“Is Obama the President of South America?”
When I heard this question a week ago, I immediately stopped what I was doing and stared at the man who innocently voiced this question in a mixture of awe and disbelief. The only thought going through my mind at this time was: what?
Gentle readers, some context: last week, Emma and I officially began tutoring the three boys of our family. They are all struggling in school – the oldest son, who was placed in ninth grade upon arrival to America, has the equivalent of a fourth grade education in the United States. To say that they need help catching up is an understatement.
So, Emma and I were working with the two youngest sons on their math and spelling homework, respectively, when the neighbors – another group of Nepalese refugees – came over to visit. They were eager to meet us, having heard (hopefully) good things about us from the boys’ parents over the weekend. The father, who did not look much older than myself, was sharing his appreciation for his new country with us when he asked how far South America was from Chicago. We explained that it was pretty far, and that it had a much different climate than Chicago, possibly more akin to the weather in Nepal than here.
Then he asked the question mentioned at the very beginning of this article. At the time, I remember thinking the question was funny – it was like something straight out of a movie. The newcomer asking a longtime resident a question that he, as an immigrant, has no good answer to, but naturally seems obvious to the longtime citizen (and subsequently, the audience). It was a good question, though, one that Emma and I were more than happy to set straight – that Obama was the President of the United States of America, which was a country in North America. He was not the president of two continental landmasses. Being a political science major came in handy in this situation!
I tried to ask how he came to the conclusion that the United States encompassed both North and South America, but judging by the look he gave me I think the question was lost in translation. Instead, Emma and I explained how North America was divided into three countries – Canada, the US, and Mexico – while South America had much more countries there. Mr. Neighbor asked if South America had democracies there. Once again, political science came in handy: I explained that there were some, but that some bad people controlled some of the countries there; bad people who mistreated their citizens. Mr. Neighbor nodded gravely, and expressed empathy for their plight.
This exchange made me wonder if this is how my teachers have felt at my questions all throughout my life. It’s a strange feeling, to possess the knowledge that others seek from a designated intellectual (or in this case, cultural) broker. It’s almost empowering, too. I’m not sure how I feel about it quite yet.
It does raise an important question for me, though. When the neighbor asked that question, he had the wide-eyed innocence and enthusiasm that one of the children I work with at after school programs at home or in Chicago have. So, I’m beginning to wonder if I might be talking down to these people – people who have seen and endured more suffering than I can possibly imagine.
Now, I don’t mean “talk down to” in a derogatory fashion. I mean, I’m not criticizing these people for being uneducated… With the limited grasp of English and geography that they have, and most likely an even smaller grasp on politics, I’m not surprised if they thought Obama was the leader of the continental Americas. what concerns me is that I want to treat them with the respect that they deserve as adults. It’s one thing for me to talk that way to the kids that I work with, but I couldn’t help but wonder if I crossed any lines with how I explained things to Mr. Neighbor.
Tomorrow I’m meeting with my family again. Maybe I’ll bring a map, so we can point out places in the US, or the world, and teach some new words to the family. Mr. Neighbor had been living in America with his family for nearly five months, and he still thought that Barack Obama was the leader of an entire continent. I can’t imagine what kind of assumptions my family has about America.