Tuesday, March 11, 2008

America Strong

The sweat dripped down my face as I put one foot in front of the other. Cars zipped past the side of me on their way to the beautiful ocean view that was giving me my last bit of inspiration.

Slowly, I jogged up the steep incline with my eyes staring at the pavement moving beneath me. As soon as I looked up I saw another runner coming my way down the hill. In an ever subtle gesture he gave me a nod of acknowledgement and then a ‘thumbs up’ as if to encourage me. In that split second exchange, we had connected on a similar level; a runner’s level. I knew he had just been where I was a few minutes before and he knew the pain that I was enduring.

On my way back down the hill I encountered several other runners embarking on the same climb that I had just done. Without hesitation and without a sense of obligation, I gave a small wave as we crossed paths. Call it a runner’s thing, a symbol of unity or whatever you wish. The bottom line was that we were all trying to get up that hill.

Running is very much an individual activity and even though there are running groups here and there, the vast majority of runners like to go at it alone. Some people do it competitively in marathons while others just go out to get in shape or to give themselves an excuse to get out of the office. Despite the reasons why people choose to torture their knees for long periods of time, there is one common denominator; the struggle. It is that struggle that connects us, that bonds us.

That instance when I was running up towards Diamond Head and got a motivational thumb’s up is not unique. Almost every time I go out for a run, I encounter similar signals, whether it be a wave, a wink, a big smile and of course the ‘thumbs up.’ The point is that runner’s like to see other runners out on the roads, putting in work when everyone else is at the beach or watching TV. There is an instant sort of brotherhood that is unspoken but understood.

After my last run, I began to ask myself if I had similar experiences in other aspects of my life where complete strangers offer signs of deference out of the blue. For whatever reason, that guy who reached out and made that simple notion to me made me realize that although running is an individual activity, I was by no means out there by myself. I thought for a minute on my descent and then immediately thought of work.

Whenever I enter the gates to work, I am greeted with a sharp salute. Over years of military custom, the salute has begun to mean a lot of things. The most important of which is mutual respect. Salutes are common in the military and for most of us they are second nature. Whenever I see a troop coming my way to salute me, I return a crisp one back without ever thinking twice. Along with the salute comes the verbal greeting (morning, afternoon, evening) and if we are really motivated that particular day, a “Hooah!”

The salute is not a gesture that civilians do. It’s a special sign of solidarity between military folks that is a constant reminder that, “we’re in this fight together.” Like runners, military men and women are easy to spot out in our uniforms. Even outside of work most store owners can spot us a mile away with our short hair cuts and demeanors.

Some storeowners identify me as one of them even.

Whenever I visit a Korean owned store, I’ll call out “on yang hay say yo,’ –one of the few phrases that I know in that language. Right away, I am in their graces. For the most part, they have already identified me as one of them and my broken Korean if anything, lets them know that I would be talking in English as I do business.

I love seeing the old Korean ladies light up as I walk into their stores. I know that I will get some extra unfair hospitality and occasionally a discount. I also know that 9 times out of 10 if they have a daughter, they will probably show me pictures of her. I love Koreans.

On my way back from my deployment (a plane ride lasting over 36 hours with layovers) I met a very nice flight attendant. Maybe too nice. “Are you Korean?” She asked as she handed me my meal. “Yes,” I replied. Her smile grew large.

After she had seen I was done with my meal, she had another one in her hands steaming hot. I politely tried to refuse as I pointed to my stomach to try to tell her that I was full, but she left the tray there anyways. Out of embarrassment and respect I ate the meal and put it on the empty seat next to me as I closed my eyes.

A half hour later she was back. “Are you still hungry?” she asked. “No thanks, I’m really full,” I replied. I knew that my response was not the end of it. And sure enough, plate number three came my way. I looked around to see if anyone else was getting the “hook up,” and to my guilt, saw nothing of the sort. By the time the plane landed in Hawaii, I was full and wide awake. For I had gotten a great night of sleep thanks to the additional pillows and blankets that she had given me throughout the flight as well as the constant service.

Thinking about the runners, the military folks and Koreans that I come across on a daily basis, I began to wonder whether Americans have anything that we do collectively to show that we are Americans.

I am an American first. And although I wear many hats and belong to various social circles, I am proud that no matter where I am, I am a part of a great nation. That great nation though, does not show its solidarity as well as it probably should. We are constantly divisive on ethnic, religious, economic and political matters. The more I walk around and see the face of America today, the more I begin to see a clear line between the “haves and the have nots.”

I turn on the news and see commentators yelling back and forth at one another about differences of opinions. These debates solve nothing but are the epitome of this hatred and resentment that is everywhere.

Other than the national anthem that is played before ball games or the 4th of July, is there ever a sense of belonging for us all. Most of us are too busy with ourselves and too wrapped up in our self interest to think anything of our fellow Americans who have less.

So what is an American? Is it the man who cuts his fellow driver off on the freeway so that he can get home five minutes earlier? Is it the guy who refused to hold the elevator open while he looks away and pretends that he didn’t hear you chasing it down. Is it the real estate agent preying on the elderly to purchase a reverse mortgage? Is it the car dealer who sells a lemon jus to spin a profit? Or how about the southerner whose family immigrated to America two generations before but now acts as if immigration is this terrible thing now?

I’m not suggesting we wear red white and blue everyday or that we salute one another as we pass by. All I’m saying is that we can be more cordial, treat people with respect and dignity…as equals! We must overcome our bitterness towards people who don’t think the way we do or even act it. America is more than a piece of land in the northern hemisphere. To me, it is an ideal of democracy, a shining city upon a hill that can be recognized as a beacon of hope for all of those around the world. Together we are united and above we are “indivisible.”

“His foreparents came to America on immigrant ships. My foreparents came to America on slave ships. But whatever the original ships, we’re in the same boat tonight.”

Rev Jesse Jackson

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