Conversations with Americans Pt.5 (Good Questions)

Aldi Süd, Trier

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I still talk to Americans. More impressively, they still talk to me.

Granted, Americans will speak to anyone, but following previous discoveries, I know that Americans have more to talk about than just food and where to find it. They are a curious people. They have questions and they’re looking for answers.

I just wish I had some.

“I bet you’re grilling out tonight! And I bet you’re having brownies too!”

Yeah, not strictly speaking questions, but they require an appropriate and non-confrontational response. Sometimes, yes, the questions are not questions. The “how’re you?” variety, the ones that not only don’t require an answer but will cause bafflement if you attempt to provide one. These questions are like breathing in American and I take care to explain this  within the walls of the ESL classroom. Because these guys need to know what these questions are worth, what they mean, and where they go after that.

In Aldi’s, a store that is reassuringly similar in Tennessee to its Scotland version (i.e. a collection of recognizable products with unrecognizable brand names), the cashier’s customer service gambit is to declare that it looks like I’m having – whatever I’m buying – tonight for dinner. So when I buy buy 36 hamburger patties and also 10 kilo box of brownie mix for our horse shows catering job from Aldi’s, the cashier is forced to make increasingly random attempts at nailing my dinner plans.

And who am I to burst her bubble? More importantly, who am I to assume there’s a bubble to burst in the first place?

I tell her, “Yeah.” I smile. Even with that, I have no doubt there’s something Tennesseean I’ve failed to say. But I try my best.

The cashier is like the woman who wanted to sell me a Dyson vacuum cleaner in Sears. Someone who must be a grandmother, or a great-grandmother. She shouldn’t have to do this job. She should be retired, she should be working on a tapestry, she should be tucked up at home complaining to a friend that her son never calls (although he really does).

“H-e-e-e-y-y-y bay-bee?”

8am. I’m getting ready to cycle the return leg of the local Greenway when the woman pulls up beside me, her car window open, and she speaks in that special way only the most addled of drug users can. She has just returned to her from the public park’s ladies bathroom and she has the look in her eyes of the the people who would use the Asda toilets in Livingston before the management changed to those nasty blue lights so that you couldn’t find a vein.

I guess that’s something Tennessee hasn’t gotten around to yet.

Is this a Sliding Doors moment? I know I’m looking hot. My bicycle helmet, my shorts, my astonishingly (still) white legs. I go with what I know and give her my most British “hey there” in return, and she pulls away, carrying on with the rest of her morning. I keep an ear out as she drives round the corner, waiting for squealing tires, but like all Americans, like all of us, she’s well-practised in driving while distracted.

And then sometimes the questions are real. These are the ones I’m having the most trouble with.

You know you can’t give blood here, right?

Yes. Because of the crazy cows. My blood was good enough in Britain. The blood bank would appear at my office building and I would go down, for the sake of my conscience and a surprisingly generous number of TUC crackers.

America doesn’t want my blood. I’m at peace with this. Thing is, the woman asking the question in a clinic as I strode up to the counter and demanded to give blood. No, I was at home washing dishes at the time. There was no blood on offer as long as I was careful with the silverware. But Americans sometimes know something about Britain and they want to share these nuggets with me.

The woman went on to say something else, something extraordinary, but it wasn’t a question so I guess it’ll have to wait for a different post. Shame, it was a real belter.

Do you know the real story behind Thanksgiving?

Apparently, the real story is that in the first year, the colonists tried a socialist system and they were almost wiped out as a result. Socialism nearly killed the USA before it was even born. They were working for the collective good, see, and of course that just gives the lazy people an excuse to catch disesases and die while the others had to do all the work.  So then they tried a capitalist system and flourished, since a free market rewards all those who work hard and so everyone worked hard and so they didn’t get sick or hungry anymore and everything was fine. Hence the tradition of giving thanks. American kicked socialism’s ass before socialism was even developed as a theory.

There’s a lot wrong with this story. It’s significantly different from the History Channel, from my year studying American History during my Politics & Modern History degree. (Between you and me, I find my American history is often better than those of Americans. I just look ignorant because I can’t name all 50 state capitals or 45 presidents.) But when someone presents a theory like that to me as solemn fact, I don’t want to laugh in his face. His life seems utterly…fragile. So I  told the guy I must have read a different history book.

What annoyed me most was that we were talking about the best way to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. This is something I can talk about, something so wholesome (if you eat animals) and American that really, how can anyone reasonably decide a conversation topic so utterly American and wholesome (if you eat animals) is an appropriate stepping-off point for a sustained mauling of the American narrative and non-existent socialists? Or is it the perfect point? I guess I still have much to learn about why people tell me these things.

How many Americans d’you think know about the Green Card lottery?

A nervous white guy sneaked me this question five minutes before the room was due to be filled with immigrant students.

The answer is not something I’ve given much thought to. I know about the diversity lottery. As an immigrant, I’m an expert on all legal routes into the United States. It’s like when I put vinyl floor tiles down in my bathrooms in Scotland; it was something I knew nothing about beforehand, but by the time I was finished, I could have written a very boring, very detailed book on the matter.

With the diversity lottery, if you come from a country that the US considers under-represented in America, you can apply to the diversity lottery. My back of the envelope calculations suggest that if you apply, you stand a 0.003% chance of success. Success meaning “find a job in the US within 12 months and we’ll let you in”. A worthy cause, but neither a sure thing or a red carpet to America.

Anyway, in terms of the guy’s question, he’s thinking something very low. He’s thinking maybe one per cent. He’s also thinking that most of the immigrants he’s seen in Nashville got to the United States because of a lucky scratch card – he doesn’t know the difference between a refugee and a lottery winner.  Maybe he thinks I’m a lottery winner as well, because God knows there are hardly any Brits in America. And he thinks if the average American knew this as well  (i.e. was similarly misinformed), they would be rioting in the streets. And it’s true that sometimes anger and resentment are the result of false data and grotesque stereotypes.

Ah, the nervous white American male, an endangered species in his own mind. It’s true, of course, that I am an immigrant and I am after his job. I’m also after his car and his walk-in closet. So yeah, he’d better run.


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