My wife has a cousin who lives in Texas, 14 miles south of the Oklahoma border. She's 28 or 29 years old, and she has never been out of the state of Texas in her life. Seriously. I'm not kidding. Not even by accident. I mean, you might figure that one day she might have accidentally taken a wrong turn and just ended up in Oklahoma for a few minutes! But, no, never happened (that she'll admit). And she has no intentions of ever venturing out of her "Texcoon." (In case my attempt at a derisive pun isn't clear, I'm trying to combine "Texas" and "cocoon.") And I'm not worried about the (im)possibility that she'll read this, either. Sadly.
I read in the newspaper this morning that one of our senators from Oklahoma, Senator Inhoffe, has a bill before the US Congress to limit federal agencies' use of languages other than English. There is debate about just what his bill will accomplish, but it seems clear that at least it will require a level of competency in English from immigrants in order to navigate federal agencies that will make it difficult for many of them. Many organizations that advocate for immigrants are opposed to the bill and consider it discriminatory.
I have to wonder if Senator Inhoffe has ever travelled much outside of the "good 'ol US of A." Well, I'll bet as a US Senator he has -- and carried an entourage with him. Yes, carrying a little (or large) slice of America with you is the perfect way to keep yourself insulated from all those foreigners . . . and keep yourself from possibly feeling awkward because of customs you don't know or understand.
So I'm betting he's never had a real experience of another culture -- the experience of being immersed in it, of being the only American for miles around, or the only English speaker -- the experience of trying to figure out street signs in a language (or perhaps even an alphabet!) of which you can recognize nothing -- an experience of receiving the hospitality of people who don't know you, have no obligation to you, shouldn't like you (because you're an American!), but who help you because they are just good people and they want you to like their country and culture -- of which they are very proud -- and an experience of trying to fit into something you just don't quite understand.
Some of you who read this will have had such experiences. I've had my share (and I'm always looking for more!). Budapest, where we arrived late (with my wife and 3 sons, youngest one age 6 at the time) on a Sunday, managed to find the right bus toward our hotel in the suburbs, but didn't realize that it would skip some stops because it was Sunday. There was no way we could have figured that out from the bus map. We couldn't even pronounce the street names we were passing (to do so would have required sitting and staring at the sign and trying to sound out, one syllable at a time, combinations of consonants that do not occur in English and vowels with odd marks on top that were meaningless to us). So, we ended up in the wrong place, late on a Sunday evening, trying to find a location we couldn't even pronounce, out in the suburbs where there were no cabs to flag down and where no one spoke English. Thankfully, we had a cell phone and the number of the hotel. We called, but no one could speak English! Phone conversations don't work well this way -- we couldn't even use sign language. They hung up, we called again, and this time it was the voice of the hotel owner, and he spoke English! All we knew to tell him was that we had gone too far on the bus. He figured out what had happened (and explained it to us), tried to figure out from our halting pronunciation of street names where we were, and came to get us in his own car. Oh -- and it was bitterly cold. We were on the verge of desperation, frankly. But he was incredibly helpful to us -- really a "second mile" person! He went far beyond what was required, and we ended up having a marvelous time in the city over two days. Budapest is still one of my favorite places on earth!
We also spent 3 months in the city of Vienna, trying our best not to look like Americans. It was certainly a feeble attempt, but the Viennese were gracious and patient with our mistakes. For instance, in a restaurant I tried to order (in German) a grilled chicken ("huhner") but instead asked for a grilled "hunt" -- that is, a dog. She gave me a chicken. I was grateful.
We have a lot of immigrants in Oklahoma, and many don't speak English well. I wonder if we "natives" (a real misnomer for us if not an outright lie) treat them as well. I wonder how much more difficult our country will be for them if we pass that bill.
I suspect that the bill comes from a narrow, narrow perspective -- a perspective that believes that the US is the best nation on earth, and everyone else would love to be an "American" (sorry Canadians, you don't qualify!), and if they don't, well, they're just dumb. And if they don't speak English, well, they're just dumb. Oh -- and certainly they CAN understand it if we just speak it slowly and loudly enough!
I've noticed that other people are just as proud of their county and heritage as any Americans -- and sometimes more so -- and that their heritage is much longer and richer than ours! -- and all that without claiming that their country is "the best nation on earth," or anything like that. Imagine! Being proud of your heritage, loving and valuing it, without claiming it's better than every other heritage on earth! Tough concept for some, apparently.
Add this: they're love of their heritage has nothing to do with their economy or military strength. So often our claims of being the "greatest nation on earth" are really only claims that we spend a greater percentage of our national budget on weapons and military than most -- because we CAN! Because our economy allows us to do that, and our military strength allows us to defend our economy in order to keep it running smoothly and profitably. Militarism and capitalism are in bed together. Go figure. But anyway, other cultures are proud without having that pride being focused on their ability to beat up everyone else. (Maybe this says a lot about our LACK of cultural heritage!)
The same narrowness that keeps my wife's cousin in Texas when she's only fourteen miles away from Oklahoma drives Senator Inhoffe's bill. Senator, please get out of your "Oklacoon." It's a big, wonderful world -- and there's plenty of your Oklacoon to share without being threatened. Let's learn to "welcome the stranger." They'll learn English soon enough. There's no reason to make it harder for them.
One more. Why is it that American Christians combine nationalism with their Christian faith? On the Sunday night before Memorial Day, the church where I'm a member had what I can only consider an idolatrous service of worship to the American God. One underlying assumption is that WE are "God's Chosen Nation," because WE are indeed BETTER than all other nations because WE are MORE RIGHTEOUS than all other nations. How many ways is this logic bad? How much evidence does it ignore? Answers: many, all. What feeds that perspective? The same narrowness that keeps my wife's cousin in Texas and Senator Inhoffe in his Oklacoon. Sad.