A Year of Morning Thanks
Dokmai, whose gleaming skin and bright eyes made her seem much younger than her sixty years, had been telling me about her job at a packing plant, where she stood each day, like so many of her Laotian-American friends, knife in hand, making a cut or two at chunks of meat moving slowly down the line.
At first, her words were guarded. She was talking through a translator, but it was clear to me that she wasn't used to talking this long to an Anglo she didn't know, a big white man.
Slowly, an hour into the interview, she came to understand that what I wanted from her--no more, no less--was the storyof her life. When she came to understand that, her eyes softened behind an abiding, gentle smile, and I asked some tougher questions.
I offered the idea that lots of “Americans” (her language; I pointed at myself) really wouldn’t like a job in a meat-packing plant, standing there with a knife making the same rhythmic cuts on some pink/red carcass all the day long. I asked her, as politely as I could, what she thought of her job.
She nodded. It was clear that she loved it. The translator's eyes lit up when he told me
“And why is that?” I asked her.
She answered in one quick line, shrugging her shoulders as if it made perfect sense.
“In Laos she had to do all the butchering,” the translator told me, and just like that an image appeared in my mind—the bloody carcass of a water buffalo, with Dokmai standing there alone, a machete in her fist, the jungle behind her. In Laos, she’d carved up the entire animal; here, on the line at the plant, she made just one cut. Easy. Simple. Clean. Always sharp blades--of course, she loved her job. Why wouldn't she?
Her answer exposed privilege—mine—in a way that left me speechless, astonished as I was at my own cultural blindness. That remark taught me more about immigration than a year of news specials, and it reminded me, embarrassingly, of how much I didn't know even though I thought I did.
Today, in class, a bunch of international students will talk to my students about America, about what my American students don't know about what they think they do. I hope they'll be times they feel a little embarrassed, like I was, for their own very understandable ignorance. Discovering what we don't know is at once embarrassing--and liberating, wisdom at a price.
This morning, I'm thankful that once upon a time my own ignorance was carved up by a Laotian meat-cutter. It's a lesson I won't forget.