Thursday, June 29, 2017
"Are you a Muslim?", the cab driver, honking horn, glancing at me--at my beard perhaps--inquired.
It was my second trip to America, and I’d stayed here previously to deem me confident in my contention that America is the least racist of Nations. Or at least that's what I have been believing so far. And, in any case, nobody had ever posed this question. Ever! But now, I was caught unawares. ( I had arrived at Harrisburg city in Pennsylvania, U.S, on a Tourist visa, after my wife was rendered seriously ill)
Yet I regained my composure, and proceeded to reply. No I am a Hindu, was my answer. I couldn't believe that I had to explain my religious leanings, beliefs or conviction in one of the most advanced countries. The gentleman is just curious, I silently told myself.
A few weeks later, I'm at this fast-food joint, which I frequent--perhaps as an outside. Personally American fast foods, just like American music and movies and literature, that I’ve come to dote on, hold a cultural and almost aesthetic meaning and importance for me. In any case, an occasional fast-food outing has been a constant somehow. --and I hear the guy—a white middle-aged fellow-- air sentiments, with obvious racial undertones.
I felt hurt, humiliated. "We should report it to the customer service; we should call them. This cannot be tolerated". My green-card-holder wife, an immigrant herself, was clearly distraught.
But a different sort of observation and sentiment buzzed in my head. On the following lines: This gentleman is perhaps, having a bad day. The weather is not helping either. Perhaps. Perhaps, he doesn't mean it. Well, okay he has kids and a wife back home, and my complying to my wife’s suggestion--leaving a complaint thus-- could rob him of his job and he will not be able to support his family. Besides I do not want to issue threats, act like a bully…..
America hasn't changed, isn't going to... even if it is going to change, it'll only be for the better, only to bring to the fore a more embracing and all-inclusive World. I consoled my wife and baby-- perhaps through my eyes. Or voice--and a bemused sort of voice that appeared unintelligible somehow. Somewhat. But a question, rather a dread loomed large: Has America changed?
And yet again... I am out at this restaurant, ordering coffee. And as I place my order, a middle-aged, White gentleman, facing me and his head occasionally turning to the one he was placing his order to--the shop-keeper-- makes a remark: “Do you sell cocaine?” “No Sir! It’s coffee!” The guy at the other end--the store-owner-- smiled, trying to compensate for the obvious unease in his other quite regular customer---me.The gentleman grabbed his coffee, and left glaring at me.
Of late, amid these experiences, I have been finding myself at a very-difficult point. Back home in Nepal, as a doctor and a children’s-author—with some of my books now required-reading at schoolrooms—discrimination and racism was certainly not the more. Unheard of. On the contrary, I am loved, respected. In any case, such "scenarios" have been rather alien. Luckily.
Personally, America for me is and has been that great Nation that like a “big brother” endeavors to strike an exquisite balance in the World itself. This is the America that I still believe in, and that my newborn baby holds a citizenship of.
Amid these thoughts, and post- the-wonderful outing(s) at the fast-food corner, as we depart in the cab, I hear a voice: "Are you a Muslim?" This time I decide not to answer. Why did I do that? Was I fast asleep-- fast asleep and conjuring wonderful dreams and visions of the America that I still believed in?
Am I wrong in my assumptions about the US? Now. Am I? The question needs to be answered. Besides, my final thoughts are: When leaders up there are unabashed about their ambitions (and commitments) to annihilate any prospect of brotherhood and camaraderie among fellow-citizens (and fellow citizens that also include immigrants, women and minorities), what should we expect from the “common man”? For a common-man, by and large, would doubtless emulate his or her leader, wouldn’t they ?
(Ujjwal Bikram Khadka is a Nepali doctor and published author.)