I get asked often why I decided to take this trip, this year around my own country. There are many answers I give, depending on the time allotted and the perceived interest of the person asking. Once in a while, if I suspect someone really cares about hearing the long answer, I’ll talk about my desire to understand the meaning of American.
There are a whole lot of people that use that word to describe themselves, I explain.
I took this trip, in part, so my kids and I could see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears the various definitions of American.
That means getting up close and personal with diversity. It means cancelling a trip to a museum to accept an invitation to dinner in what can only be described as the ghetto. It means remembering Shabbat with a family of two moms and two sons. It means building forts with children who are first generation Americans and listening to stories from parents of border crossings and naturalization ceremonies. It means parking in cities, suburbs and dirt driveways; hearing about layoffs and failed businesses and empires started in living rooms.
As a self-proclaimed liberal, progressive, Democrat, modern-day hippie, these encounters are easy for me. It’s a source of pride for us granola types to familiarize ourselves and our children with the marginalized sectors of society. “Look at how worldly and tolerant we are,” we say, as we snap pictures of our kids playing in the dirt with black and brown babies.
But that’s only one half of the American story.
Where there is a minority, there is also a majority. Where this is marginalization, there is the comfort and security of mainstream. And where there are Liberals, there are also Conservatives. I would be a fraud to claim an interest in understanding American if I ignored my counterparts.
I said as much to my dad while talking to him on the phone from a campground in Connecticut a few weeks ago. “I have to be careful not to just surround us with a bunch of other liberals and stuff. Guess I need to find them some narrow-minded conservatives to hang out with for a bit, too!” I joked.
“Bring them home to visit Papa,” he joked back.
A week later, as fate would have it, we were sitting on my friend Pauline’s back porch. I don’t even remember what we were talking about exactly, but I remember clearly her covering her husband Jeffrey’s hand with her own and saying, “You know, we’re Republican and pretty conservative.”
There was trepidation in her voice when she said it, and I understood instantly why. You have only to sit with me for about five minutes to gather that my politics lean more left than right and that I lean that way with passion.
“I was just telling my dad I needed to hang out with some Republicans!”
I relayed the story about seeking Conservatives and assured them both that they weren’t really the only Republicans I had ever met or even befriended. But still, we all agreed, the timing was comical.
“Actually, it’s rare to find immigrants that aren’t Republicans,” Pauline said. I cocked my head to the side in confusion and she continued, “We ran from communism. We know what socialism looks like and the consequences of the government trying to make everything the same for everyone.”
Pauline and her parents fled communist Poland when she was a child. Her father, a talented engineer, came to America initially as an illegal immigrant and eventually built a successful retail business in Chicago. While he’s financially successful now, he never worked as an engineer again, despite years of training and work experience. They gave up a lot to escape demoralizing breadlines and a government that “took care of” its people.
I couldn’t look this woman in the eye and tell her it was stupid for her to use the word socialist. I couldn’t tell her she didn’t know what she was talking about or that she was exaggerating or being ridiculous. I couldn’t throw Medicare or Social Security in her face.
This woman, this American, this friend of mine had lived communism, and the only sane thing I could do was listen and try to better see from her perspective.
“How do you feel about what the Republican party is doing with immigration right now? I mean… you know…”
She did. Of course she did. She looked sad and shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t like it,” she said, and her body language and tone reminded me of the way I react when people ask me how I can still be a Catholic despite… you know…
Ironically, I didn’t feel an urge to convince her that we would honor her immigrant status better. I didn’t want to change her mind or use her party’s disrespect of her story against either of them.
I wanted to defend her to her party. I wanted to march into the offices of the Republican powers that be and say, “Honor her! She fights for you, she stands for you. Do better for her.”
It was the first time in my life I ever wished for the Republican party to succeed at something.
I didn’t go to bed that night any less of a Democrat; my own thoughts on public policy have not changed drastically. But I did feel like I understood at least one aspect of the other side a little more, or maybe understood a little less the notion of sides.
No, I didn’t leave Pauline and Jeffrey’s house a Republican.
I was simply more American.
Images courtesy Britt Reints