Posted by: Tamara Sternberg-Greller, Consular Officer
I never thought that cable TV installation would be so interesting. On Saturday, in the middle of a raging snowstorm, two representatives from a local service provider finally came over to hook up the cable they had been promising for the better part of a month. That stormy day, my husband and I had one of the most insightful conversations we have had in a long time with two mostly Russian speaking men (my husband and I are, in theory, new Ukrainian speakers).
The larger of the two men, the supervisor, was standing in the hallway watching his subordinate bent over in a corner under the TV, attempting to hook wires into our unit. He looked interested as I came into the room, and began to speak with me in Russian. No, no, I explained, we only speak Ukrainian. Ah, he said, okay, I will try to speak Ukrainian. And are you Canadian? No, I answered. We’re American. And then he was off, with questions flying wildly. Where did I learn my Ukrainian? Was I diaspora? Where were my grandparents from? As it happens, my maternal grandfather was from Kyiv, though I never knew him, and my paternal grandmother was from Chernivtsy, though she left before the war and didn’t say much about her childhood. My father was born in New York City, and that’s where we all are “from.” Nevermind, this man was very excited that he had found, yes, what he considered to be another Ukrainian – and one who was attempting to speak Ukrainian. Then he took a look at my husband and he said, “He is not Slavic.” “No,” I answered, “he’s not.” “Well, where is he from?” “From? You mean genetically,” I asked. “Historically,” he said. “His family.” And the truth is, I’m not sure what my husband’s familial roots are – his mother was adopted, and it’s not something that was of overriding importance to us to find out. In the end, we are both Americans, and the values that we share are American. I told him this, and he came out with the following statement:
“You Americans, you look at hearts and faces, not passports.”
He meant it in the most positive of ways, that we judge not by where people’s lineage is derived from, but rather by what we see today. Is the person standing in front of me a good and kind person? Is s/he helpful and knowledgeable? Witty? Smart, sweet, sarcastic? And he followed up his statement with various judgments on Ukraine, but what stuck with me was that he really believes that we, in the United States, judge people by what they present to the world, which is to say that he thinks we judge people for who they are rather than where they come from.
I was flattered at his words, and more than a little pleased by his opinion. I believe that the United States is a fiercely pluralistic society at its base, and that our multiculturalism and melting-pot immigrant history is what makes us both strong and who we are.
Take a look at the following stories:
- Andrew Carnegie, the Pennsylvania self-made steel tycoon whose father was a handloom weaver from Scotland. He came to the United States when he was 13, started working at a factory for $1.20/hour before volunteering to be a telegraph operator for the railroad, and then going on eventually to own the factories that made the steel for the railroads. He died one of the richest men in American history. After he made his money, he became a leading philanthropist, founding Carnegie Mellon University and donating heavily to the New York Public Library.
- Former Secretary of State Albright was an asylee from what is now the Czech Republic. She came to the United States in 1948, and worked as a journalist and professor before her nomination as Ambassador to the United Nations in 1993 and her appointment as the first female Secretary of State in 1997.
- Arturo Moreno, who sold the billboard company Outdoor Systems to Infinity Broadcasting for $8 billion in 1998, grew up in a 2-bedroom house in Tucson, Arizona, the child of Mexican immigrants. He served in the military during the Vietnam War before graduating from university and going on to become successful in business, as well as the first American of Mexican descent to own a professional baseball team.
- President Barack Obama’s maternal grandfather was an oil rig worker in Kansas, and his paternal grandfather was a sheep herder in Kenya. His father won a scholarship to university in the United States, where he met and married the President’s mother. They divorced when he was four. Obama was a community organizer in Chicago before going to law school, and was elected to the U.S. Senate before he was elected as our President twice over.
This is not to say that we are perfect in this regard. We are not, and we have a ways to go in certain areas. But we have also come an incredibly long way, and we are an ever-changing society governed by a living document, our Constitution, which ensures and enshrines our rights to challenge our leaders in a peaceful way for change. And, as history has shown, we are a tenacious populace that is unafraid to voice opinions until, sometimes belatedly, our laws and ideals shift to match what the population judges to be important and fair. Each citizen has a voice, and our laws ensure that each voice can be heard, and that we are each given the chance to choose our own path, no matter where our individual family’s roots may lie.
So, yes, I agree with my cable man. We do, for the most part, judge based on hearts and faces, and not on passports. It’s something we can, and should, be proud of.