He holds up his index finger to show a deep jagged cut across the tip marring his distinctive pattern.
“Chicken bone,” he says, chuckling. “Green card office ta eh weh bah. Ya bah leh ga dah gay luh kee ta blaw—The green card office did not like this. I have to go back again later.”
“Na hay na supervisor lee ta bay nayahh—Did you give your supervisor that paper?” I ask pointing at the excuse paper from the green card office.
“Yes. She say ‘I don’t want.’ Very angry.”
During orientation at the chicken plant, new hires are referred to not as employees, but “partners.” “Partners” share in the wealth of the company with their hourly wage and share in the common mission of creating “product.” They are partners in the work and the wealth of an industry continuing to boom despite the economic downturn.
I first recall hearing the word “partner” in elementary school when assigned to work in conjunction with another student. This meant completing a science experiment together or peer-editing each other’s writing. It was sometimes a relationship of unfortunate dependence. We later learned its sexual connotation, which never failed to be a source of humor in the classroom.
“Partner” originates from the Old French word parçener, meaning “a joint heir.” The French word is derived from the Latin partitionem, from which we get the English word “partition,” expressing separation or division. Carrying such an etymology, words cleverly probe employee’s perception of their position, not as exploited labor, but as bourgeois recipients of a shared inheritance. The usage of such language incarnates the exploitation by attempting to disguise slavery as dignified work.
“Welcome to America. We want you to be our slaves!” So expressed one of my close friends as the experience of resettlement in the United States. Yet he punctuates such statements with a fertile gratitude, often, much to my dismay, referring to the United States as “the land of opportunity.” I have a right to my cynicism given the history of oppression and exploitation in this country in the name of “opportunity,” just as my friend is justified in his anger at the subjugation of his people despite promises of a new life of dignity, yet these sentiments are only of creative value if they are used to fuel the creation of a new economy.
We need to recover the notion of our country as “the land of opportunity,” as a hopeful notion of this place as a realm of creative possibility. The land itself, refusing to become desert despite years of cotton monoculture proclaims this hope.
“Opportunity” comes from the Latin phrase ob portum veniens, which means “coming toward a port.” It is no wonder that the immigrant would imagine America as “the land of opportunity” while coming into harbor in New York or landing at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. We who would refer to ourselves as Americans are obliged to remember the circumstances of our arrival in this foreign land. The demon who drives us into despair, forgetfulness, and inattention is the demon who exploits the newly arrived with inhumane labor. Let us retreat from our fluency to unknowing and see our surroundings with new eyes, humble eyes, which cannot fathom ownership. Let our speech become silence that we ourselves may come into port, arrive in our own milieu. History is writing itself as we speak.
The great Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi speaks thus via contemporary translator Coleman Barks:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.
This inheritance refuses by its very nature to be partitioned. To be an heir of opportunity is to share in the unbounded creative possibility of fertile land. We construct our fences, but without fail the wires will rust and crumble. Our divisions in the face of time prove themselves to be only figments of our imagination, property markers to make us feel separate and secure. In this field, there can be no boundaries, no partnership, only union.
“Pa ga oh peh ee du luh pa say oh, pa ga pway hee ta pluh peh Comer—We will stay here until we have money and then we will buy a house in Comer.”
“Pa ta tha law tah ta mee mee ah ah, bah hsa pa loh bah hee ta pluh—We don’t want many things, but we need a house.”