Thursday, April 05, 2007

Please press one for English

I arrived at Milwaukee's Mitchell airport at 7:15 on Monday morning. Two hours early for my international flight. I walked up to United's check-in. To my astonishment, no one was in line. Just me.

Despite being the only customer in sight, the clerk persuaded me to use the "easy check-in kiosk." He came up next to me to guide me through the menu. After touching the screen, a list of nearly a dozen languages appeared.

"So, what language are we speakin' today?" the clerk asked with a chuckle.

I tried to think of a clever reply, but it was 7 in the morning. "I guess I'll go for English," I replied.

"Some guy got really angry about this the other day. He said, 'This is America. English should be the only option!'" he told me.

This made me seethe. Perhaps because my fiance speaks a different language. Perhaps because I was about to go back to a country where I'm often lost in its language.

"Well, this is a country full of lots of different types of people," I finally sputtered.

"Yeah, and this is an airport! Of course there's people from all over the world traveling through here," the clerk added.

Victory. He had sided with me. But then I thought about it. How did I really feel? I have to admit that there was a little part of me that was nervous when I noticed espanol written on the back of a Lean Cuisine. If Spanish is being used to tell us how to microwave things, then it must be almost everywhere. And, at least in Milwaukee, it is.

America is quite unique in its size and diverisity. Amazingly, despite all its different people, you can travel from coast to coast and speak one language the entire way. This came at quite a cost. We wiped out almost an entire race of people to achieve this, plus most of our ancestors were forced to part with their native tongue. Language is one of few things that unite us as a country. We come from different races, cultures, and religions. Maybe we shouldn't be willing to part with the one thing that most of us have in common.

Living in China, I can also relate to the other side of the coin. It's comforting to see a sign in English. To find a map in English. Directions in English. A person who speaks English. If I see two similar products, but one has an English description, I will naturally pick the one I can read. It's too scary to imagine what I might be getting otherwise (ketchup flavored potato chips-no thank you). Unless you have lived in a country in which you cannot read or speak language, you cannot imagine how vulnerable this can make you feel. But no matter how scary or frustrating it may be, it was my choice to come here not speaking a word of Chinese.

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