Sunday, September 27, 2009
Hey Andy, I Don't Think We're In Mayberry Anymore
When the great novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote "You Can't Go Home Again" he wasn't kidding.
I grew up in a quiet suburban town in the San Francisco Bay Area of California called Fremont. I was born here, went to school here, got married and had children here. Then I moved away for about 17 years and now find myself back home in Fremont again. But it is a town I don't know anymore and where the people are not the ones I grew up with.
Sounds like a fairly common scenario these days with immigrants pouring into this country (both legal and illegal) and changing the dynamic and the identity of scores of towns and cities. The quest for a better life in America (plus the added motivation of our generous government services and free medical care, etc.) has driven immigrants by the millions to our shores with dreams of making a better life for themselves and their family. And who can blame them?
Americans are the benchmark by which immigrants measure success. Movies and television shows depict us as wealthy, beautiful, charismatic people (think Beverly Hills 90210) who drive expensive cars, go on expensive holidays and enjoy the finest the world has to offer. If you can succeed here, then you have indeed risen to the top.
With the boon in Silicon Valley the last 10 or 15 years or so, a huge influx of immigrants seeking positions in the high-tech sector swarmed into this area and brought with them their extended families. In no time at all, natural born citizens of this region became minorities in their own hometowns. What followed was a culture shock that continues today.
Please don't misinterpret my message as racist, for that isn't my intent at all. I welcome all races of people and enjoy a measure of cultural diversity because I feel that it makes for a more interesting and multifaceted lifestyle. I enjoy dining at Indian and Asian restaurants and the steady influx of these immigrants brought with them many new restaurant adventures. However I believe that along with the benefits there are some drawbacks as well. Though many feel constrained by political correctness about addressing this issue for fear of being labeled as a racist, I confess that I have feelings that are bubbling up inside me that scream to be released regardless of the consequences.
It was made clear in our most recent census that immigrants now comprise almost two-thirds of the citizens living in our town, and driving around town it's an unmistakeable fact. Everywhere you look there are indications that the new residents of this town have made in indelible mark. Aside from the stores and restaurants that have popped up everywhere, you see the people in their native attire on most every corner. It was also reported that Fremont has the largest concentration of Afghans in the United States. In fact, the main drag going down the center of town, Fremont Boulevard, where high school students cruised for years, now has a new moniker, "Little Kabul," and cruising is now just a fond memory.
No one can stall the march of progress, but I have to ask myself "when is it too much of a good thing?" You can accuse me of being nostalgic for the good old days and maybe you are right. In the old days if you needed to borrow a drill bit or a ladder you could go next door to your neighbors and ask them. Nowadays, though, to do that you have to be quite multilingual or come prepared with an interpreter.
On my street my next door neighbors are Chinese and don't speak English. My neighbors on the opposite side are Russian and don't speak English. Across the street my neighbors are Indian and speak little English and the surrounding houses are home to Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese and Pakistani families, most of which do not speak fluent English. Suffice it to say I have my own ladder and a good selection of drill bits just in case.
It's kind of hard to describe how I feel to people who haven't been put in this situation before. Imagine waking up one morning and instead of being in your hometown you are now living in Bombay, India and the only Americans you see are a few tourists that happen by. That in a nutshell is how I feel. And in a way I resent it. Have things gotten to the point that people that have spent their entire lives here are now put in the position of being that proverbial "fish out of water" and endure the frustrations that it incurs?
"Oh just settle down, Tom. How bad can it be? It's just a bunch of transplanted cultures trying to co-exist with yours and relegating yours into utter obscurity. Nothing to be upset about. I'm sure millions of Americans are probably doing the same thing in their homelands." Maybe that's why it bugs me. There's no quid pro quo!
Language problems are a big issue. Try to order anything from a fast food drive-thru and see how long it takes to get your order placed (and still they get it wrong.) I guess it's too much to ask that clerks, waiters and salespeople speak English. It's only our national language. Well, for now, anyway. In another twenty years it could be Spanish, Farsi, Hindi, Mandarin or one of the many other languages spoken here.
Cultural differences rub a lot of people the wrong way. Americans just assume that people that flee the hardships of their own country and adopt ours as their new home will want to do the complete transformation and learn the language, adopt the culture, styles, attitudes and other features that make us quintessentially American. Nope. In fact, although second generation immigrants find it necessary to learn the language and assimilate into our culture, the first generation is seemingly averse to trying to fit in. As a consequence to this, it becomes our problem to deal with them.
I will give you a couple examples. Recently my wife was witness to a scenario at a Fry's Electronics store here in town. An older Asian lady was trying to return a set of headphones she had purchased over six months ago. She had the receipt and the store clerk tried his best to make her understand that there was a 60-day return policy and that her purchase was made much later than that time period. Her response was to scream loudly "NO...You give money! Give me money! I want now!" This went on for quite some time as one clerk passed her on to an assistant manager and a department manager, both of them failing to get the customer to understand the store policy.
Finally the store manager was summoned and by this time the customer was fuming and screaming "You give me money! I want money for this! I have receipt! Give now!" When the poor woman finally broke down in tears the manager told her that he would honor her receipt but that he could only give her store credit. Again, she couldn't grasp the concept and cried "NOOO! Money!!!! Give me now!" He patiently tried to explain to the customer that store credit was just as good as money but that she had to use it in this store. Again, the crying, the fits, the screaming "No! Give me now! You give me money!" At that point my wife had to leave the store, so we'll never know how it all turned out. One thing for sure, though, it was a very time consuming and emotionally draining episode for all involved.
A similar situation presented itself to me recently at the checkstand of a Safeway grocery store. An Indian woman presented a $1.00 off coupon to the checker for some food items. Unfortunately, the requirements of the coupon clearly stated that in order to get the refund there was a mandatory number of units required. The customer did not have this number and as such was not eligible for the refund. An attempt was made to explain to the customer that she needed to purchase several more of the item in order to use the coupon. Not understanding, the woman began yelling at the checker, thinking she was trying to deny her something she was due. More yelling and screaming ensued and the store manager finally intervened. As the line behind began to grow and the prospect of this woman accepting the fact that she would not get the $1.00 off was never going to happen, the store manager told the checker to honor the coupon and just make a notation on it.
On one hand, I was grateful for the manager's intervention and help in moving the line along, but it did bother me that he had to capitulate like that just because of a cultural barrier that he had no control over. I wonder what I would have done in those instances if I were the store manager. Probably the same thing. Sad that we have to be put in those situations in the first place though. But until these immigrants make the commitment to assimilate into our culture, which includes learning our language, this scenario and others like it are destined to play out again and again.
Many of the Indian immigrants have gained a reputation over the years of being pushy, rude, cheap and immensely arrogant. I mentioned this to an Indian co-worker and she said, "oh, those are the Southern Indians. We Northern Indians don't behave that way." Not so. The ever-divisive Indian culture recalls an ancient caste system where people still live in accordance with the divisions of social strata that apply to them, from the very rich and powerful to the lowly "untouchables." When these high caste Indians move to America they bring with them an arrogant air about them. Many are wealthy and are not shy about flaunting their materialistic side by wearing lots of gold and diamonds and driving expensive autos. They also feel like they can get away with anything, as they do in India. This is particularly irritating if you happen to be driving on the street with some of them, as I've found out!
My Indian co-worker told me that the reason that Indian people sometimes act aggressively and abruptly to us "whites" (as they call us) is that they are afraid of us and often behave in a way that will show strength so they will be taken seriously and not be taken advantage of. Oh brother! I have another theory. Maybe, just maybe, a lot of Indian people are just jerks. Most people know that you catch more flies with honey. Maybe instead of closing themselves off into their own private little worlds and being anti-social, they could try being a friend and see where that takes them. And by the way, as long as they are being friendly, it wouldn't hurt to tip their waiter once and awhile too! LOL!
Probably one of the most shocking displays of arrogance happened to me a few days ago. Parked in the parking lot of our local mall I noticed a young Indian man and his son pull up and walk toward the bookstore. A couple minutes later they returned holding armfuls of hibiscus flowers they had stolen from the bush sitting in front of the bookstore. I was speechless at the total gall of someone stealing flowers so blatantly like that and being so at ease about it. What does this teach his son? It makes you wonder exactly where they would draw the line. I mean, would they landscape their yard with plants taken from neighbor's yards? Or would they draw a distinction where there is none?
As an American I do welcome our new residents and feel that they should be extended most every courtesy we as natural-born citizens are heir to. All I ask is that they show the rest of us some respect and try to assimilate into our culture. There's no need to be so inconsiderate and obnoxious toward us. We are glad for you that you have money, but we are not untouchables and you have no more right to try to rub our noses in it as you would them, no matter how crudely the third world teachings of your culture tell you to behave.