American Folk

A young girl. Long black hair. She's from Mexico City. She’s stateside on a year-long collegiate program, it’s been an adjustment. Hard studying, lots of cellphone photos, sightseeing.

She works in a sandwich shop. She is Russian. Mid-sixties. She wears a hairnet. Her accent is so thick I can hardly understand her.

“My accent will never go away,” she says. “Thirty-one years I live here, I still have it.”

She raised a family in Columbus, Georgia. She worked small-pay jobs to make ends meet. Her girls graduated college with honors.

This year, her family visited Russia for the first time since she left. She showed them the town she grew up in.

It almost made her teary telling me about it. Almost.

“When I was my girls’ age,” she says. “We only eat lunch every other day. We had poverty, you know?”

No, ma’am. I’ve never known hunger.

A young girl. Long black hair. She’s from Mexico City. She’s stateside on a year-long collegiate program, it’s been an adjustment. Hard studying, lots of cellphone photos, sightseeing.

She was supposed to leave for Mexico after this upcoming semester, but she fell in love. He’s an ER nurse. He took her out to a few movies. Now they’re getting married.

“It’s gonna be crazy,” she says. “I never thought I’d be an American, my mother freaked out. She’s really happy for me.”

Viva love.

He is my waiter. He has granite-black skin. He speaks a sophisticated form of broken English—almost British.

“I am South African,” he says.

I ask why he smiles so much—he looks like he just got his teeth polished.

“My mother teach me to smile when I was a child. She was always smiling wherever she goes.”

His smiling mother was a missionary. She’d grown up wealthy, but exchanged a privileged life for feeding kids, teaching school in third-world villages.

She was killed by a local gang when he was a boy.

“America is my home,” he says. “When I first arrive here, I notice everyone is so nice to me. Even at gas stations, they tell me: ‘Have nice day, sir.’ How nice everyone is. How safe it is.”

Right.

Three twenty-five-year-old boys. I sit beside them at a bar. They wear matching Army fatigues and boots. High-and-tight haircuts.

“We’re only in Pensacola a few days,” they tell me. But they won’t say where they’re shipping off to.

What they do tell me is that they love country music. When their feet touch U.S. soil, they hit the streets looking for steel guitars.

The band tonight is god-awful. But the boys don’t seem to mind the bad music.

“I was in Four-H, man,” says one boy. “I used to show pigs at the fair, this music just makes me feel like I’m home. God, I miss home.”

The boys lift glasses to that remark.

A few weeks ago, a twelve-year-old girl wrote me. She is in seventh grade. She asks if I’ll write something for her social studies class. Something about how “not all Americans look the same, but sort of are alike.”

I’m sorry it took me a few weeks, Taylor.

I hope this works.

10 comments

  1. DEBRA GAMBLE - April 11, 2017 11:15 am

    I think it’s fabulous, and I bet Taylor feels the same.

    Reply
  2. Dianne - April 11, 2017 11:57 am

    I admire your ability to engage strangers in conversation. I surely am not afraid to, but people can be a bit standoffish. Guess living in a large suburban area makes people around here fast moving and not very friendly. That makes it difficult for a Southerner to enjoy one of the pleasures of life. I like people’s stories. Down South I always get to
    practice my listening skills. I love getting your email every day and share to others to whom I think the tale is relevant. Thanks so much for the
    uplift.

    Reply
  3. Sam Hunneman - April 11, 2017 2:11 pm

    Nice!

    Reply
  4. Kay Keel - April 11, 2017 4:02 pm

    You nailed it!

    Reply
  5. Sheron Johnson - April 12, 2017 12:50 am

    awesome !!

    Reply
  6. Sheron Johnson - April 12, 2017 12:53 am

    Sean, Why can’t I comment? I t saysI have already said that!!! not true!!

    Reply
  7. Sheron Johnson - April 12, 2017 12:55 am

    My comments are not going through

    Reply
  8. Constance Ridgway - April 12, 2017 2:38 am

    Thanks Sean. What a country!! Thank You Lord!! So grateful too.

    Reply
  9. Lilli Ann Snow - April 13, 2017 7:28 pm

    “And, I think to myself…
    What…a…wonderful…world!”

    Reply
  10. Catherine - April 16, 2017 7:55 pm

    That is exactly why I love America! Taylor is one lucky little girl. Everyone is the same at heart- especially in the South! A nation of immigrants- with a smile on our faces!

    Reply

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