity of our unique cultures into a murky mix of lost identity.
I wish I had been forced to take a second language throughout grade school, high school, and college for I would be fluent in Spanish now, instead of good enough to get by. And my brain would be better wired to pick up a third and fourth language that much faster. I am a good writer, in part, because I speak enough Spanish, and learned some Thai, Polish, and Swahili in my travels. While not fluent in any of these, I can quickly recall the intonations, rhythms, and word orders, incorporating these into the way I think and write.
When a Kenyan aks, “How far behind is Kenya from the U.S.?” I laugh and say, “In some respects, you are far ahead. In others you are catching up.” The United States has a great deal to offer that is of benefit to others, but we have a great deal to learn as well. I ask only that as we continue to mature as individuals, and as a country, that we stop pushing so hard for everyone to be like us; that we stop long enough to ask, What can we bring home from where we visit? What do we have to learn from the rest of the world?
And with this world-view, perhaps inside our own borders too we may discover that we have a great deal to learn from those who live in our own town.