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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Tourist

“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.”
“Say what?”
“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.

3 comments:

  1. Your stance and reason for undergoing this process seem to shift constantly. First you seem to try your hardest to blend in with a group of refugees and undertake their work. Next, you are unable to commit to the work required and admit stressing little over losing a job you don't need. And, to wrap it up, you later feel the need to express to someone that you're in a class above these people:

    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.

    Seems insulting and trivializing to a group of people who have been through real hardship.

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    Replies
    1. Zach's as honest as they come. Perhaps you understand little about the complexity of this subject and humanity in general.

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    2. armintamzarian,

      Thank you for your critical feedback. I think I do not always do a good job of placing these stories and reflections within their context. I don't know if you have been reading any of the previous posts, but perhaps they might offer some of this. I think my reason for seeking work at the chicken plant has always been solidarity, but certainly I have my own ego tied up in this as well. "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." I offered this as a confession of the ugliness of my own pride. I cannot agree with you more that this thought is insulting to the Karen people and thus defeats my whole purpose in seeking work there in the first place: "Solidarity undoes itself when it is approached as a purpose unto itself. Buried beneath my shame is the only wealth I have." Indeed such thoughts participate in the greater insult of chicken plant work to any human being. Writing them publicly is a way for me to be rid of them.

      Many of my Karen friends working at the chicken plant are incredibly skilled people and some have college degrees as well. In this post I hoped to acknowledge my need for their friendship and guidance, perhaps a reverse solidarity of sorts, though in their humility they would probably never acknowledge it as such.

      I wrote this post trying to process my new status as a terminated chicken plant employee. Let me assure you that I did not seek out being let go, but genuinely didn't make the cut. Perhaps this was connected to my own ego and sense of entitlement about the whole thing, but I really was trying my hardest to fulfill the requirements of my position. Let this speak to the character of my Karen friends and their humble submission to the insult of such work to fatten up Americans at fast food joints across the country, and still speak with gratitude of the opportunity to come here.

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