Working in a restaurant when I was a student in the early 1970s wasn’t officially authorized under my student visa, but it provided me with a badly needed income. Earning a salary by the hour was something unheard of for me since there was no payment system like that back home in Iran. Even though the minimum wage rate in those days was not all that high in nominal terms, it was a considerable amount of money for me since I use to live on a very small stipend. In addition to its monetary reward, the job had non-monetary benefits. I was able to take home the restaurant’s unsold leftover baked potatoes every night because I believe that health department regulations did not allow the potatoes to be saved. I would take them back to my dormitory where a roommate and a couple of hungry friends awaited me. Some nights, if I was really lucky, I would return to the dormitory with a half a dozen baked potatoes; when this happened, we would all enjoy a big feast.
People who lived in the small town in the U.S. where I was going to college were not shy about disclosing their feelings of mistrust toward me because I was an immigrant. Initially, given the sporadic abnormal behavior of some of the foreign students at my school, I thought that harboring feelings of mistrust was not that much out of the ordinary. However, over time I came to see that this was not acceptable. Every night after closing time, we workers had to stay in the restaurant for a couple of hours to perform the unpleasant jobs of cleaning up and taking out the garbage. One night, as we were cleaning the restaurant and getting ready for closing, there was suddenly a power outage. It became very dark everywhere. The darkness didn’t bother me at all. In fact the darkness kind of made me feel at home because when I was growing up we didn’t have much electricity, and we had to maneuver in the dark or in dim light quite a bit. But the manager, who was also the owner of the restaurant, was caught by surprise. Apparently because he couldn’t see me in the dim light of his flashlight, he was repeatedly inquiring about me by asking in a loud, probing voice, “Where is Reza? Where is Reza?” For a brief second I thought to myself that it was very nice that he was concerned about my well-being. It didn’t take long for me to come to my senses. I could tell from the tone of his voice and my quick recollection of his past treatment of me that he was not looking for me out of a sense of altruism. He was looking for me because he was perhaps thinking that I might take advantage of the chaotic situation, and run away with his money or something else from his restaurant. It was a very disheartening experience to be judged in this way when I had never given the owner cause to mistrust me.
That was not, of course, the only incident of this kind that I experienced. One time I went to a garage sale. It was the first time I had gone to a garage sale, and it was such an exhilarating experience for me because we didn’t have anything like that back home in Iran. Everything was on display so I knew the garage sale was going on but I could see nobody on the premises. After a quick look around, I left the garage and was walking toward my car – a Ford Maverick – not to be mistaken for the maverick we didn’t send to White House! I hurriedly went toward my car so that I could move on to the next garage sale. All of a sudden as I was turning the key in the ignition to start the car, a lady came out of the house walking toward my car as fast as her feet would carry her. She inspected the inside of my car visually but thoroughly; she wanted to make sure that I didn’t steal any of the junk she was trying to get rid of from her garage. When I think about incidents such as these, incidents in which I have been judged and presumed outright guilty when I did nothing to warrant such treatment, it still hurts my feelings. This kind of prejudicial treatment is unjust and degrading when directed toward a person who holds cherished values of honesty and decency. I had no choice but to endure these insults then; I saw them as the by-product of my moving from a third world country to an affluent nation. However, rationalizing discrimination in this way made it no less painful to endure.
I still continue to be the target of hasty judgment, imaginary offense, and discriminatory accusation even after all the years I have lived in this country; however, as time has passed these incidents may have become just a little more subtle. I try not to take these offensive reactions to my foreignness seriously; I often shrug them off with a humorous comment. What else can I do? When the going is tough, humor is a must! I remember an incident that took place in the health club I usually go to a few days a week; it happened in the sauna which is my favorite room in this entire huge club. It is the steam heated room you share with many other people who are all semi- naked. The presence of female club members seems to give the men an enticement to brag about something just to get the attention of the women. Because these men are unclothed, one can readily see that they don’t have much to brag about in terms of their physical attributes. Therefore, they boast about other things that anybody can brag about without fear of ridicule. They brag about the great deal they shrewdly negotiated on a new car, or how successfully they squared off with their insurance company, but most often they brag about their favorite sport and sports team. I believe some people are natural born show offs who have to brag about everything. I hate it, especially when they brag about baseball which they always seem to do. They could care less if a catastrophic disaster leveled the entire town just as long as the baseball fields remained intact. After living in this country for more than three and a half decades, I still don’t know anything about baseball, much to the chagrin of my children. Often I had to bear the humiliation of watching baseball games with them like a dummy. Without a doubt I knew they would eventually ask me a question to test my knowledge of baseball, and sure enough they did. They wanted to know who my favorite baseball player was, as if I knew the names of all the players. I wanted to be seen as someone who was in the loop so I told them Shaquille O’Neal was my favorite baseball player; I had heard that famous athlete’s name somewhere and crossed my fingers. Of course, I had to endure my embarrassment when I could tell from my children’s sly laughter that I had made a wrong guess.
Now back to the key point of my health club experience of discrimination. I was in the sauna with a bunch of such overweening guys when suddenly someone entered the room, looked at me kind of angrily and asked, “Are you done with that?” The object he was referring to was a piece of weightlifting equipment that someone had brought into the sauna before I had entered; of course, it didn’t belong in the sauna room. I really had no clue about what led him to believe that I was the guilty party; I could only guess that he accused me simply because I was the only one in the room who didn’t look quite like the others. This kind of mentality, that you are presumed guilty if you don’t look like everyone else, has become even more intense after the disastrous events of 9/11. The day after terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, a colleague of mine asked me sarcastically “What are you going to do now?” The person seemed to be implying that now that I had successfully completed the attacks of the day before, I was now in the process of mapping my next destructive strategy. It was perhaps his chronic distrust and bigoted attitude toward me as a member of a “lesser culture” that were being manifested in that question. It still surprises me when I encounter such judgmental attitudes and the ignorance beneath them in so-called intelligent people. It also continues to surprise me when these attitudes are expressed by people who have lived their whole lives in a country which proudly identifies itself as a “melting pot” of diverse people, avows that “all men are created equal,” and espouses that a person is supposed to be judged by the “the content of their character” alone. I thought, and still think that individuals like my colleague are creatures of a lop-sided mass media that consistently and convincingly promotes wrong attitudes and unfounded ideas which are based in ignorance and cultural elitism.
I believe this kind of elitist mentality has led to the attitude in this country that “we are the best and the heck with all the rest.” Fixation on such a self-indulgent mentality and limited world perspective means that we are not open to the possibility that others may also have good ideas. I wholeheartedly think that we as a nation have suffered enough collectively from this kind of mentality, especially economically in this age of global interconnectedness. It particularly has made us ignorant of the gradual rise to power of other countries and has blinded us to the idea that others matter. Many of us are not eager to open ourselves to the ideas expressed by others; unless “the other” is just like us, we have no desire to accept him or her with open hearts and open minds. For example, it took an “energy crisis” to force auto makers in this country to finally realize that the best fuel-efficient cars are not made in the U.S., and the consumer’s love affair with inefficient, gas-guzzling American cars and trucks would soon be coming to an end because of soaring gas prices. This arrogance, greed, “isolationism,” and lack of foresight has led to the economic failure of the once invincible American car industry, not to mention the resulting increase in the government deficit because of financial bailouts/loans to these companies, and the loss of jobs for American workers.
Maybe the best way to describe such an attitude is to invoke the famous phrase “American exceptionalism” that has been used eccentrically by neoconservatives to theorize that the U.S. has a particular doctrinal superiority over other advanced nations when it comes to social, political, and economic systems. Such a generalized fixation on ourselves and our attitude of superiority precludes us from learning from the experiences of other nations, many of which are more successful than the U.S. particularly with respect to important areas such as education, healthcare, and social justice. Only sheer arrogance and a misguided understanding of what it means to be a world “leader” could explain why we as a country would not want to learn from the successes and failures of other nations in order to advance our national goals. Success in a global economy requires that we think outside of the box of fascination with ourselves. We can learn a lot even from a “dummy” as a current popular TV ad would suggest. Ideas from others may not create Nirvana, but they have the potential, if we open our minds, to stimulate creative problem-solving, and pave the way for alternative views of how we can accomplish many important goals in a variety of areas. In order for this to happen we must be willing and able to let go of our notions of superiority, and re-identify ourselves as one positively contributing nation among many in a global world community.
I will end with a story that is partially fictional, but is intended to humorously invite you into the world of a Muslim immigrant in this country. I particularly like the story for its entertainment value which takes the edge off of painful feelings of being discriminated against. I use to live in a community where my close neighbors not only thought I was a dummy, but they also held suspicions that I was a member of a sleeper terrorist cell. One day, when I was leisurely enjoying barbequing in my backyard, much to my surprise I found myself confronted by a couple of local police officers. They proceeded to inform me that my neighbors reported to them that they suspected I was enriching uranium in my backyard and that I might be trying to construct nuclear bombs! They perhaps reported to the police that I came from Iran and, of course, that’s what Iranians are suspected of doing these days. After I somewhat recovered from my stunned incredulity, it took me some time to verbally explain that I was not a terrorist, and to demonstrate to the police officers that I was in fact making shish kabobs. Granted I created a little smoke, but barbeque smoke never killed any one as far as I knew. Also, I had to plead with them not to confiscate my newly purchased Weber gas grill because they thought it was a mobile nuclear lab! This story may seem a little far fetched but it exemplifies the rush to judgment and the preconceived bigoted notions that people who fear diversity inflict on others who are different in native origin, skin color, culture, and religion. Just as the U.S. as a country must economically and politically change its view of itself to reflect that it is a member of a community of nations, so too must individual U.S. citizens change their exclusionary views of other U.S. citizens who reflect that very same community of nations.
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