Only Anecdotal

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Archive for the ‘dignity’ Category


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The hospital across the street from my house has had a white tent in front of the emergency room for the last few weeks. A strange sight in normal times, but these are not normal times, of course.

If all of this had happened five years ago, I might still be going in to visit people, as I did at least two or three days a week back then, but I doubt I would have had that sort of access. I would instead be trying to telephone, or skype, if possible, and otherwise I would be worrying about the nurses and social workers I knew there, as well as all the people I could no longer visit. A phone call never took the place of going in person back then, and I imagine it still feels lacking in a world of people who often suffer as much from loneliness as from the illness they are fighting. I am sure that the barrier to touch is one of the most difficult parts of this evil virus that has taken us now, the necessary disconnection.

Someone has put up a sign in the parking lot: “Heroes park here.” And indeed, they do. I see them walking back and forth from their jobs as they always have, and they have always been heroes, long before they were deemed “essential employees” in the corona-lexicon.

It is obvious that the people on the front line of illness are essential now, but the rest of the world that keeps those of us safe and fed at home share the badge of essential in these days. Suddenly, gas station attendants, delivery workers, and grocery store cashiers have become important, as it dawns on each and every one of us just how lost we would be if they all just stopped doing their job. In my neighborhood, it is not just the hospital that keep the traffic flowing; it is the many workers, whose landscaping, painting, and construction trucks still leave every morning and come back late. They are essential, and they are busy.

This is not to say that we are always treating them so well. This morning, as my daughter approached the early morning checkout line after a triumphant quest for toilet paper, the man in front of her could not stop himself from screaming at an employee, who had been working hours before the early-morning senior hours, I am sure. What good did it do for him to curse loudly about the inadequate supply of hand sanitizer?

Ah yes, we can vent our frustration at this whole situation. We will probably snap once in a while at someone who does not deserve it. We may drive a little rudely, despite the relative lack of traffic. And we can still demean those who manage the tasks that we just do not want to do. I dare say that this sort of entitlement is a bad habit that took root in the heart of many people long before this current crisis.

Of course, many rise to the crisis, and remember to be thankful. We can order take-out and hope the neighborhood restaurant can stay afloat, and we can tip the Uber Eats driver a little extra for his willingness to risk his life in an attempt to maintain some income. We can have our kids draw pictures for the staff at Grandma’s assisted living. It is nice to do these things, to be generous, and to teach our children to be kind. But will we still remember when all this is over? Will we remember that these so-called “unskilled” workers were once so essential?


Written by Only Anecdotal

27 Mar 2020 at 7:37am

An Outing to the Zoo

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As I have been watching the families at the border, I have remembered also that I spent several years in St. Louis volunteering at the International Institute. The refugee organization was generous to me, and I gained far more than I gave in assisting people in English classes, and in working with a social program for Amerasian teens from Vietnam. It was the early 90s, and most of the refugees then were from Vietnam, the former Soviet Union, and Ethiopia.

I remember in St. Louis that the area around South Grand was an area where many of the families I met lived. For most of my life, I knew these areas as German (though my own family lived in North St. Louis), but the change was good. My family came under some hardship, but nothing like the trauma that the families I met at the International Institute.

Once, I helped a man to translate course certificates from an IBM course. The certificate was in French, and the man told me that he once spoke French as much as he spoke Vietnamese, but he could not remember now, and hardly remembering the programming had learned in those early days, a different time. But still, a certificate could make a difference for him.

A couple worked with me on conversation. They were former Soviets, and the man–an engineer–drove a taxi and complained, and resented that his wife (a patient woman) was learning English far faster than he was.

I worked with the teen program, but it was hard. The kids did not want to do “refugee things”, and preferred hanging out and enjoying normal American teenage life. I couldn’t blame them. And because all of them were their families’ tickets to refugee status–children of Vietnamese woman and American soldiers–they had even more reason to grasp tightly to their new country.

One day, a very cold day, I went to pick up my teen partner for a trip to the St. Louis Zoo. When I arrived, though, she was gone. Instead, I found her mother and four-year-old half sister bundled to the best of their abilities, and ready to go.

So we went. It was incredibly cold, though, but in the trunk of my car I had two extra pairs of mittens that my mom had knitted for me. We were warm enough now, and crossed past the bears (only a polar bear was out where we could see him). We looked to some of the enclosed exhibits, still, the reptiles. As we wandered, the mother began to see animals she remembered from Vietnam, and she started to talk about her country, and her past.

She told me that she could not remember her daughter’s father’s name. She tried and tried, but so much had happened. She told me of her house in the mountains, and of her other child, the one she begged not to cry, so they would not be found. She told me of the fire they set to her house in the mountains, and running, running with nowhere to go. She told me of the kind Vietnamese man who accepted her–he came to¬† the US with her, and he was the father of the little girl who went to the zoo with us that day.

At the end, I didn’t know what to do. I drove the family home, and they left–wearing my mom’s mittens. I never asked for them back, and I never told my mom, either. But I think that she would have been happy to know that they had them now.

I’m not sure what happened to the family, but the last time I was with them, they were working hard, and had moved to a nicer apartment.

That day changed my life.

I have thought about many of the people I met then, people who had fled horrific hardships to come to our country, to have a better chance. We all must know many of the immigrants who come here with their dreams and their ambitions, who give up everything for the sake of their families. I think of the incredibly educated, sage scholars who worked in ordinary jobs in car plants (like my sister-in-law’s father, an art history professor working for GM).

I think of my own friends, literature students who came because coming to the US was the way to succeed. I think of the richness of our diversity, the music and food and art and texture of cultures, and I admit to falling silent in despair in the face of hatred to all these things that I love. I have not always been proud of the aggressions of the US–hard to argue that many of the refugees I met suffered in their own countries because of us. But in my life, I was often also encouraged as I saw us change, grow, love.

I want to think we can find this in our hearts again. Our biggest danger comes as we harden souls by torturing children, by pushing away those who need our shelter, by giving even more power to greed.

Written by Only Anecdotal

21 Jun 2018 at 6:56pm