by Ryan Fockler
‘So if I were an American, what I would I say when I saw you. You know, the cool thing to say maybe? What’s the word to use?’
‘One word to say? Like, how do we greet each other? ‘
‘No, no, not like that. Like we’re friends, how do you say if you walk to me one day? What word would you use?’
‘I don’t know, probably ‘word.’ That’s usually what my friends say.’
‘Word. Like American gangster. Black men, yes word?’
‘Word, yes. That’s probably what we would use.’
The thick pebbles crunched beneath my feet. It was our first night in London, and my brother and I had successfully accomplished three things without the help of anyone. First, we were drunk, that part at least was not hard. Second, we had met a local. He was waiting for the same bus that we were. He was from India, but had lived in London for a number of years. Third, we had managed to get ourselves hopelessly lost. This local wanted to show us a good time our first night in London. He said that he knew of a few shops up just a half-mile or so up the road where we could get a beer and some food, the latter of which had become very important to us. It had been a chore getting anywhere that served food that day. Now, three miles after the half-mile mark had come and gone, it looked like the airline food and 5 pints of Guinness were going to have to do for the day. We were lost and at the mercy of a man that claimed to know where the party was that night. It was quickly apparent that actually he had no idea. No matter. Guinness was enough.
‘Ain’t nothin’ but a Gangster party.’
Our new friend had obviously had a party of his own tonight. Every few minutes he spit out another line from an American rap song. Matt and I couldn’t help but laugh, which only encouraged it more. He was trying to show us how American he could be. ‘Word’ came out of his mouth before and after every sentence now. If he had been anywhere near home I’m sure he would have insisted that we stay with him that night. He was that eager to show us a good time.
The night air was amazingly warm, and not at all what I expected from what little I had heard about English weather. I made a mental list of all that I had packed to take along on this trip, not nearly enough warm weather clothes. Oh well, that’s what I get for assuming that I would know what a country would be like. I should have known better. I am always packing for the worst weather without giving much thought to the good.
My brother and I had been in England for less than 24 hours and already we had been struck hard by the diversity of the culture. Every street had an Indian restaurant, or a newspaper stand that was obviously run by Pakistanis. Our new friend was a perfect example of this diversity. He was waiting for the bus just like us. He had been on his way back home, but instead he was out with us, chatting away on a three-mile walk in no direction in particular. He wanted to learn from us, but more importantly, he wanted to show.
‘I know the U.S. Boston, New York, L.A. Yes. Where are you from? Nee-vah-da. Is that near New York? I possibly will go to Canada. I want to see the U.S. I will live there and make lots of money I think before I go home. I am only 26 now, perfect time to go to New York in maybe 2 years. I am not Muslim you know. I am Sikh. Americans mostly don’t know the difference I think. I am not Muslim though you know. Muslim’s are not Sikh. This is a newer religion, perhaps 500 years or so. We have no problems like Muslims have. We love America.’
I couldn’t help but notice that he was pleading his case. Sadly, it seemed like he had gotten quite used to it. He was a nice guy but it was easy to figure out that friends were not easy to come by for him here in London. He spoke almost with disdain about his native India, but I noticed that he defended it as well. His defense was unnecessary, but he defended it nonetheless.
‘You have heard of India though right? It is perhaps not so beautiful as America. So many people everywhere. There is no such thing as wide-open space. You have probably seen only the North part, that is not me. I am from the South where there are very few pictures. You have probably not seen it. The south is not like the north. I did much travelling across India before I began my studies. The South is very much prettier. That is where I am from. South Side as American’s might call it. Word.’
I couldn’t help but laugh at him. He smiled when I did. It made him happy I guess. I just thought it was funny that he assumed that ‘word’ was all he needed to say to fit in. Perhaps it was, I don’t know. I was beginning to understand that one must step out of a culture and into another in order to understand what is really going on at home. ‘Word’ meant very little to me back in Reno. I guess it was something I said to my friends, but only as a totally meaningless statement. It didn’t really mean anything after all. It was only now that I was more than 5,000 miles away that I began to wonder why I really said it. Had it been in a movie? Or a song? Was I mimicking something or someone in an attempt to fit in? I had been in England for less than a day and had questioned a million things that I thought were strange there. Now, on what appeared to be an aimless walk through parts unknown, I had found a tidbit of clarity about my own culture.
‘What are you doing here? This neighborhood I think is all Asians. Americans don’t live here much.’
We don’t live here, but our hotel is up the street. I think it is anyway. We have been walking for awhile.
‘Asians live here mostly. Everyone on the tube thinks you have SARS if you cough there. They think, ‘oh, he’s Asian. He will kill me if I sit next to him.’ Then they move. I am not with SARS. You don’t have to do that in America, no?’
No, not really. The ethnic diversity was really starting to hit me. Already today I had heard more languages spoken on cell phones and in airports than I had probably heard in the last few years at home. Of course, in America if someone is speaking another language outside of a classroom, it is most likely his or her native language. Here, it could be anything. This man spoke near perfect English, but it was far from his native tongue.
‘The shops are just up here I think.’
My brother Matt and I exchanged hurried glances. We were now square in the middle of a field near Heathrow airport. The only lights in any direction were those of a freeway. I admitted that I knew very little about this country, but I haven’t seen a country yet that would actually put a bar in the middle of the interstate. Our friend offered to buy us a cab ride home. I think he was embarrassed. He didn’t need to be. He made my first night a night to remember. I halfway wondered if he would be looking for us when he finally did make it to that states. Good luck pal. Word.
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