Asians All Look the Same! Made You Look!

PLEASE COME BACK AFTER A FEW DAYS (AS OF 7/29/20), FOR THIS ENTRY IS NOT FINISHED. 

A white-guy who for years had considered the expression “All Asians look the same” to be a bit calloused, too superficial, and rather inaccurate (though never quite racist, but damn close), I’ve decided to reveal this all-too-quirky tidbit of human nature to put it all into perspective, to reveal that sensitive-to-such-stuff, left-leaning liberals like myself get it wrong at times!

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The Background: In 1991, I moved from a relatively provincial town in Upstate, NY to a mid-sized Midwestern city, a place where a decent amount of diversity exists (e.g., the largest Somali and Hmong communities outside of those ethnic groups’ homelands), and along with my newfound locale came a bit more open-mindedness, greater exposure to cultural curiosities, and a trifle extra liberal and broadminded thinking than I’d been exposed to in high school.

Upon relocating, I welcomed the opportunities for a peppering of personal growth that was begotten simply by living in a more cosmopolitan location with access to different communities, and, without a doubt, I did, both intentionally and unintentionally, evolve.  

In tutoring ESL (English as a Second Language) in the very early 90s, working with students from Somalia one-on-one, volunteer teaching classes for Latino adults in a community center, I came across more diversity than I’d been accustomed to the years I’d lived in Warwick, NY or even Virginia Beach, VA, where I did 1.5 years of HS (the latter surely had more diversity back then, in comparison to the former–but in the surfer/skateboarding social circle I’d been in, I didn’t really live it).  

Having attended said high school Upstate, one that was unfortunately not diverse in those days (at least the 2.5 years of the requisite amount that transpired there in Warwick), also coming from a relatively small graduating class of some 170 people, of whom perhaps 2% were minorities, I had never had many chances to interact with folks from a variety of racial/ethnic backgrounds.

Truly ’twas was pure vanilla.

However, upon starting up residence in Minneapolis, my heart was opened more, thankfully, as were my eyes, not all at once, since most of us typically evolve slowly.  Yet the geographical change got the ball rolling on being a bit more left-leaning than I had been, theretofore.

I’d like to think that my formative years continued even long after middle/high school because of the learning that took place simply by then inhabiting a more urban setting (no, Minneapolis is no LA, NY or Chicago, yet it does have more ethnic mixing than my ‘home town’, that’s for sure).  

Without a doubt, one way which I had changed over time during my years in the Mini-Apple was in my leaning towards the left, an inclination that was perhaps always there.

Now, years later, I’ve finally realized why, when people used to ask, “How’s it hanging, Mike?” I would respond, “To the left.”  

Funny how that tendency for such a quip then was such a harbinger. 

Thus, through my extended-stay in university, I had been given a chance to develop more so (though, admittedly, never too far left of center).

I’d just needed a little nudge in that direction, I suppose.

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With that being said, with developing a more-liberal-than-not perspective, lifestyle, and mindset, I readily admit, however, that sometimes liberals go a bit too far without first actually thinking, oft jumping to judgments that contain a hint of overkill and intolerance.

Did I just say that?

Indeed, I did.

Should I have?

Indeed, I should’ve.

Have I before?

Nope.  

I didn’t want to stir the bucket, hitherto.  

Times have changed, however, for voicing our thoughts is increasingly more important so that we can all somehow affect change in this all-too-tumultuous current climate of ours–or perhaps to clarify that we need to get a better grip on things.

But a knock against the left… where I’ve long stood?  

Yes, I’m looking in the mirror, so that’s, consequently, a knock against myself, along with anyone else who does this from time to time.  

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Throughout my left-of-center set of experiences since first opening up to such a “way of life” in the early 90s, if you will, after first developing a greater sense of where I stood on issues, I have always tried to see things not just from a left-versus-right viewpoint, but rather to examine each issue that’s been presented in order to have a real feel for what my heart and logic both say, equally, trying to do so before jumping on the bandwagon of a particular stance on a topic.

Too many people do jump to judge, much too quickly–and we need to check ourselves.

The one area that jumps out at me, at least for me personally, however, about my needing a bit more understanding about the greater world (before reacting sensitively) relates to how white liberals here in the USA oft take on a haughtier-than-thou perspective in judging others who may not be as “woke” or as openminded (which is in and of itself a sign of hypocritical narrow-mindedness, isn’t it?).  

To illustrate an example of this quick-to-react haughtiness, I present… well, my former self.

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Though there are other examples of this propensity, one way that the liberally-tolerant-yet-intolerant-in-itself mindset manifests itself is in reacting to the all-too-ubiquitous expression “All Asians look the same.”

Undoubtedly, some 25-plus years ago, I recall hearing someone state such a thing–and then getting my panties in a bunch, promptly.  And that happened more than once in the 90s, I am certain.

“Hey, you can’t say that!  That’s not true!” I would dramatically utter, sure of myself that I was right (though left).  

“But they do,” whoever that ‘less-enlightened’ soul retorted.

I was incredulous that someone could be… well, so narrow, that they, as a White person couldn’t label others so casually!  

So I continued, “Oh, come on!  If you really look at Asians, you can actually detect both large and subtle differences.  Such silly preconceptions about a whole group of people… well, that is really close to being racist behavior!”

Trying to be “deep” in my outlook, I was proud to defend against such wicked generalizations, zealously hoping we white people would be more tolerant of other races, ethnicities, appearances, and nationalities.  

As a white guy, however, quick to (supposedly) discern when people’s judgments were (allegedly) wrong or superficial, I may have been too high on my liberally-minded high horse, folks.

Instead of being full of cultivated thinking, I simply may have been full of it.

How so?  

Now many moons later, I find three aspects of my own former reactions to this “All-Asians-look-the-same” statement to be entirely faulty, and such an example is just one of many to illuminate that (we) liberals sometimes need to check our own egos (and reactions and beliefs) at the door when we are on PC-patrol.  

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So how does this statement NOT imply racism nor intolerance by white people?

For one, other Asians have their own challenges in picking out where another Asian is from; thus, it isn’t solely a “fault” of white people for making such generalizations, nor is it racist by stating it (though I might consider it ignorant, still).  

Two, it isn’t just white people who pass such hasty judgments, for Asians are also doing it in reverse, which may be a new revelation to some in the States.  

And, three, slighty-connected (but somewhat not), it is just dumb to say such a thing.  Asia is such a broad continent that even categorizing Asians as “looking Asian” is full of faultiness, for there are Asians who look entirely different from others–and you’d be a fool to think that they “all” do in the first place.  

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I’m so sorry, but I don’t speak Korean,” incredulously stated my Taiwanese ex-wife repeatedly throughout our one-week ski-vacation stay.  Everywhere we ventured, both in Seoul and out in the countryside, local folks instantly presumed and mistook her for being Korean.

The Koreans we met must have assumed Asians all look… Korean?

I don’t speak Chinese.  I’m Korean-American and I speak English only,” incessantly retorted my Couchsurfing guest as I toured her around Taiwan’s second biggest city for a day trip.  Local Taiwanese couldn’t tell she was not from Taiwan–yet automatically speculated that she was.

The Taiwanese we came across must have assumed Asians all look… Taiwanese?

Sorry, but I do not speak Japanese.  I’m American,” similarly employed my teacher replacement as I brought her around northern Japan for a few days before leaving my English-teaching post there.  Of Korean-decent, herself, she spoke not a lick of Japanese; however, the Japanese we came across in stores, restaurants and the like had no clue, promptly concluding, erroneously so, that she was from there.

The Japanese we encountered must have assumed Asians all look… Japanese?

You get the picture, right?

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What’s most astonishing about these seemingly universal assumptions about another’s identity, nationality, and appearance (and these examples were not the only times I’d come across them during my 13 years of living in East Asia)–is, in hindsight, that those various locals were not acting nor making statements that could be deemed racist, not in and of themselves by any means.

Thus, how could I so hastily call someone out in the USA for being racist if they made such assumptions about Asians, in where someone is from, or in saying they all look the same?

I wouldn’t have even thought those people in those countries were being intolerant of others (though, believe me, nationalism and racism very well exist in those aforementioned places).

Yet, back in the States, why, in my allegedly-liberated thinking, did I become defensive with people who so loosely employed that expression about Asians looking the same? Back then, I somehow felt–as a liberal–that I had the liberty to think those who did say such things were somehow less open-minded, that I was more progressive in my mindset about the world.

In reality, with so many examples of Asians not even being able to differentiate where other Asians are from, how can I claim those Americans who cannot either (or other nationalities who employ the phrase–and others do, for sure) are “wrong” for claiming so? I’ve heard Blacks and Latinos in America also say it.

If a Latino, Black or White person throws it about in conversation, it is oft deemed sooooo wrong, yet what is it when another Asian assumes someone is Japanese, Taiwanese or Korean (yes, those three examples are from my personal experience living in East Asia)?

An honest mistake?

Granted, perhaps the world would benefit from practicing a let-me-get-to-know-you-first-before-I-judge-you approach, but I cannot now scoff at an American (writing from that perspective as a citizen of said country), nor anyone else*, with the same incredulousness as I once did in my ostensibly forward-thinking stance.

*Sidenote: While living in Germany, I’d heard the expression uttered a few times, as I did while living in Costa Rica and traveling extensively in Central America.

The upshot? Maybe the usage of this statement should be modified, perhaps my stating, “I have a hard time determining where some Asians are from,” instead of the generalization that it immediately conveys. Moreover, and more importantly, my liberal brethren who might get offended by it need to step back a bit.

Because of my aforementioned experiences in seeing, firsthand, the confusions Asians can display* regarding their own discernments of others’ origins, I’m stepping down from my high horse on this topic.

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*Sidenote: Now, although I don’t want this blog to digress much, it is important to highlight that in personal discussions with Taiwanese or Japanese friends, colleagues, and students (especially adult students I had private tutoring), it is CLEAR to me that “Asians” can certainly categorize, judge, and express prejudice against other Asians. For example, some 40-something students told me that when they see Japanese tourists in Taiwan, they’ll say, “Japanese,” and the same with “Koreans”, but other Asians, like those from Laos or Pakistan are called “Foreigners”. Or that any Caucasian in Taiwan is assumed to be “American”, but a Black person is just called “hēi rén” (or black person).

The list could go on.

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The second faultiness of my own erstwhile panties-in-a-bunch “liberated” reactions was that, while living in Japan and Taiwan, denizens of said places often said to me, oft jokingly, “White people all look the same!”

The first few times I’d heard this, my panties tightened up, admittedly.

Hence, I would jump at the chance to debate with those folks that if you stop and take a look to absorb the characteristics of individual (White) people, that you might be able to distinguish everyone’s differences, citing long faces versus more rounded ones, nose shapes, eye placement, hair texture, etc., using those same differentiation techniques to also add that that’s what I was always trying to do with my students and friends there, for, in fact, each and every person has traits that set you apart from the crowd.

Yet they would then expand the concept that drove their saying that all White people look the same to state that it was hard (or impossible) to tell different nationalities apart.

“If I see a Caucasian here, I cannot tell if they are French, Canadian, Spanish, or American,” I had heard a number of times.

However, over a total of 13 years, I started to feel that my

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Masks Were an Issue Years Before Covid

Social media, news agencies, TV talk shows, and outside the front door of establishments… you name it. No matter where you look these days, mid-summer 2020, there’s ongoing coverage, intense lamentations, or incessant criticisms about… masks.

And there’s no doubt about it, it is a hotly-debated, hugely-divisive issue–one with NO perfectly right answer.

To wear or not to wear… and you know the rest of that banal phrase, folks.

Been there, done that, folks. Years before it became an controversy in the USA, I was struggling with the topic in Taiwan.

Welcome to my formerly maskless-amidst-a-masked world, folks, at least my world from 2004-2010 and 2011-2017 while living in Taiwan.

You see, the mask issue was such a regularly debated topic then that in my former marriage there, it was actually one slice in the overall pie of our demise. Granted, it wasn’t the sole issue by any means that led to our demise, yet it was something that we simply could not agree on, amongst other larger, oft-culturally-rooted issues.

Now, years later, nobody in the USA during this Rona era (nor in many other areas of the world, I assume) can agree on their usage or not.

However, admittedly, in great ol’ America, the sides of the issue are caustically more divergent than elsewhere it seems–to the point where it is causing FB arguments, in-the-midst-of-shopping physical confrontations, and even in someone being murdered (e.g., the story of the store associate recently being shot a few weeks back because he asked a patron to don a mask to shop).

The media, moreover, depending on the political slant of any given outlet, has both supported mask methods of protection and heckled it. No matter whom you turn to, the answers about the efficacy of using one differ greatly.

Just as one person posts a favorable research story about the benefits of mask wearing, another chimes in with a grossly opposite take on their efficacy.

We’ve all seen those images, right? Neon-on-black displays of how far a cough or sneeze carries droplets into the air serve as a shocking warning about the transmission of Covid-19. Yet just when you think the science is right, someone else adds an equally powerful illustration of explosive particles forcefully emitted from the edges and top portions of masks–to prove that they aren’t actually doing anything.

Or are they?

To continue the confusion, a doctor on CNN will wholeheartedly promote prevention via masks, yet an equally-trained medical practitioner on Fox will dismiss their benefit, simultaneously.

Huh? How’s that possible?

Nobody concurs with ease. Well, let’s say that another way: Anti-maskers concur that they don’t need them, and just as readily, those who wear them do.

And that’s exactly what happened in my marriage.

How so?

Well, when, as an expat, you marry a Taiwanese (or by extension, to some degree or another, someone from Korea or Japan, etc.) in his or her home country, you may soon discover that your spouse employs masks as a preventive measure–perhaps even at the drop of a hat–at the first signs of a common cold.

Naturally, one cannot generalize such habits to mean all Asians do, for that’s not accurate, yet in my experience living in Taiwan and Japan for 13 total years, traveling extensively during those years around the continent, it is a common tendency that a majority of people partake in (more so in East Asia).

For an outsider, accepting cultural practices of the host nation takes some amount of flexibility and open-mindedness, such as understanding that the loud slurping of noodles in Japan is the norm–as is the collective cacophony of such sounds in a crowded ramen shop, not offensive at all like my gut told me the first few weeks I was there. I had to get used to and accept things like that as culture.

But when it came to mask wearing, this American just didn’t budge.

Indeed, it caused strife in my relationship.

At first, while dating my future wife, it wasn’t a terribly debilitating conflict (and I’m not sure it ever got to that excessive point in and of itself), for it was more on the level of which way is the best way to hang toilet paper.

[From the side facing you, not the wall side, of course!]

Even though it was a small-ish disagreement for this first few years, I did find it odd that my then girlfriend would show up occasionally on a date or at my apartment with one on.

“Egad! What’s wrong?” I’d immediately ask, concerned as hell because back in the States, we simply didn’t use them.

“Just have the sniffles, Babe.”

Why are you wearing a surgical mask?”

“I don’t want to get anyone sick or get more sick myself.”

“Oh. Um. Er. Okay,” I oft stammered, not wanting to criticize societal nor personal cultural choices.

However, no matter how much we discussed it, we never came to an agreement.

Then we got married.

Just as she left the toilet lid up and I closed it, she wore a mask–and I, well, I knew that I was right.

Just kidding!

She was right in her beliefs–and I was right in mine.

To me, wearing a mask to defend against or protect others from basic germage (yes, that’s a made up word) was way over-the-top.

I should have known, for it appears to most outsiders that the-sky-is-falling antics in societal behavior are the norm there in Taiwan.

Simply put, I just lived with her mask-donning habit (even if I would periodically sneer at Taiwanese in the streets or on the subway, or even my students, when they wore one out walking around parks or to class).

Yet then we had children, and that’s when the concept became even more startlingly disruptive and increasingly alienating.

For me, kids need to be exposed to common germs and sicknesses because they build up their immunity that way. At least that’s what I’d long heard from whatever sources of info I’d grown up with. Without that natural self-defense, which comes from repetitive exposure at a young age, you’ll live with a poor immune system–at least that was the mindset I’d long had, having forever heard stories about how farm kids or kids that grow up with pets often have stronger systems.

I steadfastly didn’t want my two children, born in 2009 and 2012, to become routinely sickly kids because they were to be sheltered so much or always “protected” by masks.

On the other hand, my ex-wife and her parents were adamant about them, just as they were insistent in their various other health-related cultural patterns.

As a father, for example, I preferred to keep the air flowing in our master bedroom when Isabella was sleeping in her crib, mid-summer, keeping the air circulating so she didn’t get too uncomfortable.

However, my ex-mother-in-law demanded we didn’t use a fan because of the belief that air currents across an infant’s head were somehow harmful (some ancient spiritual concept, apparently, without currently dabbling in research to remind myself of what it all actually meant to them then).

And just as my ex and her mother always laid a heavy blanket across our kids’ bellies while they were sleeping in their bassinets, because “air should not pass the navel” (’twas bad for the body, according to culture), I didn’t like the fact that my children were always sweating profusely under their stifling thickness (both in the blankets’ design and that of my ex’s mindset).

With such issues always under the surface, deep-seated ones based on systemic societal understandings about life, challenges and disagreements sometimes arose.

And through those years, masks (and other health-related issues) remained the topic that pushed us to the brink of unhappiness regularly.

“Isabella has a cough. Don’t let her outside. And if you do, ensure she wears a mask,” the ex would insist.

“I think she’s fine. It’s merely a cough. I won’t bring a mask if we go for a walk in the park,” I oft replied.

Imploringly, she’d say at other times, “Derek sniffled twice last night. Make sure he wears a mask if you take him to the grocery store.”

“Really? Why? I don’t think a sniffle is dangerous.”

“Just do it.”

“Why?”

“Because it is safe.”

“Getting a cold won’t kill them. It will make them stronger.”

On and on we went in circles. Neither of us was right, even if I was. Neither of us was wrong, even if she was.

Just kidding!

Truly, it all boiled down to perspective (and perhaps ancient Chinese secrets).

Yet, I still felt that kids needed to be exposed to germs to better prepare them for future health obstacles, building of their systems to ward off harmful sicknesses, giving them a foundation of strength.

(I still feel that way about it all these years later.)

Well, the upshot of all that is that vast differences in opinion brought the relationship to an end completely in 2013. Masks were not the only issue, but discomfort existed each time they were brought up–which in Taiwan meant a’plenty!

Sadly, however, that wasn’t the end of the mask debacle we’d long engaged in, starting back in 2005, for even after we’d separated and divorced, the topic reared its all-too-ugly head.

During the bitter-beyond-belief 3.5-year custody battle, in fact, it came up a number of times.

WTF?

Knowing all too well what my reaction would be, my ex-wife a few times sent me an email the night before picking up my children on my Sat-Sun weekends with the kids, stating, “The kids are sick. Make sure you have them wear masks.”

I’d pick up the kids at 8am the next morning to discover them both mimicking ER doctors.

Yet walking to a taxi or rental car down the block, I’d ask them, “How do you guys feel?”, to which they’d sometimes reply, “Fine, Baba.”

“Hmmm…”

Or they might respond, “I was sick a few days ago,” or “I had a cough this week,” or something like that, with them VERY rarely actually exhibiting true sickness.

Inevitably, I would later say, “Okay guys, if you’re not truly sick, it’s okay to not wear your masks”–or I’d even tell them it wasn’t necessary to wear a mask, ever, for the aforementioned reasons.

Even recently (as of writing this in July, 2020), I’d seen a video I’d taken of the kiddos in 2016 when I’d brought Derek to a hospital to see a doctor, and in that recording in the waiting room, the three of us chatted about masks, with my pointing out that about half of the families and kids there weren’t wearing any.

It was all an intentional trap the ex was laying–and my gut had told me that from the get go.

Lo and behold, in court documents, the ex claimed that I wasn’t a good father and that I did “not care about the health of our children because he doesn’t require them to wear a mask“.

She falsely claimed that, as a westerner, I didn’t know the proper way to keep my kids safe: by using a mask.

For most people, their jaws would have dropped when hearing that, but I knew exactly what she was doing. Playing the cultural card was surely a tactic that they knew well, with masks ostensibly being an issue–for it would potentially strike the chords of sympathy in a Taiwanese judge’s mind.

Thus, when the employment of masks in the USA became a debate earlier this year, I rolled my eyes, thinking, “Here we go.”

Knowing first-hand that there’s a vast spectrum of emotions, beliefs and cultural practices at play when it comes to such a practice, I have mostly stood aside to view what’s going on in the States (and elsewhere), observing the same at-times-acerbic divisiveness and ambiguous confusion that accompanies their usage.

Was my ex, her family, and many members of Taiwan (and Japan–and east Asia in general) wrong? Was I?

There is no correct answer, truly. That’s why this is such a fiasco.

All I do know is this: There’s no perfect panacea nor steadfastly-accurate answer to any of this. However, I also know this because of my 13 years in Asia: the debate about this is NOT about politics, and never should have become so, nor is it about “rights” (so greatly purported in the USA to somehow be constitutional). Nowhere around the world are people lamenting the loss of their “rights” because governments are asking or requiring the population to take steps to ensure less infections (or at least to try, feebly or not). In most places around the globe, this isn’t an issue of “rights”. Nor is it tyranny (defined as… the abuse of power by a tyrant or absolute power) because such measures are intended to protect our health and the health of others, to slow the spread and flatten the curve (whereas a tyrannical act would be done so out of a need or desire to unfairly control the populace). Again, you won’t see much, if any, argument in other nations that mask measures are tyrannical. You’d truly be hard pressed to find government officials truly thinking, “I will demand their usage as a manner of suppressing the people and destroying their rights.” On the other hand, you’d easily identify politicians and staff scrambling to find some solution for the betterment of all (even if it is NOT the perfect solution).

Yes, in Taiwan for all those years, I didn’t opt to wear a mask (nor was it required), and, moreover, personal perspective and my belief system about kids needing to be exposed to germs and common colds never came to any acceptable agreement with my ex. But I certainly didn’t assert that people who used them there were sheep (I just teased them for not thinking outside the box), nor did I proclaim that the society was abusing my freedoms (it never got to the point of what it is here, not just in terms of health itself but also because the mindset of citizens there are certainly not shaped based on whatever cultural privileges Americans claim because of our alleged God-given or constitutional rights).

Now, ironically, I do wear a mask, not because I am a sheep. I do so because I am on immunosuppressive treatment. I do so because I realize that if I ever get exposed to C-19, I can transfer it to others even if I don’t have symptoms–and why would I potentially endanger others who might be more susceptible? I can protect others who are more vulnerable (as well as myself) by donning one, which takes all of a few seconds to do.

I promise to do my best for the betterment of all until we know more about this, until a vaccine is developed. That’s the least I can do. I’m getting used to it, even.

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One Journey, Two…

After their roughly three-hour languid, serpentine journey along the rugged East Coast of Taiwan, having unhurriedly traveled in a northward direction on a decked-out-in-neon-colors motor coach, 20-odd students disembarked in a variety of ways: some sprinted out energetically, relishing the relative-to-the-cities fresh air, entirely well-rested; others, lethargically, yawning and more weary-eyed.  Quite a few, moreover, were squinting, mumbling, annoyed at Mother Nature’s welcoming brightness (or not so welcomed when you’ve just woken or come from the interior of an intentionally-darkened bus).

As is often the case on long-haul Taiwanese tour buses, the majority of the youthful riders had pulled their thick curtains closed so that their fellow passengers could sleep more readily (or to increase the ease of viewing their all-too-active gaming devices). Keeping the interior rather dark was a benefit, too, in helping reduce the inside temps, keeping the oft-overpowering sunlight from entering easily.

Taiwan Tour Bus

To partake in a temporary stop at a restaurant–to both appease empty, always-eager-to-eat teen tummies and, for some, to be able to finally relieve their bladders–gave their 8th grade volleyball coach a chance to chat with his players, some of whom were also his students.

“Charlie, how are you doing, Buddy? How’s the ride been so far?”

Eager and energetically, the academically gifted middle schooler replied, “Well, Mr B, I’ve got to tell you… I’ve loved it!  I’ve never seen such fantastic scenery before in my life!  I’m so grateful I’d selected to sit in the front seat nearest the door.”

“That’s wonderful to hear, Charlie!”

“No doubt it’s been well-worth the time it has taken so far, Sir.  Living in the city, I never get a chance to see the coast, and I’ve never been on this side of the island.  When I take the high-speed rail on the western corridor, with my parents to Taipei, there’s not much to see because it is so flat and much farther from the ocean.”

“Good point, Charlie.  What have you noticed that you’ve enjoyed on the trip until now?”

Without blinking, the amiable kid continued, “Well, as I looked out my window, only periodically because I didn’t want to pull back my curtain too far, knowing I’d piss off those who were trying to rest if I did, some amazing seascapes flashed by.  There were times, if we were on a longer section of the road hugging the cliffs, veering more to the left, I could see peninsulas jutting out off to the northeast, I think. They were extending out as if they were fingers tickling the underarm curves of the Pacific, slanting off gradually into the distance as they become further surrounded by the vastness of the ocean.  The whole time I was thankful I live in this country!”

“Being your teacher, Buddy, I love hearing your vivid descriptions!  What else has been pleasant about the journey?”

After pondering a trifle more, the cheerful Team Captain nimbly explained, “There were a few breathtaking spots when we navigated rounded, stretched-out contours in the coast, where I caught a glimpse of flat-faced cliffs rising proudly from the choppy coastal waters.  They rose majestically and stood at attention without flinching from the perpetual pummeling of the pounding sea–haughtily facing the horizon, never diverting their gaze, in a fashion that reminded me of those British soldiers outside some famous palace in England which I’d gone to last summer.”

“Go on, Charlie.”

“Sea birds soared languidly off to the right of our bus at times, too, which was truly marvelous to see.  How I wish I could do what they do, gracefully charming the upward drafts with their peaceful presence.”

“Also, Mr B, I was totally impressed with and in awe every time the bus wheels straddled the edge of the precipice just off the right shoulder, giving me a fleeting chance to peer down at the sparking azure waters hugging the shoreline, tossed and turned as the waves hit splintered rock formations jutting up from whatever depths, somersaulting and pirouetting in frothy, foamy chaos. It was spellbinding.”

The kid had a way with words.

“You see, Coach, until this point in my rather uneventful life, I have only known the ocean to be dark, for that’s all I really ever see from the harbor near Kaohsiung city, but here it is so much more appealing, mesmerizing even.  At various points, it mimics the Caribbean, at least from pictures I’ve seen on the Internet.”

“I suppose you’re right, eh?  Everything you’ve explained makes me so happy, Chuckster.  I’m glad your trip up has been so refreshingly awe-inspiring.   Try to get some rest for this afternoon’s tourney, okay? We’ve still got about an hour after the lunch break is over to reach the host school in Hualien City.”

Making his rounds, asking how the meals were, ensuring his players all had gotten to the John, Coach stopped at another table and plopped down near a rather sullen student sitting expressionless.

A trifle concerned, he routinely inquired, “How’s the trip been so far for you, Terry?”

Although another scholarly student, with practically a full-forced guffaw, the player blurted out, “Borrrring, Mr B.”

“Really?  Why do you say?”

“Dunno.  I guess it’s cause I finished the one book that my mom wanted me to complete this weekend, and I bombed at my one game app she allows me to have on my phone.  My parents only let me have one at a time.  But it’s for super little kids anyway, and I’m freakin’ bored with it.”

“Well, Terry, did you witness anything on the way that’s worth mentioning?”

See anything?  Are you serious, Coach?  I looked out the window a few times, but all I saw was a massive grey rock wall flying by!  This trip is so stupid.  I’d rather sit at home doing nothing than being trapped in a bus doing the same.”

“Wow.  That’s not what Charlie was just telling me.  Hold on.”

Gesturing to the Team Captain across the way, Mr B shouted, “Charlie, come on over here!”

Moments later, he continued, “Charles, tell Terry what you told me a few minutes ago.”

“You mean about how I just loved all the perpetually passing, jaw-dropping scenery?”

Reassuringly, the teacher replied, “That’s right, Buddy, about the…”

What the…!?!” shockingly spurted out Terry.  “It’s so freakin’ ugly!  All I see are craggily cliffs going up over my left shoulder, way higher than the top of the window allows me to see.  I’ve not even gotten a glimpse of the ocean yet!  It’s been hours of repetitive boredom!”

“Dude, that’s nonsense!” interjected the Captain.  “This trip has been phenomenal so far.  I can’t wait to tell my parents how pretty the East Coast is.  The route is full of pulchritude, no doubt.  I love it here!”

“Bro, you’re a whacko! exclaimed Terry.  I hate this trip!  I’m so freakin’ tired of the same view out my window.  This bus ride sucks.  We should have flown to Hualien instead, Mr B.  I cannot wait to get to the tournament site.  Why didn’t you tell me the views were going to be so monotonous?”

He continued, “Charlie, you’re lying!  You’re just kissing ass!”

Charlie couldn’t believe what he was hearing, so he tried one more time.  

“Terry, haven’t you seen the sea birds soaring lackadaisically overhead?  Or the awesome grandeur of the towering distant coast seemingly extending off to the horizons?  Or how the cerulean waters closest to the seashore jostle incessantly with the deeper blues?”  

“Dude, I’ve seen plain rocks and an occasional passing car barely squeezing by this behemoth of a bus.  That’s it! And when I look up to the front of the bus, all I see is the partition behind the driver’s seat and row upon row of the titled heads of our teammates.  For three hours, I’ve been compelled to twiddled my thumbs!  I’d rather watch grass grow than be on this trip!”

As Mr B sat in between Terry and Charlie, feeling like a tennis ball in the midst of an extended volley, he pondered how his players didn’t get it, in how what they’d witnessed varied so vastly–yet their own points of view were still quite accurate.  They seemed so energetically firm in their respective beliefs that they were both right, so much so that they couldn’t understand how each was actually telling the truth of what they’d born witness to and how it affected them equally.

There was really no argument because each was, individually, right.

The same bus journey, the same amount of time spent, yet upon arriving to the hotel later that night–after the first round of the Taiwanese international school volleyball tournament, Terry bemoaned to his parents on the phone that the ride was an absolute waste of time, that the views were dull, that he hated everything about it.   On the other hand, Charlie euphorically praised the scenery he’d witnessed earlier that day, celebrating how he was utterly infatuated with the images that would remain indelibly in his life-lasting memories of the trip.

We all walk this journey together, folks.  

However, it is time to really consider how we might be viewing things differently along the way.  

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Picketing Teachers and the Middle Finger to Boot

This past chronological year, since returning to the USA after years abroad, has seen plenty of firsts for this K-12 certified teacher.

For the first time, I’ve joined a union.

For the first time, I’ve unified with my teaching brethren to go on strike in order to fight, collectively, for better schools.

For the first time, I’ve stood on a picket line.

And for the first time as an educator, I have witnessed a fully unexpected, blatant ugliness directed at me and my fellow teachers (though, admittedly, a few recalcitrant students over a 20-year career, teaching adults and children, still stand out as having provoked similar surprise).

Indeed, this is all a disappointing, eye-opening revelation, which just happened this past week while hesitantly standing on a picket line.

Though it wasn’t the first time I’d ever received the middle finger, it was, indeed, the first that resulted from merely being a teacher and fighting for our rights.

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Going on strike is a curious, conflict-inducing experience, yet up until recently, I’d never known that, for this is the first time that I’ve been part of a union.  Although I’ve dealt with a plethora of paradoxical emotions these past few weeks (both with a strike pending and through the strike itself), I still stood on the side of the need to exercise our collective voices to improve the conditions in our schools.

Standing up for the betterment of our educational institutions seems like the right thing to do, so why on earth was I the recipient of not only one middle finger but also two enthusiastic thumbs down, and an intentionally melodramatic head shaking.  Such actions transpired as I observed passing cars from the corner near our school which I’d chosen to stand on three days in a row this past week.

A bit introverted, I’d opted to not walk the line with my colleagues who were strolling back and forth the length of the whole block, instead opting to stand in a somewhat obvious spot for the approaching traffic on a busy roadway to see me, somehow deriving a sense of “I’m-the-advanced-guard” pride being the first to advertise our metaphorical unified voices by doing so.

I was merely holding up (and periodically waving) a sign emblazoned with an emphatic call to support school improvement, yet a few passersby took it upon themselves to openly show their antagonistic criticism.  

Naturally, each had a right to express their own point of view, but does my hope for mobilization and support merit such negativity?

Such a moment, being on the receiving end of their blatant distaste for our efforts–and engaging in the entire process itself, created a certain sense of anxiety and uncertainty (in all of us present), which caused enough internal questioning that our union reps and school’s strike manager felt the need to provide pep talks, to reassure us that our efforts wouldn’t go unnoticed.

In both a positive way and an unfavorable way, our endeavors did not go unrecognized.

Hand gestures of such a degree proved that.

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To rewind a moment, I admit that when union representative-led contract talks with the district big wigs failed this past Monday, I was personally torn.

For one, I had hoped that those involved could’ve worked it all out at the bargaining table, so when it didn’t, there was an immediate feeling of being let down–that they weren’t successful in doing what we truly needed: reaching a fair deal for all involved.

Secondly, I instantly had felt some frustration about the team going to such an extreme measure, i.e., reaching the severe stage of actually calling the strike, one that would adversely affect students and their families in a plethora of untold ways.

Thirdly, I was a bit torn about some of the 31 proposals that had been labeled as necessary to achieve, thinking, myself, that there were other priorities that our bargaining unit should’ve been aiming to work for instead (or in addition to).

Though I’d felt empowered by having such a team go to bat for us (for without them, the district power players would wield too much influence), I ambivalently felt powerless in addressing issues which were more poignantly important to me.

In addition to the aforementioned worries, other smaller conflicts and confusions surfaced, creating an even greater sense of doubt and uneasiness.

I don’t think I was the only one to endure such a paradigm shift and set of emotions.

Yet because of my professional background, heretofore, the learning curve to get through this strike was maybe on a different plane than my coworkers.

Having worked at four private American schools abroad (in additional to once teaching English in Japanese schools and having taught in adult basic education ESL programs for a few years in a number of locales), such issues were never on the forefront of my thoughts because neither districts nor unions exist in those education-oriented domains.

This was all new to me.

However, even though I had my doubts about jumping full-throttle into the realm of a unionized teaching position, and having had some worries later that so much power had been invested in such a small group of union reps who were mediating for so many, I decided that it was still best to get behind my educator brethren, for without that collective power, we would otherwise be ineffective.

The upshot, however, of any effort the union was coordinating and the hopeful aftereffect of getting past all the daunting obstacles that the reps were attempting to surmount on our behalf (and for our students) is that improving the quality of education and the schooling environments for our learners is key, whether or not that comes in the form of more mental health professionals in our schools, increased paraprofessional and support staff, or a greater breadth of bilingual educational assistants to help our multi-lingual students.

The list goes on.

And though the list of 31 proposals gives detailed insight into what they are, suffice it to say that there was reason to strike.

If you spent a week in the hallways and classrooms of our schools, walking in our shoes, you may come to understand that.

Yet the focal point of the actions and changes we were hoping to advance, in a nutshell, is improved educational opportunities for our scholars.

So, point blank… Who wouldn’t want that?

Which begs the question: Why would that warrant an unabashed middle finger and skeptical thumbs down?

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Without a doubt, when it comes to all that a strike entails, plenty of unknowns lie beyond the grasp of plenty of people–at least to the uniformed who are not involved intimately in what’s happening in our schools (those who aren’t in the trenches with us teachers and staff, such as the occasional uniformed-yet-apparently-all-knowing-and-highly-opinionated parent or taxpayer–or perhaps even district and government policy makers).

The intricacies of it all could take pages upon pages to highlight, yet that’s not the point of this blog entry; however, realizing that the average person has no clue about why teachers might be striking, who and what is involved, why we felt the need to unionize, etc., is important to see why what happened to me on the picketing line is so wrong on so many levels.

We teachers, collectively, are only hoping to highlight the changes necessary to improve what’s happening behind the school walls, hoping to effect change to positively impact our learners, and hoping to have our voices heard at a time when it seems others may not be listening (or when budgets and funding appear to be the most important aspect in the decision-making process).

We stood together yet were, ourselves, confused and uncertain, cast in a situation that should NEVER prompt passersby to shallowly flip us off.   Instead, why not come and engage with us in order to learn, to have dialogue?

All I can hope for is that the other folks who exhibited their feelings so vocally, the countless passersby who honked heartily those three mornings, displaying thumbs up and various other positive visual accolades, will be the memory that stays with me for years to come now that the strike is done.

Long will I recall, moreover, the handful of parents who pulled up to drop off Dunkin Donuts and Caribou coffee containers, local bakery products, canisters of gorp and boxes of granola bars.  Forever will I remember, too, the university professors who brought their children to walk the line with us, teaching them the power of a collective unity.

With hope, I will now leave the demonstrated negativity of those select few motorists behind me as I move on from this challenging event, hoping that we never get to that point again.

Our students deserve that.

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Blog About Strike

My E-mail to the Powers That Be

 

 

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A Letter to My Teenage Self, Now at 50

At 50, as a teacher with plenty of life experiences under my belt, I’m now writing this letter to my former self, the oft-angst-ridden, troubled teen who barely graduated in 1987 (due in part to being a trifle troubled, having moved out at 17), the one who didn’t realize at the time why I’d then and eventually made the right choices to carry on in life instead of giving in to those struggling-with-my-identity thoughts which periodically brought me, aged 15-18, to the edge–to want to give up on life, completely.

How wonderful it is that I didn’t!

Appreciative I am of that resolve then (even though I didn’t understand my own resilience at that time).  That still-developing characteristic allowed me, not to necessarily prosper, but rather to to continue on, to survive, to live.

And I made it!

Oh the things I would have missed over these past 50 total years, hitherto, if I’d listened to those somewhat persistent demons then, to my negative essence.  Thirty-plus years removed from that hopeless teenager, I am so thankful I didn’t give up then, for good reason!

For countless reasons.

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To My Dear (roughly-from-1984-to-1987-version of me) Michael,

I know you’ve been struggling lately–and over these last few years of high school, yet please know, Buddy, that you’re not alone in those thoughts, that you’re not the only one who has battles and burdens to bear.  All teens do at some point or another, with each of us at that age experiencing such challenges for varying lengths of time (some for years, some on occasion).

Ask around.

Without a doubt, you’re not the only one.

Truly grasping that knowledge, at least, should allow you some reprieve, for all teens are challenged from time to time with one’s identity, perplexed by not knowing where we are in life, why we are here, how we fit in.  That doubt and confusion includes fitting in in the overall schema of society, of course, yet more specifically leads one to be periodically baffled by where and how we belong in our family structure, in school, in social circles, etc.

Forget everyone else and how we feel about being with them, for even spending time alone, as a minor or at times as an adult, can be a challenge.

Undoubtedly, such a phase in life can be a mystery for many, one that casts even the hardiest of souls into a state of doubt and foggy disenchantment from time to time.

That’s why I am writing you now, my former self.

How can I help you, Michael, to understand that, regardless of the burden that life at times presents, life in the long run is a glorious collection of both highs and lows?  It is a rollercoaster that provides exhilaratingly positive experiences, moments that prompt one to offer glorious praise to the heavens above–just as much as it may plunge you into seemingly inescapable doldrums, lows which may appear to be the end of everything.

However, PLEASE KNOW THOSE EMOTIONAL DOWNTURNS WILL NOT CONTROL YOUR WHOLE LIFE–especially if you realize that simple fact now, for it is now that will set the tone of your life, your future self, and will help to establish valuable tools and a persevering mindset to deal with the temporary dips when they do happen.

They will.

However, if you fight to find beauty and positives in life now, you will survive, so make it a routine.  Use those positives as an incentive to discover more.

Moreover, if you learn resilience now–as a teen, you’ll know that there is nothing (within reason) that can keep you down in life forever (unless you let it), so make it a routine to bounce back.

If you also discover, perhaps most importantly, that LIFE WILL NEVER EVER ENTAIL ENTIRELY SMOOTH SAILING, you’ll see that you cannot expect perfection in how it all proceeds, for at times, all unravels instead.  And when it does, make every effort to climb back up the proverbial ladder towards your goals, to find beauty again, aiming to find a worthwhile cause and to establish ongoing behaviors and habits that bring you peace more often than not.

It is a proven guarantee that you will find some semblance of a smooth road in life to travel if you’re (and I know you are) strong enough to not let a few speed bumps throw you off that course.  Consider that those speed bumps–and countless potholes–will periodically slow you down along the entire route you choose to travel–and ACCEPT THEM AS A PART OF LIFE.

If you learn that challenge is a simple fact of your existence (of everyone’s) and that your future will bring such obstacles occasionally, you’ll be better off than listening to those who say such foolishly quixotic things as “Life is beautiful at all times”.   If you approach life with the high expectations that all that awaits contains perfection, you’ll be freaked out when blemishes arise.

That advice, from my 50-year-old self to my teen-self, isn’t pessimistic nor optimistic, I now wholeheartedly believe.

It’s realistic.

No doubt, however, Kiddo, that you’ve felt suicide is the answer, that it is the only way out.  But at 50, Buddy, you’ve learned from a whole slew of rewarding, breathtaking, soul-saving experiences over the course of life that you’ll be better off holding on to hope regardless of the issues that you face.

Will the path be perfect?

HELL NO!

Will the journey be flawless?

HELL NO!

Will the route ahead lead you to consistent joys, ongoing pleasure, and cloudless skies?

GUARANTEED NOT, I ASSURE YOU.

But is it worth it, Michael?

IN-FUCKING-DEED.

Why… you incredulously ask?  How so?

It is this simple: Because if you accept now, at age 14 or 15 or 20… or, well, whatever age that realization finally dawns on you (even later)–that life is NOT ONLY full of immeasurable pulchritude, lovely experiences, and countless opportunities BUT ALSO ugliness, errors and folly, then you will come to appreciate the impediments that come your way as opportunities for growth, instead of being utterly daunted by them, instead of wanting to give in to voices that tell you to end it all.

You will CERTAINLY come to understand THAT LIFE IS WORTH IT, (because you’ve made it to 50 at this point I can now tell you), even if it doesn’t now create the impression during your moments of consistent-more-than-not teenage angst.  That angst will come to an end via natural processes of development, though it won’t be automatic nor easy.  

Just give it time.  You’ll see.

Moreover, continuing with and choosing life will be WORTH IT because of all the experiences you’ll one day have, I promise, a collection of one-offs and ongoing joys that collectively have been amazing.

As I’ve stated, I would have missed out on so much if I had given up, yet an entire autobiography would be necessary here to truly explain why the road of life has been wonderful.  Suffice it to say, however, that if you don’t encourage yourself now and instead opt to take your own life, you’ll miss magical moments such as these:

  • Proving to yourself and others that even if high school saw some struggles, you’ll one day obtain a Master in Education.
  • Overcoming a fairly provincial upbringing in a small town in upstate NY, you’ll see 62 counties and counting by the time you’re 50.  Such travels have had immeasurable benefits.
  • Being able to volunteer over the years in such altruistic programs as YMCA’s Big Brothers, an Adopt-a-Grandparent program, or for Meals On Wheels (serving T-Day meals to those in need)–all well worth the time and energy.
  • Pursuing such passions as hobbies, such as photography and writing for a bilingual magazine at one point.  Giving yourself time to develop, with goals in store, too.
  • Meeting people from all over the world by teaching English to adults in a few programs in MN and CO (some paid, some not) and making some international friends who’ve stayed in periodic touch over 20-plus years via a job in CA.
  • Seeing family and how they develop, progress, thrive and flourish, including being able to see your nephew who is turning out to be a great young adult–and even though family is smaller and smaller, such knowledge of those others, based on simply living life and occasional visits, is satisfying.  Being “Uncle Monkey” and “Little Bro” have been rewarding experiences, indeed.
  • Developing friendships from time to time that lasted years.  Though I’ve long known and agreed with the line at the end of Stand by Me, an 80’s coming of age movie, which stated, “Friends come and go like busboys in a restaurant,” such relations are key to good living.
  • Falling in love, walking on beaches in faraway lands with a loved one, learning the ins-and-outs of compromise and communication, and all that such relationships entail, the good and the bad.
  • Bringing two amazingly adorable children into the world, even with the complexities of what falling out of love brought upon you.  Seeing one’s children develop because of your own input and efforts is an unparalleled satisfaction in life–regardless of missing them completely due to what’s transpired–things beyond my control.

And that list could go on and on, I assure you, regardless of the obstacles that sometimes thrust themselves up into the path ahead of you, Buddy.  Yes, there will be loss.  Health issues will inevitably arise.  Some days will push you to the limit of energy and spirit.  Yet in the end, the end which comes from a natural progression in seeing life through to its absolute fullest extent chronologically speaking, YOU WILL COME TO APPRECIATE IT.

At 50, I can assure you of that, so do NOT give up now.  Get out of your teenage years.  Give that a try.  And go from there, full-throttle, into an adult life whose path will be varied, gorgeous, rewarding and fulfilling (EVEN WHEN IT ISN’T).

You can do it, my former self.

You will.

Guaranteed.

Michael at 50

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Celebrating Diversity Is Potentially Pointless

In the spring of 2019, I, a middle-aged man, drove to a mid-sized America city, awaiting with a certain degree of excitement the job prospects that were seemingly panning out, and as I  left the vestiges of rural life behind in the rearview mirror, having rapidly passed through suburbia on a major highway, I noticed a dark-skinned woman in a hijab driving a minivan along side me, and I thought…

“Cool. Diversity abounds.”

Having been in Taiwan for so many years beforehand, I was accustomed to being, myself, the two-percent minority population, floating amidst a sea of predominantly Taiwanese appearances, in a relatively homogenized culture, etc.

Thus, upon my approach into the city, I was prone to noticing ethnicities and racial differences (I was even startled by seeing so many blonde people–having for years at least “blended in” somewhat in East Asia with my black hair for 13 years).

Instantly, I found myself celebrating that a bit of diversity awaited me (if said locale was going to be my new home); however, ’twas an ephemeral celebration, for just as quickly, I pondered something that has stuck with me these last nine months:

“Diversity is NOTHING unless there is reciprocated interaction and intentional intermingling.  And if there isn’t, then celebrating diversity is a pointless, superficial concept.”

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Human nature is one quirky beast.

Truly.

For multitudes of reasons, that realization sweeps over me quite regularly nowadays–having repatriated a year ago to the USA for the first time in 15 years.

To return from overseas, naturally, should, by default, prompt both plenty of introspection (in how I’ve changed, in what I’d learned while gone, etc.) and a great deal of “extrospection,” with viewing all externally that’s frenetically happening in America from a different lens than what I’d employed back in 2004.

Of course, so much has changed on a number of levels, yet one aspect of living in an urban landscape that’s stood out routinely for me–in being different than my overseas experiences–is that so many neighborhoods here are now dotted with signage celebrating diversity.

They’re everywhere these signs:Screen Shot 2020-01-18 at 10.48.18

“Diversity is celebrated.”

“All are welcome here.”

“Black lives matter.”

“Hate has no home here.”

“We welcome immigrants.”

In all my years overseas, I’ve not witnessed such lofty, ideal, utopian claims.

In Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia, for example, with some 40-plus percent of the city being of Chinese heritage and roughly the same amount being Malays, with a decent-sized Indian population, moreover, I saw nary a sign proclaiming that “All are welcome here!”

From an outsiders perspective, and based on some observations shared by locals I’d met there, it just seemed that diversity there was present without having to call it out, without emphasizing it in mini-billboards straddling your front walkway.

Yes, there are issues that exist along racial divides in KL (and in all places far and wide), but human nature is human nature (i.e., perfect harmony may never be possible, sadly)–yet signage doesn’t appear to be the norm of revealing that all citizens are working together and getting along–nor the manner to extol that we should aim to cultivate our diversity intentionally.

Perhaps it just happens through deliberate actions and by cultivating interactions, not by posting about it outside the confines of ‘our’ homes.

So why in the States do the masses (or at least the countless residents who post yard signs in urban residential neighborhoods) opt for idealistic messages to be broadcast in such an idiosyncratic manner?

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With signs I’ve recently passed by extolling, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” I’ve wondered who posts them, and, more importantly, what the impetus is to do so.

Are folks, whom I assume lean more to the left (though assumptions are shitty things in and of themselves), attempting to fuel a passionate fire so that all neighbors and passersby learn to take on such perspectives themselves, serving as a mini-PSA?

As you walk by their residences, are you somehow now empowered to strike out and spread the gospel?

Has enlightenment struck passersby like an apple falling on Newton’s head?

Will society benefit from such open, exalted expressions?

Or, like the power of a bumper sticker, is the profoundness merely ephemeral, soon to be forgotten as you turn your gas-guzzling SUV onto the next block?

Quite possibly, too, perhaps home owners or property renters regard these virtual rationalizations with hopes that refugees flood their lawns, set up shelter, come knocking on the door to be welcomed in.

Screen Shot 2020-01-18 at 10.48.56Imagine that!

What if a stranger really took them up on their word?

They were told they were welcome, right?

If the homeowner is white, for example, what would he or she do when a family of Latinos walks up, rings the bell and asks to borrow a cup of azúcar?

If black (or of any ethnicity), what if a group of Hmong teens comes to sit on their lawn, hanging out, chatting away the afternoon.

Chinese-American?  What would you think when a trio of Somali twenty-somethings sit on your curb for a few hours to chew the fat with each other?

Would the welcome mat still be on display in any such situation?

Or would residents within be sneaking peaks out the bottom corner of the blinds after turning out the lights inside, hoping they’re not going to be called out for a chat?

If you’re willing to promote that all are welcome in your home or to your property, you might want to watch what you ask for.

Who knows, however.

Maybe these placard presenters are utterly altruistic peeps who wouldn’t be wary of wayward visitors being prompted by their signage to spontaneously visit.

Kudos to them if they are!

Yet what’s the percentage?

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Whomever is putting these signs out is still an unknown to me, yet I’d hope that posters are from all racial and political backgrounds, that it isn’t just white liberals who are the one’s celebrating openly.

Are traditional Republicans doing the same?

Folks on the right?

(And because I do not spend much time at all in the true suburbs, I’m curious to know if such signs are being displayed in more affluent communities.  Maybe such mindsets belong to city dwellers only–and you’d be astonished to find them in the burbs.  Who knows?)

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To me, however, the biggest question that remains is HOW MUCH DIVERSITY DO THESE STANDARD-BEARERS ACTUALLY MAINTAIN IN THEIR OWN LIVES?

If they don’t actually engage in activities that get them into ethnically-diverse communities (different than their own), if they don’t communicate with anyone from other racial backgrounds (whatever their own), and if they don’t call anyone of a diverse creed or nationality a friend (sans the occasional token friend of color who gets mentioned in heated debated about racism), than their celebratory signage is simplistic, superficial, and, undoubtedly, futile.

Such practices are, consequently, hypocritical.

It’s as distorted and oversimplified as seeing a woman in a hijab and thinking, “Cool.  There’s diversity here,” and stopping there, without ever getting to know one.

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For years, my life as an EL (English language) teacher has focused on working with immigrant populations (for my time in the USA), and the last 30-years of my existence has been built around such experiences.

In the early 1990s, I first started tutoring individual adults in learning English through a refugee center in Minneapolis, MN (USA), soon followed by teaching adults in a Latino community program in Saint Paul, with, over the years, getting involved in such teaching opportunities in Colorado, too, and later working with international students in California, always befriending students from all over the world.

Kudos, scribbler of these words:  more than one minority, token, friend is a grand thing (if I can even state that without feeling totally condescending and supercilious, which I am utterly cautious about.

Yet, I immersed myself in said happenings because it felt right, that I was helping new residents of and visitors to my birth country, helping in both bridging barriers and in creating understanding–in additional to more tangible assistance I provided in their developing language and adult basic education skills.

Then with 18 of 21 years of my adulthood coming overseas, I immersed myself in cultures other than my own, dabbling in a few languages, with a cross-cultural marriage and raising bi-lingual, bi-cultural children, to boot, always with the mindset that diverse acquaintances and friendships broadened my world view… somehow.

Satisfied in how I branched out repeatedly, I welcomed stepping outside of my comfort zone (though, truth be told, my comfort zone IS always being on the go and always meeting folks from such varied corners of the world).

Yet now that I am back in the States, I’m motivating myself to live that life still, to branch out into a more diverse set up experiences (for learning from others IS valuable, IS rewarding), for I realized nine months ago that diversity isn’t seeing someone in different dress and noticing those differences in a gleeful way, celebrating it WITHOUT experiencing it.

It also is not my frequenting immigrant-owned, ethnically diverse eateries, supporting small businesses more regularly than I do mainstream joints, yet that’s one small baby step I can take, too.  You won’t find me at Ruby Tuesdays or TGiFs, but at the mom-n-pop shops where one may struggle to pronounce the name (unless you ask, which some people are afraid to do).

Besides my teaching position, working with Latino, Hmong, East African, Karen students,   etc., besides taking Spanish lessons, having had a few ongoing Latino exchange partners and been involved in a few language groups over these last nine months, I am planning on volunteering in a soup kitchen in an predominantly Latino population area–and I may get back into adult basic education for immigrants, too.

And I am openly searching for even more ways to get involved, intentionally, so that diversity is the norm in my life, not just an occasional blip on the screen of life.

Such proactivity, with a willful mindset to broaden horizons, to continually learn from others of different backgrounds (even at aged 50), to incessantly hope to bridge cultural gaps (not to mention that having generous, open-minded love in your heart for ALL), is, to me, key to celebrating diversity.

It certainly is NOT done by merely posting a yard sign.

Words are words.  Actions are much more effective.

If you simply celebrate without actually getting involved, without bridging cultures, without learning and understanding, you make such celebrations pointless.

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Premature Tinder Farewells or Simply the Right Timing?

For anyone acting ethically on dating apps, you must have encountered this quandary at some point or another, perhaps even a few times.

I know I have.

I am once more perplexed at the very start of 2020–enough so that it’s prompted me to rest my fingers on the keyboard, my fifth or sixth entry about the highs and lows and complexities of online dating at 50.

However, if you’re a well-versed player, a seasoned serial shenanigan-prone sl&$ (male or female), you may not have worried about how to approach this issue, for you have incessantly aimed to notch as many marks in your headboard as possible.

For those that are into intentionally deceiving the plethora of virtual connections you’ve made, habitually overlapping in your hooking up or dating patterns, there’s no need for you to read further.  You’ve, apparently, not thunk much about such things.

I have. Too many times.

However, if you’ve been polite enough to cut off a nascent digital connection because you had met someone in person and had decided to pursue a relationship with the latter, yet you’d then had doubts if you’d made the right choice because things soon didn’t work out, causing more confusion about your “right” decisions and commendable actions, then… read on.

Perhaps you can relate to my puzzled plight.

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“I am sorry, but I’ve met someone recently, and I am going off the app because I would rather invest my time in getting to know this lady in question.  It seems that’s the right thing to do.”

Or was it?

Something similar to the above-stated is what I had written to a handful of online-only matches I’d made back in May of 2019, coming soon after I’d met someone on Tinder, one whom I had frenetically gotten to know in person, utterly enjoying five dates in a span of six days.

For a guy on a sabbatical year off, I had lots of free time on my hands!

However, after twelve dates spread out over a month or so, things unfortunately didn’t work out (though the lady is indeed a lovely person and ultimately has become a friend whom I both respect and appreciate; we still chat and occasionally meet as friends).

Though I had totally enjoyed the enthusiastic process of investing time in one person, counting those entertaining experiences with her as a welcome return to dating in the USA (after 15 years overseas), I ever so momentarily wondered if I had made the right choice in putting all my eggs in one basket so speedily.

“Yes, it was the right thing,” I had 99% assuredly told myself then.

There wasn’t much internal debate, for giving respect to that one person appeared, at that time, to be the best approach.

Do I now agree with my own assessment of that investment?

Do you?

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In the late summer, however, having not met anyone else on a similar level in a few months (both in attraction, chemistry, investment of time, etc.), I found myself routinely heading out, quite consistently actually, dating various Tinder, Bumble and OKC matches, yet maintaining an overall innocent approach in just engaging in some innocuous outings that simply kept me social.

I was merely enjoying meeting new people in a relatively new place, having also had some definite mismatch moments, to boot.

Then it happened, and I found myself feeling that I had no right in overlapping romantic involvement with three women who had, theretofore, not really expressed much more attraction to me than casual outings permit (one of them had clearly told me she was not looking for anything serious, not wanting to commit since she was newly divorced and still openly dating others).

Yet to have crossed over into the realm of a physical connection with two women, having not had “the talk” about what it all meant to them (nor me), having not established boundaries nor addressed expectations, undoubtedly caused me some angst.

Homey really don’t play that game.

It wasn’t as if I had been sampling porridge at the bear’s kitchen table, exalting, “This is just right!”–but I didn’t feel comfortable in awaiting to see how it all panned out–and then things panning out on an intimate level, regardless.

I had to put an end to such antics (though never intentional), as if I had thrown a bucket of water on a raging campfire.

My logical side and heart both hopeful, however, I maintained a resilient mindset and consistent motivation that I’d meet someone with whom I could develop an LTR (long-term relationship), which was my preference all along.

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I soon had met someone whose foot, at first, met the proverbial glass slipper.

In September of 2019, I again wrote to other “app acquaintances”, with my gut telling me it was the right behavior to concentrate on one lady, which is roughly paraphrased here:

“Well, sorry to say, but I’ve met someone recently.  Consequently, I will delete the app and focus on getting to know her.  Thanks for the recent chats!  I wish you the best of success in finding your right match.”

Some of those women, from Round 2, per se, even wrote back to thank me for being forthright and honest, especially because I could have, conversely, ghosted them.

On a similar note, I could have otherwise played games and endeavored deceitfully to string them along.

However, that, assuredly, wasn’t my thing.

Calling off any chance with those few connections (who were mostly virtual acquaintances but included two women whom I had met in “real life”), nipping any potential confusion in the bud, left me with the indelible feeling that Spike Lee would have accurately referred to my making those choices just as he had titled his popular film that year.

Nonetheless, a mere four weeks after making that SECOND choice to be exclusive, after some seven or eight pleasant outings with the new gal, a really cool, funny, attractive lady, I was on the receiving end of a text that said that we were, she believed, “not on the right track“.

Uggh.

Doing the right thing was my aim, but did I aim incorrectly?

Had I, instead, shot myself in the foot?

Did I lose out on an opportunity to meet someone else who could have been the long-term relationship that I am/was TRULY looking for?

I had not only ceased correspondence with the other seemingly friendly ladies but also had expunged the connections permanently (after writing most of them to explain why) a day or two before deleting the applications or closing my accounts entirely.

Consequently, upon getting dumped, I looked ahead to a barren field, with not even a withering seedling in sight.  I’d hastily plucked out all the seeds I’d sown without regard to if my bountiful crop selection would come to fruition.

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Pondering life and how things had unfolded after a mostly-positive month, I questioned, still relatively briefly, if I’d made a legitimate choice in dropping all conversations that had been happening (both virtually and in person), theretofore.

My self reflection, however, resulted in my feeling that it was still better to just concentrate on one woman.

Wasn’t that, by default, the way to respect someone?

In this day and age of digital dating, I am starting to wonder.  Am I too old-fashioned?

I wasn’t behind the scenes making other plans, I wasn’t ‘cookie jarring’ nor ‘bread crumbing’ anyone (modish terms I’ve just recently learned about online), and I wasn’t clandestinely heading out and about with a handful of others.

Yes, before the digital age of matching others, such habits existed, but these days it seems… different.

Yet after my second ‘failure’ in connecting fully with someone in nine months, having been apparently not firing on all cylinders with her, unbeknownst to me, I couldn’t help but start to think that maybe one of those other ladies–whom I had hastily disengaged from (yet respectfully so)–would have… could have… may have… been my LTR dream come true

Yet I stuck to my guns:  It was a righteous approach to maintain in dating (though this bloke has no concern about any sense of biblical righteousness) even if things hadn’t panned out.

Basic morals at work, on the other hand?

Geez, I hope so.  But who is to say!?

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To say that one of those other connections may have found me more worthy or may have been more compatible for a long-term partnership, well, is to admit that life sometimes has a way of perplexing you if the path you opt for leads you down the wrong route.

There is no doubt that I had still felt better engaging in only one person on the level we had had than in playing the field broadly, superficially.  Moreover, what if I had been gallivanting about and then hurt said individual because she was hoping for a future together (who am I kidding… she wasn’t).

That potential outcome doesn’t bode well with me either.

One thing is clear, however: My personally disappointing let down was far more acceptable than the risk of her potentially being hurt if I’d been out haphazardly throwing myself down on the mattresses of the multitudes.

‘Twas the most fitting choice I’d made, right?

Even if it didn’t work out?

Right?

Naysayers may disagree.

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Undoubtedly, there are men (and women) who never would have ended “things” with those other both-the-virtual-and-the-real women as hastily as I had on either of the aforementioned occasions (even if “things” merely meant a few online chats, a digital volley of jokes or sarcasm over a few weeks, or a first coffee chat outing together that was totally pleasant but hadn’t yet shot stars through the evening sky of my psyche nor aroused a joyful explosion in my… yearning heart).

Instead, there are those out there in the digital universe (or in reality, too) who would have kept those dating options fully open, waiting weeks or months to see how things go with that most-special-for-the-moment-but-maybe-not-that-special-in-the-long-run-if-things-aren’t-reciprocated person.

And of course there are people that just make a habit of dating various others.  It’s that simple for some.

Are they wrong or right if they do?

Naturally, there is no answer to that query.

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Lo and behold, a week or so after the second gal had broken things off with me via text, I was back in line, online, not wanting to writhe in pain for too long (okay, folks, I wasn’t hurting terribly, though I was disappointed).  She was a neat lady, indeed, with a lot of things going for her.

Despite being ephemerally crestfallen, the reality is that I promptly stated, “Fuck it.  What do I have to lose?”

Tom Cruise would have been proud that I’d, some 35-years ago–around his first big hit, incorporated a risky notion of living life into my life.

Sometimes you’ve just gotta… “Every now and then say… What the Fuck.”

So I, soon after, ventured into virtual territory again, re-logging into those ubiquitous apps.

Ding, ding… Round 3.

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Within a few days I’d (unbelievably) reached the boundaries of my confinement AGAIN in not wanting to disrupt the flow of having met a third seemingly-special person (in 10 or 11 months), another with whom I’d apparently at first sight clicked.

Whether three in that timespan seems like a high or low number is entirely based on your perspective (I’d met more than them, yet I truly clicked with just those three).

Nevertheless, I thought I’d approach things the way that felt… right.

Once again, I wrote a few people to apologize for having to cut off communication (i.e., feeling that I needed to), once again receiving a few accolades for being open and honest about it, which truly makes me wonder what’s going on with society if women are thanking a bloke for being nice.

This time around, around mid-October, for we soon had shared Halloween together (my first time in more than 15 years), I expressed to her that I wanted to focus on her, that I was not on the apps any longer, that I wasn’t looking for romantic outings.

Admittedly, she didn’t appear to reciprocate–and I was mostly okay with that.

The reality for me is that if I am acting with respect towards someone, that I can, by and large, realize that I am doing what feels right through my filter and via my state of understanding about the world.

Of course it would be glorious to hear from anyone that they feel the same way, but that didn’t come.

With the passing of a month and a half, I had hopes that I’d made the best decisions in concentrating on her, and there were some signs that she perhaps wanted or expected monogamy (e.g., once stating she was not happy that I was meeting a friend for a coffee chat and another time showing some disappointment that I’d been invited by a female host to a T-Day dinner party with a group of others).

Six weeks had NOT came to fruition before the apple dropped from the tree, splat on a rock below, and rotted quickly.

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Once more, a learning opportunity presented itself.

Yet, was I as proud this time around to have invested so much in one source of socializing, dedicating my time to one person (even though being a teacher, having a P/T job, and needing plenty of ‘me time’, too, means I didn’t have that much free time to begin with)?

I noticed a chip in my righteous-choices-make-me-feel-good armor.

I became more doubtful of my course of action the third time around, though not entirely skeptical about what’s right or wrong.

Three strikes in one year, if you will?  Doesn’t that mean something metaphorically?

Shouldn’t I have gone and sat down on the bench, hanging up my apps?

Am I now gun shy?

Slightly.

A month-plus.

Another month.

A month and a half.

That’s quite the pattern.

That’s a fair amount of time invested, cumulatively, to have an outcome of zilch (i.e., if I only calculate time’s overall worth as having an end result–instead of focusing on the good times I had at least shared with these three women over these past 11 months: concerts, music venues, comedy shows, outdoor excursions, moments of the heart–even if momentarily).

With a roller coaster ride of thrilling ascents and deep plummets under my belt, I suppose I could either 1) jump off the ride of life altogether, 2) take a break temporarily, 3) proceed with caution in getting into “Round 4” so quickly (emotionally and mentally), or 4) forget establishing an LTR.

Or I could just date casually without expectations, without mandating what it all means.

Or jump into a new relationship.

Too many questions lie on the near horizon.

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Over the last few weeks since, I’ve chatted with quite a few people online again, some who’ve shown great humor, enticing empathy, and good-listening propensities, and others who’ve expressed an interest in meeting, etc.

Yet I’ve met someone with whom I professedly clicked once again.

Five dates, five days in a row.

It is still too early to make predictions or to establish high hopes.

Yet should I even move into that territory again?  Or back off?

Do I write the women on the app I had most recently been active on?  Do I tell them that I am seeing someone new?  Do I ask them if they are, themselves, looking to casually date or are looking to be exclusive right out of the gate (I’d have no right to ask, however–and it would be an odd query, right)?

Would I be wrong to meet them for a first café chat just to see if there’s compatibility?

Or do I prematurely say goodbye before even meeting?

This bloke is worried about putting his eggs in one basket, naturally.

Been there, done that.

The other ladies I’ve chatted with may very well also be ‘clickable’ just as this new lady is.

Yet if I go the way of the three aforementioned experiences, I’d never have a chance to know if we do click in real life.  But even asking them, “Hey, can you wait to re-establish communication in a few weeks?” would be like I’m cookie-jarring (even though I’d be openly communicating and not deceiving intentionally).

At 50 (divorced a few years back), you think I would know this by now.

Do you?

If I did, I’d not be writing about it here, that’s for sure.

 

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“Thank You for Your Service, Well, Depending…”

If this scribbler of ideas learns of a truly patriotic citizen having taken the oath to uphold our constitution, protect our freedoms, further promising to selflessly fight against evil-doers, dedicating him- or herself to routinely sacrificing their life for the greater good of humanity (or at least of the USA), I’d surely thank that service member or vet.

Unhesitatingly.

On the other hand, if I really don’t know anything about the individual (how would I if we were to just meet on the street), why on earth would I shower him/her with praise for his/her service?

Why do you?

Why does anyone?

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Disclaimer (a necessary caveat given because this piece stands to merit reactions ranging from someone simply sharing a different perspective to ripping me a new one to potentially agreeing if one actually reads into what I’m stating):  In my explanations below, I have ZERO intention of criticizing anyone for entering the military for whatever reason because the impetus that propels them to do so is right for them at that time.  Moreover, I am not criticizing people who may not have other options in life and opt for the military as a way out of whatever confining situation they find themselves in.  Not at all.  My point is… well, you’ll read that below.

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You’ve heard it before.

Perhaps you’ve even uttered that seemingly ubiquitous canned response when meeting a vet or an active-duty service member for the first time.

“Thank you for your service.”

I’d not once heard this expression, myself, until January of 2019 at a VA hospital, having just come back from living and teaching 15 consecutive years overseas.  If I had a dollar for each time I have in the past 11 months since, however, I’d have myself a new Harley by now.

Just yesterday, in fact, a second date I was on resulted in a gal stating this catchphrase once she had learned that I’d been in the service in the 90s, uttering it automatically without much contemplation nor insight.

In fact, I have, myself, wondered if anyone should be thanking me for my service, because, truth be told, I had somewhat selfishly signed up as a college grad because of the incentive of the Army Loan Repayment Program (which meant Uncle Sam paid off $30K of my student loans in a three-year period, instead of my doing it over the typical 10-year payoff schedule, which would have resulted in further accrued interest on top of the original principal).

Yes, I myself felt confined by something in life that prompted such decisions.

Should people thank me for that?

Undoubtedly, I had felt it was better to pay my debts in that manner, quickly, than to go into deferment or even default on them (as many folks wrongly do–or folks who’ve simply fallen on hard times do).

Additionally, there was the peripheral notion of gaining veteran’s preference points I could one day use in securing a teaching gig in DODDS (Department of Defense) schools abroad OR in potentially helping catapult me towards a job with the foreign service (a bit of a dream position which still hasn’t come true).

Should people thank me for that?

Finally, a tertiary enticement to enlist was to get stationed in Germany, which I requested and was granted during AIT (Advanced Individual Training)–so that I could continue my vagabond ways in exploring the region, having already backpacked through various countries in college.  Every moment I had, especially since the Army paid for my car to be shipped over, I was out discovering the continent.

Should people thank me for that?

So with those reasons behind me, I finished my four-and-out (i.e., the minimum enlistment allowed with the above-stated repayment program), allowing me to become expeditiously debt free while still living in and exploring Europe (which I took full advantage of with 30 days of paid vacation).  By default I also gained those preference points if I one day needed them for civil service career positions.

Furthermore, signing on the dotted line gained me a free R/T ticket to Kosovo, to boot (eventually justifying my receipt of the Kosovo Campaign Medal which has its own perks).

However, if you noticed, Dear Reader, I didn’t mention the notion of selflessly serving my country, selflessly safeguarding the constitution, nor selflessly protecting my 300-million American brethren.  ‘Twas not my mindset.

“Thank you for your service”?  

I’m not sure.

Admittedly, I don’t believe those selfless concepts inspired my serving nor ever surpassed the aforementioned multi-faceted, selfish-oriented motives at any point.

By the same token, for those four years, though I truly aimed to represent my nation well while abroad, and although I undoubtedly took to heart a sense of duty in visiting a few schools with my commander in Kosovo–to address helping the local communities rebuild facilities after the 89-day NATO bombing campaign earlier that year), I didn’t habitually live with an engrained sense of purpose that I was dedicating my life for my country.

“Thank you for your service.”

I’m not certain, as a matter of fact, that I am worthy of such recognition.

I’ll pass on the accolades, folks–unless someone genuinely inquires about my service and, only then, determines I’m still worthy.

So what about all those strangers you come across?  How will you now view and utilize this ever-too-common and somewhat mawkish statement?

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When and where this canned comment began is a complete unknown to me, yet during the time I had been away teaching overseas, its proliferation had apparently been rapid and unstoppable.

Now here is where I’m going to potentially, promptly piss off plenty of patriots.

What are you actually thanking them for?

And whom are you thanking?  Do you truly know?

And more importantly, why?

In the eyes of this former active-duty service member, and by definition a vet, I find this hackneyed expression, well, just that.

Moreover, I don’t believe we should resort to using it unless you really know the person on the receiving end of your accolades–just as people don’t know me nor the relatively selfish reasons I’d actually served.

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If you’ve made it this far, let me take a stab at why thanking every vet for his or her (their) service is wrought with utterly debatable intent.

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First, a blanket categorization of every service member as deserving of one’s enthusiastic kudos is simply peculiar, routinized, and depthless.

Do you go up and acknowledge complete strangers on the street for being a valuable member of society, a good, honorable person?

“Hi, thank you for… being you!”

Naturally, you don’t, even though you’d know essentially as much about a random stranger as you might know about a vet you meet under the same circumstances.

Why would you utter such silly things to just anyone on the street?

Commending someone requires prior knowledge of what the fuck they’ve actually done to merit it, doesn’t it?

You have no clue what their background is, if they’re moral, ethical, deserving, laudable.  You’ve no clue if they’re worthy of praise–just as you wouldn’t know if they’re deserving of disapproval or castigation.

Flipping a coin might give you more accuracy in determining one’s merit.

So why on earth do it with vets?

Are you certain that person you’re expressing gratefulness to is a commendable service member (or former one), one deserving of individualized respect, albeit coming as a blanket categorization of appreciation?

Maybe the fucker, on a personal level (outside of the military connection), regularly abuses their partner, is a raving pedophile, protested against the war after getting out, or routinely sells smack to elementary school kids on the playground.  Perhaps three years ago, he stabbed someone in a fit of rage–or maybe she steals things habitually from Walmart–or he oft pilfered things while serving.

While in the military, did the individual consistently do the right thing?

In fact, I could argue that there are people who certainly did (and now do) and those who did (and now do) not.

Once, while I was serving (Army logistics for a combat arms unit in Germany), a sergeant told me that he had known some dudes who had been regularly ordering various items, such as bicycles and hair dryers, through the supply chain–and selling them for personal gain.  WTF.

Thank them for their service? 

Not a chance.

In fact, I once walked up upon a service member selling batteries to other soldiers while out in the field training (to keep the cash for himself), items that had been ordered through the maintenance system (i.e., that’s John/Jane Q Taxpayer’s money, y’all), which prompted me, even at a lower rank, to stress, “You cannot do that.”  Perhaps he had been doing it on a frequent basis.  Perhaps he continued after I’d busted him that one time.

Thank him for his service?  

If his actions were habitual… I’d remain reticent.

Such behaviors, if discovered, may have resulted in soldiers serving time or being dishonorably discharged or being discharged for other than honorable reasons, right?

You have no clue whatsoever if the recipient of your celebratory recognition was even discharged honorably (or will be if still active currently).

“Thank you for your service.”

Perhaps not.  (You just don’t know!)

So what happens if that’s the case, that someone was kicked out for inappropriate behavior or horribly wrong actions, and then five, ten or twenty years later you meet such a vet, and you immediately ejaculate this all-too-common expression (without thinking)?

Foot-in-mouth disease it could readily mean (though you’d never know because, most likely, the recipient isn’t going to refute your accolades).

Thus, it makes sense to argue that immediately expressing gratitude to someone without knowing a single thing about him/her/them may be falling into the realm of superficial phoniness.

It’s trite, when you stop to think about it, isn’t it?

Perhaps the issue is people don’t think about it and instead just go with the flow of what feels cool or right or normal.  Or they utter these remarks because other people do.

Not knowing someone’s background should prompt people to actually stop and think, “Who is this person I’m thanking?”

Without actually knowing the quality of the person you’re addressing, one shouldn’t.

Why not instead ask, “What do/did you do in the service?”  That’s at least a basic-and-better-than-nothing start to a dialogue that may help guide your decisions.

“Well, I was awarded the Bronze Star.”

Shit, that would do the trick!

“Thank you!”

“I carried three comrades to safety under heavy fire in Helmand province.”

Fuck yeah.  Let ‘er rip!

Thank you!”

“My unit saved an orphanage by diverting the flow of the Orinoco with sandbags, ferrying children on our backs out to the safety of the highlands.”

Dude/Dudette… YOU.  ARE.  THE.  BOMB!

Thank you!”

“Well, uh, er, ahem… I spent most of my days in the barracks playing X-box with a hangover because my unit had nothing to do for the two years I was there.  I regularly was late to PT (Physical Training) because I partied at night way too far into the night.  Eventually, having drunk too much, I beat up my girlfriend one evening and was discharged for assaulting someone.”

Silence.

The chance of the latter scenario unfolding in conversation is just as possible as the three former ones (however statistically possible if not “just as possible”).

Consequently, without really knowing a stranger’s background (both in and out of the service), why are people saying thank you all the time?

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Secondly, on a similar note to my own experience in enlisting, why do Americans employ this stale clichéd supposition without knowing a thing about a service member’s REASON(S) for serving in the first place?

Wouldn’t that knowledge be equally important in determining the validity of the expression–beforehand?

It’s such a relative remark, for it applies to… well, certainly not to everyone (not even me, I’d like to argue)!

Shouldn’t we applaud, specifically (and I’d like to argue ONLY), those vets and active duty personnel who had INTENTIONALLY made a decision to devote a certain number of years of their existence to INTENTIONALLY protecting our nation and INTENTIONALLY putting their lives on the line in order to maintain the liberty of our peoples and the sovereignty of the good ol’ USA?

Hell, if I knew with certainty that a soldier, sailor, marine or… air(person) had INTENTIONALLY avowed to uphold our freedoms, joining with the intent of taking up arms to carry on the hopes of the founding fathers of a sovereign state, risking his/her life for the greater good, represented our nation habitually, respectively, responsibly, I’d give that person the shirt off my back.

THAT TYPE OF SERVICE MEMBER DESERVES OUR PRAISE–even if canned and overused! 

Yet in not knowing a single thing about a stranger who states, “Yea, I served,” I remain apprehensive about showering the person with false praise.

You should, too.

At least think about it, first.

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Sure, each enlisted service personnel, with his/her eager recruiter hovering nearby like a jackal awaits the departure of the vultures around a water buffalo carcass, takes the oath of enlistment to protect our constitution (with something similar, yet perhaps-or-perhaps-not more dignified, happening for officers doing the same).

Swearing in, however, doesn’t truly mean that every recruit is dedicating their lives to defending our constitution.  Assuming so is like someone actually believing that, in a courtroom, placing your hand on a bible and raising one’s right hand signifies telling the truth at all times.

Not all people who do the latter remain truthful and legitimate in doing so.  The same holds true for our military personnel in taking an oath.

Consider this: What would be the percentage of individuals who truly recall that oath each waking day while serving for three, four, six or twenty years?  Do they routinely awake, thinking, “I arose this morning to protect that heavenly document that holds me accountable to do so.  I am a servant of my patriotic brethren, here to protect and serve in order to uphold the freedoms of the USA.“?

I doubt it.  Seriously.

So why thank them for their service if they never or rarely considered their self-assigned obligations on such a patriotic level?  Simply because, as a default expression, they were merely in the Army, Navy, Marines, or Air Force?

Why?

I’d put my money, though, on the fact that most members of the armed forces are… just regular humans without a thought or a care for such prestigious honor.

Though I cannot provide statistical data to support this argument, many service members awake to bemoan having to go out at 5:30am to do PT, grumble at being forced to mop the barracks floor or swab the deck before breakfast, or lament their pounding hangover while setting forth on a 10-mile ruck march.

Based on that knowledge, aren’t those propensities then solely the folly or the oft-unworthy-reality of the human condition that we’re lauding unconditionally?

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That the majority of enlistees (and who knows what percentage of officers) are not actually signing away years of their lives to habitually honor our flag or steadily support or country’s freedoms shouldn’t be shocking.

Nor should this reality be surprising:  The recipient of your hearty commendations quite possibly joined up because they felt there wasn’t anything else to do in life.

(I had things to do, I just wanted to be debt free to pursue options.)

Is that an inspiration for such a flag-waving, estimable distinction?

Yet people continue to applaud someone’s service, oft hastily–without knowing a single thing about the reasons for enlistment.

Let’s consider why a multitude of enlistees sign up in the first place (side note: officers may be of the same mindset, or they perhaps only use the service to pay for their four years of college, or they may not be of that mindset to serve yet had their own less-than-laudable motives; moreover, I am fully aware that NOT ALL SERVICE MEMBERS join because of a lack of life options).

Remember the point is… Why honor someone who may not be honorable–nor without even knowing why they would be?

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Countless examples could be used here to prove a point, and using the one’s I have come with absolute trepidation–for I do NOT want to dismiss the positions some people find themselves in.  Again, I just cannot see why we overuse such accolades!

Instead of working the family farm, with soybean prices falling, perhaps the Army or Air Force was the best option, the only option for one bloke (or countless like him/her).  Better it is to get a steady pay check, a roof overhead (even if its a barrack’s room), and three square a day than to struggle to make ends meet because farming opportunities in BFE are limited.

Not having any options in the middle of tumbleweed Timbuktu was the key reason for joining (not to habitually uphold the constitutional rights of his compatriots).

Thank you for your service?

Or the same might very well hold true for the kid who wanted to get away from the city.  Having not put in any effort into school, perhaps facing uphill challenges throughout childhood, she headed over to stand erect in front of the Navy recruiter’s desk, totally tentative about her pending decisions–yet still impressed by the two-thousand-buck sign-up bonus to be a radio operator.

Getting off the block was the key reason to join (not striving wholeheartedly, daily to protect our freedoms).

Thank you for your service?

Or maybe, just maybe, a Marine became a Marine because the incessant bombardment of those years of bedazzling Call of Duty video game graphics tickled his scrotum so much that it seemed the right choice.  “Does the .50-cal really shoot with such force?  Will it rip apart someone if I get that chance?  Heck, sign me up!”

A primal urge to be a warrior was the key reason to join (not striving to uphold the oath at every given chance as a true, jingoistic citizen).

Thank you for your service?

Perchance someone was drafted (back in the day) yet then fought tooth and nail to dodge it, failed in doing so, then begrudgingly served, bemoaning every day they served.

Many didn’t have a choice–and maybe they hated the entire concept of serving their country.

Thank you for your service?  

You can bet your bottom dollar that for countless vets, joining and serving had nothing to do with the laudable notions you’re somehow believing need to be commended.

THAT DOES NOT MEAN, HOWEVER, THAT NO ONE DOES IT FOR THE “RIGHT” REASONS (i.e., the reasons that would merit your appreciation).  Surely, and I mean this wholeheartedly, there are those who do.

Yet without knowing, be careful of extolling someone’s virtues and honoring them erroneously, superficially.

At least for one vet, I’d actually prefer it if you do ask me more questions, to get to know me and something about my service–before deciding to offer me any praise.

Such knowledge could go a long way.

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If you, yourself, served for honorable reasons, consistently acted in accordance with praiseworthy values during the time you were in, frequently accepted all that came at you with a degree of honor, and devoted yourself wholeheartedly to the greater good of our land, our constitution, and our peoples…

Thank you for your service.”

 

 

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Tales from the Army: Fat Boy and My Nom de Plume

Although I had recently (mid-2019) written the European Stars and Stripes, the newspaper that serves members of the Armed Forces in Europe and has for years, asking them to locate the five or six letters to the editor that I had submitted during my time in Germany (2018-2020, sans Kosovo deployment), there was one piece that they couldn’t locate (though they were able to locate others).

That’s because I’d used a pen name in order to clandestinely call out a Command Sergeant Major–though my close comrades in arms in the battalion very well knew it was me.

I had stayed covert for good reason:  I was sticking up for Specialist “Fat Boy”, aiming to prove a point.

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You see, in essence, although I was not truly acting in accordance with the US Army Values, myself, I had posted a letter to the editor to specifically address those values and to expose how an E-9, our Battalion Command Sergeant Major (CSM), wasn’t living nor exhibiting those guiding principles himself.

They say that the pen is mightier than the sword.  Touché!

A first-year-in-the-Army E-4 versus a 25-years-in-service E-9?  Could I have openly called him out?  Could I have approached and informed him that his nickname choices were poor judgment?

I had felt I had no choice but to use my pen (well, a keyboard at the Bamberg installation’s library)–and a newly-found pen name, Sergeant Smith.

Why Smith?

It wasn’t that the commonality of Smith was on par to Brown, my last name–a name that might go under the radar and consequently beget less backlash.  (Actually, the Stars and Stripes required submissions come from real people.)

There was a better reason.

Well, in fact, G Smith was a real E-5, and he was ETSing (End of Term of Service) from the Army, leaving our post in Bamberg, Germany to head home to WI.  Right before he departed, I had asked him if I could write said letter, explaining why, telling him that someone in our unit had been on the receiving end of some less-than-honorable comments from our top battalion NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer).

He agreed unhesitatingly.  Essentially, he didn’t give two shits–and he knew of the monikered-in-a-bad-natured-manner soldier in question.

“Fat Boy” had friends.

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All of this was related directly to what was known as our Army Value Cards, business-card-sized plastic reminders of the seven traits that all soldiers were expected to live in 1999, which we were required to carry in our BDUs (Battle Dress Uniforms), one which I’d first received in Basic Training.

An online resource I’ve recently found, entailing and referencing numerous Army documents, papers which reveal internal memorandums, highlights some key aspects of these character development aims:

“If leaders show loyalty to their soldiers, the Army, and the Nation, they earn the loyalty of their soldiers. If leaders consider their soldiers’ needs and care for their well-being, and if they demonstrate genuine concern, these leaders build a positive command climate (except when you call a soldier “Fat Boy”).”

“The terms the Army uses to articulate its values–honor, integrity, selfless service, courage, loyalty, duty, and respect–inspire the sense of purpose necessary to sustain soldiers in combat… Leaders of character and competence live these values (except when you call a soldier “Fat Boy”). They build an Army where people do what is right, treat others as they themselves want to be treated, and can be all they can be (except when you call a soldier “Fat Boy”).”

 

You got me, folks!  I added a bit for emphasis.

Did you notice?

And from a Jan-Feb 1998, document from GENERAL Dennis Reimer, Developing Great Leaders in Turbulent Times:

 

“Leaders must not only exemplify Army Values in their words (except when you call a soldier “Fat Boy”) and deeds, they must create the opportunity for every soldier in their command to live them as well. To do anything less is to be less than a leader.”

 

Well, a college-grad who’d entered the Army to pay of a decently hefty chunk of loans (hoping to also use my service to get veteran’s preference for either a State Department/Foreign Service job or to springboard into overseas teaching positions, like the Department of Defense Dependent Schools), I had taken those values (on the card I carried in my breast pocket) with a grain of salt, for I had felt from the onset, and later wrote in my letter, that nobody is going to evolve in her/his character by placing a token reminder in a uniform’s pocket.

Character is character and values are values, and they come via a variety of factors, internal as well as through upbringing (and a slew of other sources from an early age).

Yes, perhaps through education and intense personal efforts, one can lead a more principled existence, yet a card in your breast pocket just won’t cut it.

“They are the creed by which soldiers live.”

 

Well, I never fully agreed with the notion that the Army Values were as impactful as Generals at the upper echelons of the US Army espoused them to be.  One can advocate that all soldiers lived by them, but not all 19- and 21-year-old soldiers–and even those in their 50s, like our Command Sergeant Major, didn’t uphold them, for their lives were their lives way before they carried a card around to tell them otherwise.

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So via the grapevine, I’d learned that the CSM had been passing by a Specialist E-4 mechanic in our field artillery battalion, a soldier who was a married, father-of-a-few, friendly bloke, greeting the guy with a hearty, “Hey, Fat Boy.”

Before WTF was popular, I recall uttering, “WTF.”

I even learned via the mechanic directly that this was a personally bothersome habitual issue.

Long a supporter of the little guy (hey, I’ve been a hapless Vikings fan since ’87), always wanting to help those in need or to back up a brother in a struggle, I wanted to proactively do something about the nonsense.

As I had already written a selection of letters to the editor in the Stars and Stripes (and years before at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota), since I had long appreciated such an avenue to share my beliefs on a broader scale, I decided somewhat immediately to put pen to paper.

Well, with the internet becoming more common, long before smart phones, iPads, and such, I jumped on a library computer instead.

In my piece, to drive home the point, I revealed, without specifically naming the CSM, that someone was routinely employing such a nickname to address a fellow soldier, adding that NCOs–especially upper-ranking ones, were to lead via example of how we should treat each other.

The fact remained: Calling someone “Fat Boy” is the stuff of playground bullies, not an NCO.

Furthermore, I focused on the Army Values cards, similar to what I’ve stated above.

Said piece most likely reached a few thousand readers.  Thank you very much.

And it reached someone more personally involved, in particular.

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On a side note, to shed life on this particular man, I had experienced interactions with him three times that still remain indelibly on my mind.

One in particular applies here:

Once, upon doing a barrack’s inspection, standing at the entrance to my single room, he remarked, “Where’s your TV, Brown?” prompting me to reply, “Well, CSM, I don’t have one.”

“Well, what do you do, College Boy?”  (Yes, I’d been nicknamed College Boy there and in Advanced Individual Training.)

“I read, CSM.  I write…”

“Get that,” he offhandedly retorted, ever so skeptically.

How I wanted to quote Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption, “Do you know how to read, you ignorant fuck?” more out of entertainment purpose than actually feeling that strongly about him.

I didn’t.

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This following memorandum from the Chief of Staff of the Army further expounds on the notion of said values.

I don’t believe our Battalion CSM ever got the memo.

14 May 1997 – CSA Letter to Army General Officers – Army Values

We instill these values in the men and women, soldiers and civilians, who are the Army. The terms we use to articulate our values… inspire the sense of purpose necessary to sustain our soldiers in combat…  Leaders of character and competence live these values (except when you call a soldier “Fat Boy”). We must build and maintain an Army where people do what is right, where we treat each other as we would want to be treated, and where everyone can truly be all they can be.

 

Character Development XXI is part of a Total Army program designed to teach and reinforce Army values. As part of this program, I have asked the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel to produce a video that:

• Informs Army leaders, military and civilian, about the history of values in the Army and about current societal and organizational conditions that warrant a reexamination of and renewed emphasis on Army values;

• Introduces and promotes long-term systemic changes now in development that will aid leaders in establishing and maintaining ethical climates (except when you call a soldier “Fat Boy”) which teach and reinforce Army values;

 

I don’t believe he’d seen the video, either.

Yet what he did see was my letter.

How the heck would I know that?

Well, he told us.

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One fine morning, a day or two after the S&S edition, the one with my letter, had come out, CSM ______________ (I truly don’t recall his name), walked into our battalion’s logistical support office, where my fellow soldiers and I worked behind desks to maintain supply flow for our field artillery Paladins, and after a few moments of logistical chit-chat, he was readying to depart.

At the last moment, he turned around and stated, somewhat incredulously, somewhat gruffly, somewhat jokingly, “Hey did you see that article that Sergeant Smith had written about someone being called ‘Fat Boy’? I think he was referring to me.  Blah, blah, blah… Too bad he’s left the Army,” or something to that effect.

With that, he left.

With that, I’d like to think that he never called the Specialist “Fat Boy” again.

Touché.

 

 

 

*The above quoted insights come from this online repository.

 

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