Tuesday, February 07, 2012
The food was wonderful and the service was gracious on Friday night. The only thing worrying about this odd little East Indian restaurant was that there was no one there except us and the waitress and the chef, a husband and wife team, whose lavish wedding pictures--in India, in elaborate ethnic wardrobe--appeared on big-screen TV. Basically, it was just the six of us.
So we talked. Our young hostess told us that running this little cafe was their second job; their first was running her father's motel. They had a baby--his picture was up on the wall--and she told us she wanted to continue with her schooling. Had she stayed in India, she said, she would already have earned her Masters degree, a little hesitation in her voice. She wanted to be an accountant, if I remember right. Her husband was in computers--or at least was trained in computers, degreed in technology. "But I like to cook, too," he said in an unmistakable Indian voice when he came out of the back to join the conversation.
The food could have been mediocre, and I would have enjoyed it. To hear them talk about their lives was fascinating. When I asked about the East Indian community in Sioux City, she said it wasn't large. "And who are they?" I said. "What do they do?"
"Doctors and lawyers," she said, without hesitation or a hint of arrogance. It was simply the truth. The small community was accomplished, as were they, the couple whose day job was running her father's motel, whose night job was running the restaurant. In a way, they reminded me of every immigrant I'd ever known--unafraid of work, determined to succeed. They were onward and upward-bound on the yellow-brick road of the American dream.
Saturday, at the funeral of an old friend, a Tai Dam evangelist, the most emotional moment arose when his children--two of them at least--spoke in memory of their father. Brother and sister got through the task only by holding each other as they stood in the front of the church.
The son spoke first and through his tears told his mother how much she and their father had meant to all five kids, how they'd probably never told her that often enough, how he understood how much they'd gone through to escape Laos, then Thailand, how dangerous and life-threatening their escape had been, and how forever grateful they were that his parents made the difficult decision to leave a land that threatened their lives with its hate and its poverty. He said he knew how blessed they were in America. It was, without a doubt, the passionate recital of yet another American child of immigrant parents. Beneath his thanks lay the yellow brick road of American opportunity.
But, the night before, one thing our East Indian hostess said was startling. "We should have stayed in India," she told us, not angrily really, but in a very matter-of-fact way. Undoubtedly, her father was successful--on the side, he owned a motel. Undoubtedly, when he came to this country, he was already accomplished, educated--a doctor or a lawyer. Undoubtedly, he and his wife chose to immigrate to give them--their children--opportunities they may not have had in India.
But their daughter considered the move a mistake. Her marriage had been arranged in the traditional way, and those pictures flashing up on the screen proudly offered images of another place and time, somewhere other than Sioux City, Iowa.
Two first-generation immigrants with entirely different views of their parents' life-altering choices. One of them tearfully thanked his mother as he commemorated his father's life; the other wished they'd never come.
Our hostess was kind and sweet and gracious. When she sensed that my food wasn't going down well, she brought me some yogurt. In every way, she was a joy. But she wished they'd never left India. The Laotian's son cried from the bottom of his grateful heart.
The food was wonderful, the service was gracious, the education was worth a million; but in that East Indian restaurant on Friday night, I couldn't help but think of terrorism--not because our young hostess struck me as dangerous, but because her disenchantment with this country, given the right religious tweaking, could morph into anger, distrust, and alienation. She longed for a home she ironically knew little of. Undoubtedly, like ex-pat terrorists, her love for her homeland, for what she'd come from, was greater than her parents'--and yet far more insubstantial.
Her heart, I thought, could be radicalized.
The difference between the two?--a young East Indian woman and a Laotian man of the same age, both children of immigrants? One came wealthy; the other came a refugee. The Indian parents walked into a salary beyond the dreams of most fifth and sixth generation Americans; their Tai Dam counterparts had only the shirts on their backs.
Maybe that's it. Maybe somewhere in that mix lies the key to understanding Mohamed Atta and his ilk, the killers who took down the Twin Towers. I don't know.
On the Sunday morning after 9/11, we were ushered into a church by a friend who stopped me, seemingly non-plussed. "Jim," he said, "I don't understand why they hate us."
Few of us do, fully. I'm still trying to forge an answer.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 5:54 AM