Some conversations I overheard yesterday:
First conversation, at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Huntington, WV:
First man: " By God, this country is for Americans. Those others can go back where they came from. And we won't pay a cent for it either. I don't want my taxes paying for it. All those Muslims and Mexicans, we don't need them here."
Second man: "Not all Muslims are bad, and all blacks aren't bad either. There's bad white people too."
First man: "I don't trust our government at all. It's corrupt, every bit of it. My daughter looked it up and she said if Hillary was elected they were coming after our guns."
Second man: "Now you know that's hooey. No one is going to take our guns. We've been hearing that talk for years."
Third man: "The gun manufacturers would never allow it."
First man: "But you gotta admit, you feel safer with your guns in your house these days."
Third man: "I don't own any guns. I did enough shooting in Vietnam to last me."
First man: "Well, Trump's gonna get all this straightened out. All those people getting free health care and benefits, it's a disgrace." (As he waited for his free VA health care--earned, but still paid for by the government)
I should note that First Man spoke loudly, happy to have an audience for his opinions, and as if sure he was right and his opinions vindicated by the recent election. His last statement finally made me give him a long look, and he apparently read enough in it to quiet down.
Later that day, at the Goodwill store in Point Pleasant, WV:
Customer: "I don't see why these card machines ask us if we want English or Spanish. By God this is the United States and we should only be speaking English here!"
Clerk: "That's right! This is a Christian country. They want to come here with their languages, they should have to speak English. We shouldn't have to cater to them!"
Customer: "They need to send them all back where they came from. There was a company got a contract in Charleston but their people didn't speak English and the place that hired 'em sent them packing. Said if they couldn't speak English, they shouldn't be here."
Clerk: "Good for them! That's how it should be! We don't need them here, taking our jobs. If we went to Germany, they wouldn't ask us, English or German! It would be German! This country is in terrible shape, and now by God maybe it's going to get fixed!"
As I was checking out, I told the clerk: "You should think about what you're saying. Many people come here seeking freedom from persecution. My son's girlfriend fled a country where people's lives are in great danger. She's here, trying to make her way. She's a hard worker, and so grateful to be safe."
Clerk: "Well, she should learn to speak English. I don't mind if they come here and learn and work."
Customer behind me: "And come here legally, with all the paperwork and everything."
Me: "She's doing the paperwork. It's difficult and takes a lot of time. She's learning English but ours is one of the hardest languages to learn. Have you ever tried to learn another language? It takes time. And in other countries, most people can speak at least some English. They've learned it to accommodate all of us English-speaking people."
I looked at them. "Your ancestors were immigrants too. My mother was an immigrant. Some of my great-grandparents were immigrants.They came here the same as people are coming now. We need to think before we speak."
These conversations left me feeling almost hopeless about where this country has gone. When did we become so insular and intolerant? Is it just my state? I doubt it. The men in the VA were from three different states. The speakers who voiced intolerant thoughts were angry, spiteful and self-righteous. They spoke loudly and assertively, even belligerently in some cases. It is as if this recent election has made them feel free to voice their opinions no matter who might be listening.
I thought about this all the way home. These speakers were all being taken care of--they had jobs or retirement or Social Security, some had VA disability payments monthly. They drove on good roads, had clothes on their backs. Their children and grandchildren who went to school, rode on buses, all courtesy of our goverment. They looked well fed and well clothed. The veterans were getting free eye care and all the other services the VA offered. The Goodwill clerk was being paid through our donations to Goodwill.
Yet the common shared belief I heard was that our country is in terrible shape, that immigrants were unwelcome and apparently that only the Christian religion should be tolerated. With unemployment at its lowest in years and the economy growing I find it difficult to figure out what is so bad about this wonderful place we call home. A place where we can, supposedly, worship where we please, move where we want, and enjoy many other freedoms--including the freedom of speech, which these people were certainly using to their heart's delight. The old vet who distrusted our government seemed to have forgotten that he fought to preserve the very rights he wants to deny others.
In West Virginia, people once came in droves seeking land and work. People from Spain, Italy, France, Switzerland, China, England, Ireland and Germany, among others, came to work in the timber, the railroads, the mines. They came to mine, to start mills, to farm. They spoke many languages and celebrated many different holidays and religions. We were, like most of the United States in those times, a regular melting pot of cultures. There were Croatians, Russians, blacks from the south, all working together in the mines and steel industry. Italians worked in the glass plants, Chineses on the railroads, Spaniards who laid stone...the list goes on and on. Immigrants built this country.
I wonder what the coming years will bring. Will this intolerance continue to grow and fester? I wonder. And I very much fear for our future.
Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.