“Excuse me, but are you from Asia?” the African-American guy sitting next to me at the lunch table asks with a confused look on his face.
“Haha, no I just speak a little bit of Karen, their language.”
“Oh. I was gonna say. You didn’t look like you were Asian. What is that?”
“Mung bean sprouts,” I say popping one of the crunchy little white shoots into my mouth, “Do you want to try one?”
“Nah…well…I suppose I oughta try just one,” he says, putting down his bag of Doritos. He picks up one of the little plants and looks at it as though it is an alien larva before taking a bite. “Mmm. Alright. I have never had anything like that before.”
“Right now the best food is in the woods,” Eh Kaw chimes in, “green briars.”
“Green briar shoots: the young tips of the thorny plants in the woods that are coming in right now. They are a tender and a little bit sour. Very good,” I explain.
A bowl of young sweet gum leaves and green briar shoots makes its way down from the other end of the table for the man to try.
“Nah… I think I am ok.”
“You sure?” Eh Kaw asks, “At least try the green briar.”
“OK,” he says, nibbling on one of the shoots, “Hey, not bad! Thanks.”
RINGARINGARINGARINGARING! Everyone stands up and prepares to return to the floor.
The chicken plant is a strange patchwork of tight-knit cultures. Karen friends are often eager to share with me the several words of Spanish, Kiswahili, or BVE colloquialisms they acquired during their labor in the meatpacking plants of Georgia. Employees maintain the most ardent allegiance to their own group, yet many practice a glib comraderie that transcends those boundaries.
Perhaps the strangest thing about my sojourn at the chicken plant to my co-workers was my seeming membership in a group visually not my own. Everyone has their niche and for many it is their cultural niche that secures their employment at the plant in the first place. I arrived as a participant-observer of sorts, which was not unapparent to my co-workers. I arrived unable to blend into my group, unable to lose the attention attracted by my individuality.
I framed employment at the chicken plant as an experiment in solidarity, an intentional move out of love for my Karen brothers and sisters, and certainly a new experience. Yet participating in this new milieu necessitated seeking a sense of belonging. I in fact relied as a recipient on the solidarity of my Karen friends with their younger white brother.
I often hear of mistreatment by black and Latino co-workers and witnessed first hand several incidents in which black and Latino workers would interact congenially with one another or me as a white man and then turn around and issue caustic treatment to internationals. My black supervisors were also not hesitant to treat me rudely, established in their position of superiority. Feeling drawn into membership in the Karen community at the chicken plant, I myself began to feel some of the disdain my friends have expressed to me for their black and Latino co-workers because of mistreatment.
My educational and cultural background trained me to regard racism as a folly of the ignorant, yet stepping out of my “white-as-anethnic” sensibility it becomes a real demon to contend. When your own individuality is dissipated by membership in a close-knit cultural body, it is not reasonable to regard consistent mistreatment by others belonging to another cultural body as individual aberrations. There is indeed a culture of abuse. Yet to regard all people with a particular physical appearance as culprits in said culture would also be in error. This is the error of racism: failure to discriminate between distinctive cultures.
Is it ethical for me to consider “joining the tribe?” Is this a failure to discriminate between my experience of comfortable affluence and the refugee experience of the Karen? Certainly there is a gargantuan gap to be acknowledged here, a seemingly irreconcilable void, yet to regard it as essential is this same failure, which deems cultures as absolute. Our memory is always available to the mediation of new experience. This is our essential human freedom—the invitation to the path of salvation (healing).
I can never truly know the plight of the Karen because I have the freedom to leave. My foray into the working class was insulated by the fact that my termination was of little consequence to my quality of life. But even when a tourist comes across fertile ground, he must criticize the conditioned impulse to capture it in a snapshot and return to the rocky soil where produce comes in on trucks and gets sold in supermarkets. As ludicrous as it may seem, he must consider the possibility of throwing away his passport and planting some seeds just to see what germinates.
In wake of the sudden end of my employment at the chicken plant, Naw Say invites me to follow her to pick strawberries for a local farmer in the evening. We drive up a dirt road to the gate and she gets out to open it. I drive into a verdant enclave of trees and shrubs where we are greeted by two smiling faces. “Ha luh ghay?” the man tries.
“Uhh, Ha luh a ghay” Naw Say replies, laughing in appreciation.
He hands us each a stack of shallow boxes and we follow him down the hill to the strawberry patch.
“Where is Pa Saw Paw today?” he asks.
“She had to stay at home with her kids, so I came in her place,” I tell him.
“Well thanks for coming to help.”
“Sure. I am happy to be here. This place is beautiful.”
“Yeah. We really lucked out. What kind of work do you do?”
“Well I worked at the chicken plant in Athens for one month, but I just got fired for being too slow.”
“That’s a hard place to work,” he says.
Words like “solidarity,” “intentional,” and “downward mobility” swirl about my brain, but I cannot seem to put them together in a sentence to show that I have a college degree, so that he will recognize that I am not actually a low-class worker. Solidarity undoes itself when it is approached as a purpose unto itself. Buried beneath my shame is the only wealth I have.
“So pick only the berries that are completely ripe…No yellow or white,” he instructs me. Naw Say is already a quarter of the way down her first row as I begin searching under the first plant.