My husband just played a old popular song from Afghanistan, “Sabza Ba Naz,”which had been redone by newer artists in 2010 and played everywhere in Tajikistan when my husband visited there for a few weeks to work on his spoken Persian. It’s one of four languages he speaks (or so he claims, though I’ve heard him say a few words in Arabic and Turkish this week in addition to the English, Russian, Spanish that he’s fluent in and the Persian that he’s working on). And I remembered something very telling about where I fit in – or rather, how I didn’t – while growing up.
Somehow or another, and for the life of me I can’t remember how it started, I got really into stuff from India. It might have started with an errant music download, or I might have sought out the music from the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where bejeweled women in saris are dancing at the maharajah’s palace, or it might have appeared in a different movie. Or it was a proto-hipster urge to be doing something different when everyone was watching subtitled Japanese anime. However it began, I got my hands on the Rough Guide to Bhangra sometime in high school. I remember playing it in a relative’s car on the way to the mall with my brother, and while I was rocking out to the extraordinarily catchy “Bhabiye ni Bhabiye,” singing along to what words and vowel sounds I could catch, looking forward to the Malkit Singh song coming later, my relative was visibly uncomfortable. I pressed my relative, who eventually blurted out, “How do you know they’re not singing ‘kill all Americans’?”
Even as a high schooler, I knew this was completely, and utterly, and unbelievably ridiculous. First, the music was from India, not from any of the countries that had been in the news over the previous couple years. Second, the music publisher was based in the UK, and they wouldn’t have put anything like that on CD. But most importantly, no country could possibly base its entire culture upon hating another country. That’s simply not enough to sustain a culture, especially when there are so many better things to sing about. Love. Loss of love. Looking for love. Looking for a lost dog. Anything. Anything is better fodder for a song, unless you’re a counterculture punk band and doing it tongue-in-cheek like the Dead Kennedys singing “Kill the Poor.” It made me angry that my relative would flatten other people’s lives, that it would even cross their mind that somebody – presumably just because they looked different and spoke another language – would even consider putting the effort into making nice-sounding music about a country they hate.
And that’s something that set me apart from rural Pennsylvania, and why I was destined to leave. My world was bigger, and it always was bigger. Even if I didn’t know what it looked like, I knew there was something beyond my little corner. Even though going to Philadelphia was a big deal, and going to New York an even bigger deal. But even that became a little less monolithic when I went for a weekend with the National Honors Society. Instead of busing in for the afternoon to marvel at Times Square and see a Broadway musical, I remember getting frappuccinos at the first Starbucks I had ever stepped in, visiting the Statue of Liberty, taking a bus tour with a lady who claimed to have never left the city, and roaming around a mall on the waterfront.
My mom’s side of the family is responsible for my bigger focus, I think. (That’s not the side of my family that my uncomfortable relative was from.) My grandparents were always traveling somewhere, it seemed. When I was 10 or so, they took a trip to Iceland, bringing back coins for the dozen grandkids and photos of themselves in parkas, smiling in front of a flat tundra landscape. They went with my older cousins to England and Scotland, and they took a cruise in Alaska. Their fridge was covered in magnets from Cancun, and Hell in the Cayman Islands. They hosted luaus and Halloween parties, and brought back navel oranges and honey sticks and Everglades Heat seasoning when they visited friends in Florida. Other relatives moved as far away as Georgia and Indiana, or spent a winter working in Antarctica and then traveling in New Zealand, or took trips to Turkey and eastern Europe. My mom regretted that she couldn’t afford to take my brother and me abroad, or even up to Prince Edward Island as she had done in her childhood, but we managed to camp with family outside of Binghamton, New York, and on Assateague Island in Maryland. We took a bus to Baltimore to visit the aquarium with them once, too, for the day.
With my paternal grandparents, travel was a bigger undertaking, at least when it revolved around cities. Hotels were booked for multiple nights during trips to Philadelphia, and Baltimore too when we went with them. We spent a week outside of Seattle to visit my grandmother’s sister, going to their camper (which was the first time I learned that there were campsites other than state parks and accommodations more permanent than my other grandparents’ RV), visiting Fort Casey and Mt. Rainier and Leavenworth, and seeing the anticlimatic space needle during a day trip into the city. Visits to Hard Rock Cafe were a fixture, and when they traveled to Las Vegas and other cities in the U.S., my brother and I – their only grandchildren – inevitably received Hard Rock t-shirts or plushies or both, in addition to souvenirs from other gift shops they found along the way. They went on a cruise once, but I don’t think they ever left the country.
Trips to the country were more common with them, and I believe they were more in their element there. Every few years, my grandmother would take a bus trip to Missouri to see the Longaberger basket factory. Day trips to Lancaster were a thing, going to Amish country or seeing a Bible-based show at the Sight and Sound Theatre. And almost every Independence Day weekend was spent driving four hours to remote Potter County, the fifth-least populated county in the state, where my grandfather’s cousin had a cottage where he would spend hunting season. My brother and I loved it up there, from the wholesome black-and-white portrait of a World War II-era nurse in the cramped, powder blue bathroom with a porcelain sink and exposed pipes, to the black and white checked linoleum in the kitchen, to the blankets that looked like they were from the 1960s, to the enclosed porch where I could do 1000-piece puzzles with my grandfather’s aunt, to the stairs that pulled out from the ceiling and led upstairs to a few cots, to the mallards and deer heads and turkey feathers and gigantic rattlesnake skin on the walls.
For many Pennsylvania Dutch families, whose ancestors had also lived in the same area since moving from Germany, I think this was par for the course. I don’t know how or why my maternal grandparents differed from everyone else around them, why they were curious about the world outside of German Pennsylvania, but it rubbed off on my mom, and in turn on me. I knew there was a larger world out there, full of people that didn’t share my experiences or identity, but who had fully-formed lives. I wasn’t rural-centric, culturally myopic. But many people there were, and didn’t see a world in which their own lives weren’t the focus. When I overheard people speaking Spanish, I assumed they were talking about the same inane things that comprised my conversations, just in the language they were most comfortable using with their conversation partners. Whether or not they liked the shoes in the store window. Gossiping about their friends. But many people from my area would immediately become suspicious that those conversations were about them personally, and would care intensely that people were using their power of bilingualism. Or think that music in another language was somehow about them, too.
It must be exhausting, to be constantly afraid of the rest of the world. To fear the unknown. But for some people, maybe it’s easier to do that, to fear from a distance instead of trying to understand. Instead of looking up the lyrics. Instead of learning new languages and taking trips. Instead of smiling at a stranger and saying “hello” instead of averting your eyes or casting a suspicious glance. Instead of putting aside what is shown on the nightly news, and interacting truly with the person in front of you, as an individual, instead of as a representative of that inevitably false idea you’ve formed about all people who look like them.
I’m not a huge-huge fan of TED Talks, but I love Chimananda Ngozi Adichie’s talk on the danger of a single story, of projecting indirect knowledge or experience of an individual upon an entire group of people. I bring it up in conversations when they veer political, especially when I’m talking about where I come from. I’m reminded of it when I tell people about my husband’s Middle Eastern history program, when they ask me to pronounce his country of study several times because I say “ih-RAHN” instead of a drawn-out “eye-RAN.” When I see them working out a sideways question about my husband’s ethnicity because my answer will significantly alter the direction of the conversation. I think of the danger of the single narrative if I see worry wash over their face and I feel the need to assure them I have no fear about his travel to Iran, and that I want to go myself, that the world of travel isn’t limited to just Western Europe and North America. My hometown is full of single stories. It’s no wonder that they voted for a man who reinforced those single stories with hateful, fearmongering rhetoric, and then acted not by extending understanding and compassion, but by banning individuals who have come to represent a vague, imaginary threat against the vague, imaginary uniformity of the American way of life.