It is a rather interesting coincidence that within a few days of each other both President Barack Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke about the American public's general ignorance about the world while in Asia.
Bloomberg, the third term billionaire mayor of New York City, while in China last week to speak as the head of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership group, had this to say about America's provincialism:
“If you look at the U.S., you look at who we’re electing to Congress, to the Senate—they can’t read,” he said. “I’ll bet you a bunch of these people don’t have passports. We’re about to start a trade war with China if we’re not careful here,” he warned, “only because nobody knows where China is. Nobody knows what China is.”
The Wall Street Journal has the rest of the story here.
And in Indonesia on Tuesday, President Obama, while on his first visit back to the world's largest Muslim nation where he spent part of his childhood, had this to say during the joint press conference with Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono:
"One of the things that's striking is because it's almost on the exact opposite side of the world, I think not enough Americans know about this great country. And hopefully my visit here will help to promote additional interest and understanding. People have heard of Bali and they've heard of Java, but they don't always know how to locate it on a map back home. And I think that increasing awareness of Indonesia is something I'm very much looking forward to doing."
More of it can be found here here and here.
VC or Not VC, That Does Not Matter
It was not long soon after my arrival in this country as a refugee from Viet Nam for me to experience this first hand.
On a bus ride home one day in San Francisco in 1982 a scruffy-looking White American middle-age man sat down next to me and began asking where I was from. Though my English was limited, two years of remedial English in the refugee camps in Singapore and Indonesia gave me just enough to carry on a simple back-and-forth.
As soon as he heard the word "Viet Nam," he grabbed my shoulder and began crying. My body jumped out of my skin, leaving me frozen and not knowing what to do. He profusely apologized to me for having dropped bombs on "your village" and "killed your people."
I tried in vain to explain to him that it was a good thing that he dropped those bombs because they were meant to kill the VCs or Viet Cong. Furthermore, I told him that though I had known of the bombings and sometimes saw the fighter planes in the sky, no bombs were ever dropped on my city in the Mekong Delta of Viet Nam.
Viet Nam might be small, the size of Indiana, to the American people, but it was a "whole, big" country to the Vietnamese people. The bombing might have taken place only 40 miles away, that still meant a whole province or two over.
To say the least, that was a shockingly strange encounter for a newly arrived immigrant.
Not until two years later that I fully comprehended the above experience. The family that I lived with as an unaccompanied-minor had moved to the suburbs outside San Francisco. I was enrolled in a high school where I was the second Vietnamese in the school. To make matters worse, the first Vietnamese came to this country at a much younger age. His Vietnamese was rather limited, so we did not become fast friends.
I was repeatedly called a "VC" or Viet Cong by other students, but because of my limited English, I could not successfully explain to them that what they called me was not only incorrect, but it was also insulting.
I had assumed that since Vietnamese refugees were welcome to the US because Viet Nam had now become a communist state and that the refugees had fled Viet Nam because they were part of the American-backed regime. We were political refugees. We were anti-communists.
In my naivete I had believed that EVERYBODY in America must have known the reasons why the Vietnamese were taking to the high seas in rickety fishing boats with no certainty of making it to the other side of the Pacific Ocean alive. So why did they keep calling me a VC?
One day during PE on the tennis court, my classmate and opponent on the court repeatedly called me a VC and alleged that I "had killed" his uncle. In a mad rage, I jumped over the net and almost whacked the guy with the racket. The PE coach intervened and I was sent to the counselor's office.
It's Still Black & White
When NPR decided to fire Juan Williams for publicly expressing his personal apprehension when seeing Muslims reminded me of a rather disturbingly funny experience a few months after the September 11 events.
As I was waiting at the gate at JFK, ready to board a Jet Blue flight back to Oakland, a group of three non-Punjabi Sikhs were having a wager with each other. (Read more about Sikhs in America here. Non-Punjabi Sikhs, though some do wear turbans, are primarily White Americans who practice Sikhism.)
The three gentlemen, one of whom was wearing a turban and the loose fitting white kurta pyjama, another only the turban and long beard, but in a business suit and the third one had a much shorter beard but also in a business suit. The wager of five dollars to see who would be called on for additional security screening.
Bingo! It was the one with the turban and the kurta. They laughed with each other at the experience, which led me to believe that this was not the first time for them. I was at once amazed by their sense of humor in dealing with the ridiculousness of it all, but I could not also help myself in wondering if being White Americans had helped them in dealing with the situation better than, say, real Muslims or those of us immigrants with limited English or black or brown.
From the look of the recent election results, this American provincialism seems to become more entrenched and even perversely taken as pride for some. Unlike the good old days when the American economy reigned supreme, we can no longer afford to stay provincial and willful ignorant about the world next door. The results of the 2010 Census, which will be released in stages beginning next April, will show a new America, one that is more diverse than ever before.
(Release dates are December for apportionment, February and March for state redistricting data, and later for all remaining tabulations. Go here for more.)
America's links to the world begin with its own people here at home -- 35 million Hispanics/Latinos, 15 million Asians, almost 2 million Iranians, 8 million Arabs and millions others from the former Soviets Union, Eastern Europe, and all the places in between. If we remain willfully ignorant about the world, we will end up creating our own Balkan states within the US borders.
Even though it has been almost 30 years since that first experience on the bus in San Francisco and the high school tennis court. I am no longer called a VC, though I am still told to "go back to China" every now and then.