“You people can’t read.”
That’s what the assistant manager said to me in the big box store that has killed almost every mom and pop store across the land.
I could have told him I have a BSc. in a health science. Or that my GPA was more than four at an internationally accredited university. Or that I made a decent living in the country where I came from. I could have told him English was the native tongue of my former home. I could have said so much in hindsight but I didn’t.
His casual dismissal of everything I was, stung so fiercely, my throat closed. My face flushed. I could not believe what I was hearing. Me, almost 50 years old, reduced to an illiterate. An object. Less than. My brown skin marking me as an untouchable in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Casually the assistant manager sauntered away, the question on my lips unanswered. I was neither to be seen nor heard. I remember that day even now; it happened in the first week I arrived here legally, my green card wrapped in an RFID protective sheath, it too nestled against my social security card and my passport, all buried deep within a fireproof box.
“You people can’t read.”
I listened to his words, his tone. The sneer in his voice. The quick flash of disgust in his eyes. I wondered then, is this America?
Is this the place where that iron statue on Liberty island stands serene, her torch a beacon to the downtrodden, the dispossessed, the broken?
Is this the place I dreamt of as a child; where Mickey Mouse gamboled with Goofy and where Spiderman fought crime? Is this the country where slaves were freed, where I imagined life itself was an enchantment? The only place where everyone could succeed if only they made the effort and paid their taxes?
That day was the first day in my entire life, I felt less than. But that was a blessing. See, we learn, immigrants, that there are no trust funds. No golden parachutes, no special dispensations, no soft landings. We made our way here, whatever our reasons; and the rest is left entirely up to us. Our futures are in our hands and we better hit the ground running.
We did. We delivered groceries. We gardened. We cleaned toilets. We refused to surrender, and carried our burdens. We went to school, found jobs; my daughter, my wife, myself. We figured out what every American already knows. We had to take care of each other and we had to work. Hard.
And one day, America unexpectedly relented. The mortgage payments became manageable. The car payment ended. We had enough to pay for healthcare and a few luxuries. Cable T.V. Laptops. Iphones. And finally, blessedly, we carved out some time for ourselves. To travel across our new home just to see.
It was only then I discovered America.
We found beauty in unexpected places. In the Blue Ridge mountains, waterfalls whispered misty secrets to our alien ears.
In the hot Miami streets, everyday objects suddenly became magical. Imbued with some kind of power, some kind of mystery we hadn’t seen before.
We watched Georgia sunrises and breathed clean fresh air, almost as if for the first time.
Unpaved roads led to mysterious forests. Bridges led us to waterfalls. To slow flowing pools drifting leaves downward, to the distant sea.
We walked along sandy beaches, ankle deep in warm surf. Seagulls wheeling in the summer sun.
Sometimes I think about that assistant manager and his casual dismissal. I imagine a life so small, so confined that it could only find release in the dismissal of others. America is not that small man, though his kind find dark places to skitter and crawl.
America is the smile on my neighbors face as he mows my front lawn for no other reason than it makes him feel good. America is the fresh baked bread my wife makes for his wife every Sunday. It’s the sound of children playing basketball on my street, barefoot and bareback on the blacktop. It’s the handshake of my friend across the way as we head to the Amway center to watch Orlando Magic play (and lose again).
It’s the lazy summer days, smell of barbecue drifting across the fence. The twinkle in my doctor’s eyes as she warns me to stop eating red meat. It’s the deep aisles in Publix. The taste of old bay and steamed crabs. Smell of coffee in the mall weaving its dark sorcery. It’s the Disney song that sticks in your head every time it comes on the radio. The crisp cold air in the winter, the sting of sun on your neck in the summer.
America is my home. She is hard and soft. Hot and cold. Darkness and light. Everything I ever wished my home to be.