A few weeks ago, my organization had a milestone celebration and global staff retreat. We popped bottles and did hoodrat things with multicultural friends. Team members were here from India, Pakistan, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, and Nigeria. I spent eight days emerged in real diversity. Yes, I’ve been to diversity training and by living in New York I’m naturally surrounded by people from all over the world. The difference is that this was the first time I had conversations with people about issues plaguing the countries they live and work in. It wasn’t as much a surprise as as it was a refresher in perspective.
Before we all departed for a work event in NYC, I had to help a Kenyan colleague find pantyhose. Not quite my forte, but when a higher up says “Slim, can you help her find some pantyhose,” then Slim needs to help her find some pantyhose. Resistance is for those that don’t wanna be employed.
So there we were walking through the streets of New York on what was a conveniently warm day made perfect for visitors. I was happy to be inhaling warm polluted air, while she was just happy to be here for the first time. Her questions were endless, but I wasn’t annoyed. I’m sure I’d be the same way if I was in a new place that I only saw on tv or read about in books. And with all that she had seen and heard, she still had a hard time adjusting to the foot traffic. Every few steps I had to remind her to “watch out” for the people hustling by. And after the third warning of pedestrians ahead, the real learning began.
“Why is everyone in such a hurry here? People push past and don’t speak. On the train system, people only talk to people they know. Is this the way it is in America?”
I couldn’t help but laugh. Her observations were accurate. New York City might as well be a country of its own. I’m sure there are places where people hustle for no reason, but I suspect it’s nothing like this anywhere else in the U.S. of A.
“It’s just how people are here. Everybody’s in a hurry and strangers remain strangers, unless they’ve been drinking, need directions, find someone attractive, or encountered an unpleansantry worthy of words.”
She looked dumbfounded. Her eyes were the hybrid of an anime character and deer enraptured by headlights before being carted off to the side of the road.
“In Kenya, if you’re on a bus — well a van in my neighborhood — you always get off at your stop with a new friend or a new story. We wait in traffic because things move really slow, but it’s okay. We see it as an opportunity to learn about those around us.”
I shackled my cynicism. I don’t talk to people on trains or buses. I just put on my headphones and create personal space in the crowded metropolis that’s New York City. I don’t want no problems.
“I do. I love it actually. It’s called Halal food. It’s a regular item on my lunchtime menu.”
She looked grossed out by the chopping, sizzling, and pouring of ambiguous white and red sauces into styrofoam. I salivated at the scent of street platters. She dry heaved.
“Our food is different. We don’t have these stands. We also cook with fresh vegetables. I think it’s more organic…as you guys would say here.”
Regularly cooking with organic vegetables? Get outta here. Nope. Not in my hood. You gotta go to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s for that. And should you wanna be an organic consumption machine, be prepared to have the stores consume the contents of your wallet.
“I also noticed in the few days I’ve been in the office that everybody eats at their desk. Do people not go out together for lunch or to a common area to talk while resting?”
Her questions had the hamster running in my head. I couldn’t help but think how we don’t make enough effort to slow down and enjoy what’s supposed to be a break. I thought about how we don’t spend enough time getting to know those around us unless it’s one of the situations I described above. I also couldn’t help but think of how we eat ourselves to death while many in her country die of starvation. As colleagues, we’re working toward the same thing, but from opposite sides of the spectrum. Now I was the one with the curious eyes.
We made it to the store. I stood there thumbing through my phone for the latest Twitter and email updates while she looked through the pantyhose section. She caught a glimpse of my Droid X2 and continued on with her inquisition.
“I noticed Americans really love their phones. Why do you spend so much time on your phones?”
“Oh. I can do just about everything from shopping to finding directions. Have you heard of GPS?”
“I’ve heard of it, but we don’t have that at home. We don’t have street signs like this. I don’t know how our phones would find dirt roads. It’s very different…and slow. We just make calls. We don’t even have copy machines that scan in our office the way yours does. Technology at home is just very different.”
I started to feel like an impatient asshole. When things don’t happen instantly, I get annoyed. I walk out of restaurants if I don’t get to the counter in five minutes. An hour at the DMV is like an infinity in hell. When webpages don’t load quickly, I feel like I’ve been sent back to 1997, when I was sitting at home on my Compaq Presario trying to get into Albany-Troy1 to ask someone about their a/s/l. And if I was lucky, I might get a pic. When I get stuck in traffic, my systolic and diastolic remind me of the plight of Black people.
I take for granted so many of the things I have and fail to maximize my opportunities. I have access to so much, but realized I use so little.
Amiri Baraka asked who will survive in America? Now I’m wondering how I’d survive in a less privileged country? I’m not quite sure how long I’d make it. What about you?