My mom was born in Greece and at fifteen years old she emigrated to America in search of a brighter future. Three years later, she met a dashing American man and married him. I was born just before her nineteenth birthday.
As the story goes, this young mother was over the moon to have a baby. I would lay in the middle of her double bed, with the New England sun pouring in through the picture window, and coo as she watched over me. She remembers never feeling a love like that before. So full. So complete. So effortless. A mother and her cherished son. What an idyllic image.
On one of those lazy 1970’s afternoons, my Dad came home from work and tossed the mail on the bed next to me. In the pile was a Time magazine, which featured a Turkish man in traditional garb on the cover.
My nineteen year old mother, kind and generous and loving, picked up the magazine, and held it aloft so her precious baby could see it.
“This is a Turk.” My mother said. “We kill Turks.”
My father, who these days is an oft confused relic of the Silent Generation, and always Fox News apologist, leapt to tear the magazine from her hand.
“This is America.” He said. “We don’t teach babies to hate.”
Fast forward to November of 2016 and, well…you know the rest.
The point is that a unique quality of the American experience is the (theoretical, at least) incorporation of many ideas. My father was born in the United States, but his parents were born in Northern Europe. He had absorbed some of their views, as all children do, but something inside him had a sense that teaching children to hate felt wrong.
These days my mother blushes and shakes her head at the girl she was at nineteen. Though, if you searched her heart of hearts, I’m sure she’s still suspicious of Turks in general, and specifically of the Turkish friend I’ve had since 1990. When I met him in New York City, we were fast friends. Like instantly. After about six weeks of hanging out, he found out I was of Greek ancestry. He was Turkish born and has an accent. I’m Greek the way an apple pie with a Greek flag in it is Greek. But it came up casually somehow in conversation and he just stopped walking. We were standing on the corner of Bleecker and 11th, six years before the Magnolia Bakery ever existed, and he took a step back from me.
“Greek?” He said, suspiciously.
“Have you been to Greece?”
“You gonna kill me?”
“I guess.” I said.
And he threw back his head and laughed so hard that the sound of it set pigeons alight. And he stomped over to me and gave me a bear hug that lifted me off my feet. That was twenty seven years ago. We only talk about our heritage when we do things like order food in a restaurant. He’ll say “I’ll try the special because I’m sophisticated, but my Greek friend here will have your finest box of wine and some chicken fingers.” He rules. I love him.
My mom, if we pressed her, might say to just be careful, because Turks play a long game.
On this holiday weekend, it’s important to remember that America is comprised of an unlikely collection of people from all across the face of the Earth. It’s something that, as a parent, I try hard to model for my children: America is not for us. It’s about everyone. America has historically been a place where millions of people have come in retreat from an oppressive situation. But have we collectively retreated so far that common ground is now difficult to come by? What if Americans were truly as multicultural and globally thinking as we could be? If we looked outside our own borders not with suspicion, but with excitement?
I think it’s hard to imagine for many Americans, especially because they haven’t actually been outside of the country. Roughly only a third of Americans have active passports and only ten to twenty percent of Americans actually use them (depending on which information source you believe).
That, to me, is a real bummer.
I mean, I get it. Foreign travel is expensive. I haven’t been abroad since I started having kids. But I used to travel abroad almost every year, and nothing beats the experience. Or the way it gives you a more informed and accepting worldview.
If you’ve never been to Iran, for example, it can seem only like a geopolitical enemy. But if you have been to Iran, and seen families working together and ancient bazaars and gorgeous men and women and a quickness to laugh and smile? Well, maybe you’re not going to demonize an entire people as quickly. Before the overthrow of the Shah, Americans and Iranians were tight. But now? Now we hate them and they hate us. Or more specifically, the various people we’ve elevated to positions of authority (in both places) haven’t been able to find common ground.
Common ground is simple. Honestly. It’s as simple as eating the same food. And it begins small, from a place of respect and humanity. It’s one of the enduring concerns I have with religion, because it automatically generates an artificial “us vs them” situation.
For example, I remember seeing this picture of two boys on their dad’s shoulders at a protest and much was made of their religions. It was like “Jewish boy and Muslim boy smile at each other.” And they were like five. And I’m thinking:
This is fucking nuts. They’re five. They don’t know what they are in a religious sense. They don’t understand what it means to be Jewish or Muslim. The only thing they know is that they’re boys. And they smiled at each other because sometimes people just kind of like each other right away.
But no. They were born into a religion and so now instead of it being two little dudes enjoying what Vonnegut would call the same karass, it has to be this thing. This barrier they have to vault over. For a smile. And if my father hadn’t intervened, my mother would have saddled me with a contempt for Turkish people before I could even use a potty seat. It’s tragic.
I wish all children could just get a grace period before they have to bear the yoke of a label - of any kind.
But it’s not just religion. We constantly find ways to create them vs us. We are, at our cores, tribal. And being in a tribe, while comforting in many ways, also means some people, most people really, aren’t in your tribe.
One of my favorite, favorite lines in any movie is a bizarre one. I say it all the time. I yell it out almost daily, because I see it everywhere.
It’s in the movie HOT FUZZ by Edgar Wright. It’s one of my favorite comedies and there’s this beat at the end where the tide is turning and the townsfolk have to take the word of an outsider over their own police chief and the chief can’t believe it. “You’re not seriously going to believe this man are you? Are you?” He yells. And then comes the best line. Cocking his revolvers he screams
HE ISN’T EVEN FROM ‘ROUND HERE!
Why the hell should I care about Philando Castile? He isn’t even from round here.
Why should I care about an African epidemic? They aren’t even from round here.
I don’t have an answer to save us from this particular brand of insular thinking. But I did struggle with what steps to take to try to expose my children to more multiculturalism while living in a fairly lily white area. I can’t afford to show them the bazaars of Tehran yet. I can’t sit with them under a somei coshino on Hokkaido and watch the petals fall. I can’t scuba dive with them in Vanuatu or Mauritius. I can’t show them Havana or Buenos Aires or Florence in person.
But I still don’t want those places to feel foreign.
I want my children to be open to them and not afraid of them.
And a very simple, very easy, very effective first step is to play music. So I made a playlist of songs from around the world.
It’s eclectic, as are my tastes. I kind of like everything. I’m not judgmental when it comes to music. I included songs performers I’m crazy about like Stromae and Cro and Maître Gims. I have dance and house and electronica because it reminds me of being young in Europe and going out with my friends to what they used to call “American Style Discos.” I have classics on there that feel like must-know kind of songs, from legends like Cesária Évora and The Gypsy Kings and Édith Piaf. I have European turbofolk from Grammatik. I have K-pop and J-pop. I have reggae and salsa and hip hop and various permutations of them. I have music from five continents. (Sorry Australia & NZ, no one has made a super cool hip hop remix of The Haka that I could find).
There are no hard and fast rules to the playlist. Some songs are in English, but sung by people for whom English isn’t their native tongue. Some songs are by an American band, but sung in a foreign language. It’s messy if you try to figure out the rules of engagement. But it’s a mix of songs to play as we drive and as we hang around so my children can hear other voices. Other sounds. Other instruments. Other inflections.
And by god it worked. What began initially with eye rolls and audible sighs eventually evolved into acceptance and admiration.
It took about a week of just playing it here and there, and the kids started to really like it. They started to say “play the one that goes like this” they started to talk about instrumentation and word choices and then? They started to dance. When my thirteen year old son was hanging out at his friend’s house the other day, the father there was watching Fox News. I got this text from my son as he listened to the Fox News commenter from the other room.
No, Partner. That dude has definitely NOT heard Alors On Danse.
This past Saturday morning, we were all dancing to this playlist as blissful, carefree euro dance cheese filled the air. And I was smiling as my children become a little less tribal and a little more open minded.
Not American born children listening to foreign sounds.
Just boy and girl and boy and girl. Dancing. To music.
You can find the playlist here. Don’t worry if a song isn’t for you. Just tap past it. As much as we’d like to agree on everything, music is subjective. Hopefully, you’ll find something you like.
And if you have an international song that you love? Add it to this Pajiba Collaborative Playlist.
Happy Fourth of July, everyone.
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