4 August, 2011 – 2:43 pm | Filed under commentary, daily life, geology, personal | No Comments »
At the beginning of the week, I was preparing to drive to Washington, DC for a final-round job interview. I didn’t have any breakfast food with me (I’d just shifted to a friend’s place on Sunday night, after vacating the Ladies’ Den (the house I shared with three of my grad school classmates)), so I went to the Bruegger’s Bagels in Squirrel Hill to grab a quick bagel and coffee and use their wifi to jot down logistical notes for the trip.
While I was there, I became aware of a conversation between two older women a couple of tables over. It permeated my consciousness when one of them started repeating the phrase, “It makes me sick,” each time slightly louder and more vehement. I figured it would be some kind of rant on the current mess that is US politics, and I tuned in idly to see where it might go, half-expecting a rant against liberals or Democrats or something.
However, the next thing I perceived was, “I am so glad I grew up when I did, when we really experienced the glory that was America. Can a real American stand up anymore?” followed quickly by, “I know. I get on the bus and put my sunglasses on and just look straight ahead. I can’t look around anymore. It makes me sick.”
It was then that I realized with a jolt that they weren’t talking about politics at all. My stomach quickly sank, and I couldn’t help but continue to listen.
The conversation rapidly degenerated into more slurs against immigrants and foreigners, about how they were diluting this country’s greatness and they couldn’t believe what a mess it’s become, and how unpardonable it was that there are people all over the place who don’t speak English, and how real Americans have had to work hard to get everything but “these people” are just handed everything on a silver platter.
As the conversation turned towards the influx of non-American doctors and medical students, I happened to glance over right as the “makes me sick” woman hissed, “You’re telling me that you don’t speak my language and you’re going to treat me? You aren’t touching me. You aren’t touching me.”
At this point, my mind was racing to figure out if I could do or say anything to respond. Finally, all I could manage was to turn and fix them with a very pointed and affronted stare. They noticed, glancing just briefly at me, and dropped their voices as they started to clear up their wrappers and trash, but still keeping on with the anti-foreigner trash talking.
Once they left, I glanced around the seating area, wondering if anybody had reacted to this conversation, but nobody else seemed to have been paying attention. I shook my head and whispered an incredulous, “Holy shit,” to myself, and turned back to my laptop to try to finish what I was doing.
(I should mention, by the way, that we were roughly a mile from Carnegie Mellon University and 1.5 miles from the University of Pittsburgh, both world-class universities with large international student/faculty populations, as well as the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which is both a medical school and a series of regional healthcare facilities. We also were in Squirrel Hill, the Jewish neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where you often see many suit/long-skirt-clad Hasidic Jews walking down the street, many of whom probably have immigrant ancestors. Not to mention, the main drag of Squirrel Hill boasts an incredible display of ethnic, cultural, socioeconomic, religious, and political diversity. It’s one of the most real neighborhoods I’ve ever lived in, which was part of why I love it.)
I went on with my day and finally left town for DC, but I couldn’t shake the deep feeling of discomfort that that encounter had created. You hear about these things on TV and in the media, and of course you see passing examples like stupid bumper stickers (such as “don’t blame me, I voted for the American” next to a big X through the Obama logo), but it had been such a long time since I’d seen people actually voicing these views in person. I kept replaying it in mind, and only then did a few snappy comebacks finally come to mind…
- “You grew up in the 60s and 70s, right? In the middle of the Civil Rights era?”
- “Excuse me, but have you ever tried having a real conversation with any of the international people you meet? If you did, you’d find that we have way more similarities than differences, if you just gave us a chance.”
- “You know that this is a nation of immigrants, right? Your ancestors probably came over from Europe, too…”
- “Just because you overhear people speaking another language, that doesn’t mean they don’t speak English. For them to have made it this far means that they’re definitely intelligent people.”
- “Have you ever stopped to think about this from their perspective? They’re the ones who are thousands of miles away from home, in a totally new place, far away from most of their friends and relatives.”
- “You really need to find another neighborhood to hang out in if diversity bothers you so much!”
(Well…I thought they sounded good in my head, but they totally would have fallen flat if I’d actually said them. But I still wish I’d tried.)
I also attempted, to a very small degree, to rationalize why they’d be thinking all this. This sort of strong negativity is inevitably due to ignorance, a lack of exposure to different people or ways of life, and a fear of the unknown. They grew up in a very different era and a very different America. As an Indian-American chick from a non-Judeo-Christian tradition, I’m obviously biased towards a world that embraces diversity and open-mindedness, and in my travels and experiences, I’ve come to witness our united humanity and realize that people are people, no matter where you go. But I know that those experiences, and even that mindset, are kind of the exception to the rule, and also a little idealistic. Still, though, that totally doesn’t excuse such blatant anti-foreigner prejudice and actually saying such hateful things.
I tried to distract myself, zoning out and paying attention to my surroundings on the drive into central Pennsylvania and northern Maryland.
In June, I’d gone to Santorini (a volcanic caldera/island system off the southern coast of Greece) for a week-long hiking trip with VolcanoDiscovery (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, if you’re looking for a solid mix of geology, history, and culture). It made me very aware of the stratigraphy of the rock faces all around us then, and also ever since I got back. One day we hiked ~10km/6.5 miles and saw layers of ash, pumice, and tephra laid down by eruptions over thousands of years. On another day, we saw lava flows as recent as 50 years ago that are still jagged and not too worn down by erosion, and solid boulders with uniform cracks along their surfaces that came from going from a really hot state to a really cool state very quickly. On yet another day, we witnessed two million years’ worth of geological history on a 300-meter (1000-foot) descent from the towns on top of the caldera cliff down to the sea below, and it was all written incredibly and indelibly into the different layers and types of the rocks. We learned how to read some of the signs the earth has left behind to tell us what it’s been up to over the decades and millennia.
As I drove on, I became aware of areas of exposed rock along the sides of the freeway, inevitably from people blasting through the mountains to build the freeway system decades ago. I started perceiving different layers of rock, different colors and textures and characteristics…and then the tension in my chest and stomach started to dissipate, and I actually smiled a little.
Most days, being a geology and astronomy geek is pretty much an eccentricity that just surprises and puzzles most people. But on this particular day, I realized that it lent me a very different sense of perspective.
All this conflict and hatred and ignorance that we as people witness and create and suffer through…this is nothing but a grain of sand in the Sahara Desert that is deep time, the geological history of the earth. This miasma of negativity, insularity, and fear consumes us and we can’t get away from it…but modern human history is only several thousands of years old, and it rests on top of these reassuringly constant, nearly timeless rocks below us. We were born, and we’ll die, and the natural processes that churn ceaselessly on to create and reshape the rocks below us and the stars above us will endure for immeasurable millions and billions of years, as they already had before our ancestors’ ancestors even existed, and as they still will once the human race no longer exists.
Whether it’s a religion you believe in, or whether the earth itself is your religion, we’re all part of something bigger. The playing field will be leveled for all of us one way or another.
Many people believe in a god or pantheon of gods, and that lends comfort to their hearts and minds. Thanks to this trip to Santorini, I see the rocks along the interstate, and I draw deep reassurance from the fact that life will go on and that this will all still be here, despite the unpleasantness, negativity, and violence that we perpetuate and perceive in our own lives and our constructed world.
At the same time, my designery/problem-solving/empathetic side really, really would love to just sit down and talk sense into people, to break through these walls and blinders of ignorance people build around themselves, and to change their perspectives. But maybe I’ll spend some time hiking or staring at the stratigraphy along the freeway to ground myself (ha, oops, pun not intended) before I give that a try.