As I approached my seat on the airplane back to the U.S. a few weeks ago I was mildly disappointed to note a man in the seat next to mine. I was hoping for a stretched out conversation-free flight but because of him I got the exact opposite. What I didn’t expect was that by the end of it all I would have a hard time saying goodbye.
I looked him over. Dark skin, pressed shirt, fingernails caked with dirt. He sat a bit off centered with his hands clenched over the bag on his lap. I removed the plastic from my blanket; he did the same. I opened my book; he reached for a magazine. I pushed on my T.V. screen; he pushed on his. Despite his interest in the T.V. screen he said, “No,” to headsets and then it dawned on me – this young, but hard faced, wrinkle skinned man had never been on a plane before.
I reached back, requested a headset and handed it to him and we resumed our game of Simon Says. I put on my headset; he did the same. I stuck the plastic wrap from my blanket in the seat pocket; he did the same. I put back my seat; he tried to do the same, but had no idea how. For the next half hour we communicated through nods and gestures and the occasional words.
He sat with his headset on just looking around and I showed him the end of cord. He jumped when I plugged it in. Once the volume was lowered he looked around as if he could see things floating in the air in front of him. He pointed to the screen and raised his eyebrows and I taught him how to use his first touch screen.
He inevitably pushed the icons to hard, too long and not quite on the mark and I couldn’t help thinking that this could be a metaphor for what was in store for him in America. The person in front of him looked back irritated a few times. After some music, he switched to movies and his first choice was Batman. The Batmobile and the Joker appeared on his screen – welcome to America.
I shrugged it off and went back to my iPad until he wanted help with his immigration forms and that is where I learned his story.
“Address in the US?,” I asked
He looked at me sideways. I explained that Colorado was a state and that there were more specifics directions to where he would be going. He still didn’t know, so he handed over his passport with all of the paperwork some agency had probably given him and some of which was stapled directly into his passport.
Still no address, but there was letterhead from the Western Range Association stating that he was going to a ranch out in Colorado. I looked over the paper work in Spanish and his story became clearer.
He was being hired as a Shepard and he should expect to work the majority of his time alone with responsibility of upward of 1000 sheep. He had to have at least 1 year experience in this job and should expect to work long hours. Being able to ride a horse was a requirement. If his calloused hands were any indication, none should have been a problem at the tune of about $750 a month in pay.
During the rest of the flight he told me more. He was a father of 9 and had left his wife and family alone in an area that sounded quite remote. She wouldn’t have any relatives near by, but some of the children were old enough to help out. He was going to America to make more money and send it back to them in the hopes of a better future. In reality, he was the chief of his tribe, the CEO of his family, if you will.
In teaching him all of these new things, it was I who was changed during that flight. I learned what it was to be new again and how much fear is involved in going to a new place for the first time. I learned that he didn’t know what turbulence was or if it meant we were going to live or die. I also learned that as we approached the airport that he had grown comfortable enough to ask if I would make sure he got to his next gate. I learned that while he was intrigued by the movie icon image for Brokeback Mountain, he wasn’t all together comfortable with the topic. Ironically as I showed him all of this new technology it was he who taught me.
So why am I telling this story? Aside from the wonder of seeing the world through such new and unfamiliar eyes, Invisible Culture is about suspending judgment to seek out the reasons behind things that may not be immediately apparent. Our world-view is anchored in our experiences, so when we come into contact with people who are different from ourselves there can be a tendency to evaluate people from our own perspective. While our judgments and instincts are important to keep us safe in our environments, they can also cause us to jump to conclusions that are completely inaccurate and even at times prejudice.
I wondered what people in the land of manicures and pedicures would think of his hands. I wondered what responses he would get from people who think foreigners should speak “American.” I wondered if people would call him an alien if he wasn’t here illegally and I wondered if his employer would recognize that he was the CEO of his life in Peru. More immediately, I wondered how on earth he was going to afford lunch in JFK airport, let alone Dulles and Denver, which were still after that.
In the end, I waited for him and his friend at immigration, but an official came along. She said, “I’ll take it from here,” and so I reluctantly walked away as both he and I looked over our shoulders at one another as the distance between us grew with each step. After saying something to them she left them standing there alone and I wondered if she had any idea of how shocking baggage claim at JFK must have been to this Shepard of sheep, father of nine and CEO of his previous rural existence. We waved goodbye, but I suspected neither of us did so without reservations.
A couple of weeks later I contacted the ranch where he was working. I was delighted to receive a note back that all was well, but his trip was not that easy after that. A plane was missed (unsure of the reason) and his baggage never arrived so he was without any of his personal belongings and relying on the kindness of other workers to lend him some of their things. Once a chief, now a beggar.
So now what would you think of a person with dirty finger nails? How about the person that sits behind you on a plane and pushes on the back of your chair? Or how about a grown man who can’t speak English and is counting pennies to pay his lunch? Is he an alien or a hero to ten people who await his arrival home? We may never find out how his story ends, but we certainly can be a better part of someone else’s beginning.