aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

On belonging

Apu is the manager of the Kwik-e-mart in Springfield, Homer Simpson's home town. He is a stereotype of the South Asian entrepreneur. The reason he's funny is that there are lots and lots of South Asian entrepreneurs operating gas stations and convenience stores just like his. And they are not just in big cities. I see them all over southern Indiana in small towns like Dillsboro.

I wonder about their journey to such places. How did they get started in this business? Are they owners or managers? Did other South Asians help them get set up? How did they come to settle in places like Dillsboro? Do they live locally? Have they faced any prejudice from long-time residents? What religion are they, and do they have a religious community nearby to attend? I'd like to know some of their stories, but I fear to offend by asking them.

I was in one of these gas stations/convenience stores recently, and the person at the counter was a young woman, maybe 18-25 years old. Her face and complexion were obviously South Asian, so I took her for the daughter of the owner/manager, or something like that. But her speech -- oh, my goodness. She spoke in a relaxed and natural manner, in a down-home southern Indiana accent. I don't know if she was born here, but she has certainly grown up here. The older generation of her family sound like Apu, but she's a native Hoosier.

This pleased me, in an odd way. It told me that she and her family have found a place here. And that's good. They are welcome. Community isn't about everybody being the same, except that we share our lives in this place. And it may be that this young woman hasn't found belonging easy. She may have felt different and out of place growing up in a southern Indiana town; others may have seen her as different and out of place and not been as welcoming as they should. She wouldn't have to be Asian for that to happen. As I said to a parishioner who immigrated from Germany to the little town of Spurgeon years ago, "Spurgeon ist ein Dorf, and Dörfer sind dasselbe* die Welt hinüber" (Spurgeon is a village, and villages are the same all over the world). All places can be difficult for a newcomer to enter, and small communities are particularly difficult, even if you are from the same regional or ethnic background. But this young woman has persevered, and the community has accepted her and her family as part of the whole, or at least it seems so to me.

This is a good thing. In many places, people draw apart from each other. There are invisible lines in many communities that people learn not to cross. Towns, neighborhoods, schools, even workplaces, become fractured into "us" and "them." You can see it in how people group when they're all in one place. In today's world, these invisible lines are often policed by those who see themselves as proponents of social justice, rather than as enforcers of ethnic or cultural purity, though it comes to the same thing; the anti-racists nowadays push segregation as much as the racists of yore did.

The goal ought to be to become comfortable with each other. To allow each of us to be as we are, while affirming our common belonging or purpose. To not have to walk on eggshells around each other. To be able to laugh about things together. To see differences as merely part of what makes each person interesting, instead of boundary markers that warn people against trespassing on some other group's psycho-social property.

Part of me wanted to say "welcome" to that young woman in the convenience store. But then, I was in her community, and it would have been more appropriate for her to say "welcome" to me, for she belonged there, and I was merely visiting.

*I should probably have said das Gleiche.

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