On the day I went to the Secretary of State’s office to renew my driver’s license, the room was packed with people. I took a number and then chose the first vacant seat that I saw in the waiting area. Most people in the room were visibly unhappy about the wait. An older couple sitting across the aisle two rows in front of me was very vocal about it. Their loud complaints about the “lazy” and “incompetent” people behind the counter were annoying. I tried to tune them out by reading a book, but after a few minutes, I put the book down and glanced at them. The man was leaning over and complaining bitterly to a woman who I assume was his wife. The woman was in a wheelchair.
In that moment, they reminded me of my own parents. Not because of the complaining, but because of their postures. My father used to lean over and speak quietly to my mother during her time in a wheelchair. Waiting at the doctor’s office in a wheelchair for her appointments had been grueling for her.
I felt a pang of sympathy for the older couple. I wasn’t in any hurry. My husband was watching our two small children at home. If anything, the alone time was like a vacation for me. So, I walked up to the older couple and offered them my place ahead of them in line. They didn’t thank me. The man just snatched the ticket out of my hand and threw his ticket at me. As I walked back to my seat, they continued to loudly complain about the people who were working behind the counters.
I just shrugged off their discourtesy and went back to my book. And that’s when it happened.
“How many of them do you think are foreign?” The woman asked.
The man glanced at the five women behind the counters. “Two.”
The woman shook her head. “No, the one in front of us is just black.”
“What about that other one?” The man pointed to the lady with dark hair and an olive complexion on our right.
The woman nodded in agreement. “She looks foreign.”
“Yeah,” the man snorted. “She probably doesn’t even speak any English.”
“That’s why the line is so slow. She can’t help anyone,” the woman shook her head with disgust. “She’s incompetent.”
“Why do they keep hiring these lazy foreigners?” The man scowled in her direction. “They should get someone who can speak English,” he stated loudly.
A woman sitting directly across the aisle from me looked at me, eyes wide. We both exchanged horrified glances. The couple continued their racist tirade, completely oblivious to the apparent distress on the “ethnic” faces of the people in the room. When I thought about my own “foreign” parents, something inside me snapped.
Oh, hell no.
I thought about my father and his solitary struggles as a young foreigner in a strange new country. On good days, he had a can of soup to eat or a kind friend would invite him over for dinner. On the bad days, he went hungry. He worked on an assembly line and bussed tables to put himself through school. My father ultimately acquired three degrees and became a university career counselor who helped students find jobs after graduation.
I thought about my mother leaving everything she had ever known and loved in India to come to this country after marrying my father. An angry woman welcomed my beautiful mother to New York City by calling her an “ugly foreigner” and trying to spit on her. My mother struggled to balance raising two children, managing our household, working and going to school for two degrees. She ultimately became a clinical psychologist who helped the mentally ill.
I thought about my parents, younger sister and me, living in a cramped 900-square-foot townhouse in a low-income neighborhood. I remember wearing the ill-fitting clothes my mother made by hand instead of the designer clothes my friends bought at the store. There were so many toys that I couldn’t have because we were saving our money for a small home in a neighborhood with a good school district. After a decade of saving, we moved.
I thought about the summer days when I studied while my friends played outside. My father gave me his own version of math homework that put me years ahead of my classmates. When I complained, he reminded me that a good education was my ticket to better things. I ultimately graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and went on to acquire a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA. My younger sister also has two engineering degrees. Both of us worked as engineers in the automotive industry.
I thought about all of the struggles and the sacrifices that my foreign parents made for their U.S.-born children, and I got mad. Very, very mad.
I sprang from my seat and walked toward the couple. The man stopped complaining for a moment to look at me. I stared him right in the eye, trembling with rage. The people behind him stopped talking and stared at me. I wanted to scream at him, but the only thing I could coherently get out was, “I’m the daughter of foreigners, and I just tried to help you.” I snatched the ticket out of the man’s hand and snapped, “Maybe you’ll remember that the next time you want to spout off about foreigners.”
I turned around and stomped back to my seat. The couple remained silent. They were still waiting quietly in their seats when I was called up to the counter. A “non-foreign” lady behind the counter smiled and thanked me. Needless to say, she waived my driver’s license fee that day. She said it was on her.