“Learning about geography, languages, and culture is a waste. You should study business or something practical.” I’ve been told this in some form or another since high school. Since then, I’ve had no regrets.
It’s a slow Wednesday night in Phoenix, Arizona. I’m sitting at the end of a quiet bar I frequent. The retro arcade machines seem to shine brighter than usual tonight. Blips and pings echo around a playlist of hits and deep cuts from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The staff was making closing preparations when four well dressed people walked in. They were promptly served and I tilted my gaze back into my drink. Thinking about everything and nothing. I look back over after a minute and now there are eight people. Another few minutes pass and now there are sixteen. The bar is packed in a few blinks of the eye. Everyone looks to be of a different ethnicity and nationality. Each of them with a noticeable accent and some of them a bit uncomfortable trying to order a craft beer in broken, heavily accented English. This could be an interesting night.
More time passes. I study their words as they order drinks and try to pinpoint their accents. I hear Irish, French, English, Romanian, and Indian. The bar staff and I find out that they’re the EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa) team of a data management company here for a convention in Phoenix, Arizona.
I’m invited to join them and sit next to a black man named Dietrich. He tells me he’s from Paris but I wanted to know where he was born. He tells me he’s from Benin not confident that I would know where it was. I tell him that Benin is between Togo and Nigeria and the capital is Porto Novo. A wave of pleasant shock comes to his face. I not only know where it is, but also the capital. “How do you know this?” We talk more and try my hand at the French I learned during my time in Nice and Monaco. I see his amusement from my horrible pronunciation but he smiles and said he was impressed. He goes on and tells me of the cheeses and pastries he likes to buy every week and how the food is better in Paris but he does admit the burgers are better here.
To my right is Dietrich and to my left is Asela from London. I then ask where he was originally from and he tells me he’s from Colombo. “Suba dawasak” (good afternoon) I say in Sinhala. Both Dietrich and Asela are taken back that someone not only knows that Sinhalese is spoken in Sri Lanka but also a few words of it. I tell him about my time drinking with my Sri Lankan friends at The Dutch Hospital and the roti that I ate on Marine drive. He smiles and said his first job was washing dishes at one of the bars in The Dutch Hospital. I show him a picture and saw that painful but happy look of nostalgia before he smiled and thanked me.
He taps the shoulder of the man next to him who is from Hungary. I ask if he’s from Budapest and he affirms. Now I’m being quizzed on the capital of each country they’re all from. South Africa, Pretoria; Ireland, Dublin; Bulgaria, Sofia; Romania, Bucharest; Moldova, Chisinau… and on down the line. A perfect score… My travels have either taken me there or I’ve met someone from there and inquired about their culture.
I knew the capitals of South Africa and Ireland from general knowledge. The Bulgarian girl I met on a cancelled flight from Istanbul gladly told me about her home. I met a Romanian girl on a pub crawl in Hong Kong and told me about her life as an activist in Bucharest. While in Miami, I ordered a mojito from a girl from Moldova who taught me how to pronounce Chisinau correctly.
I’m congratulated with applause while I asked where the APAC (Asia Pacific) team was. For a quick moment, I felt a bit strange. I smiled and raised my drink and made a toast to the rest of the world. In my mind, I didn’t know if it’s a good or bad thing that immediate knowledge of foreign capitals, obscure languages, and less popular cultures, is looked at as more of a party trick. Is it really something to be surprised about when someone doesn’t have to look at their phone for an answer?
A few of them were planning on making an escape to Las Vegas before their flights out. They ask me if I’ve ever been. I just laughed and gave them an itinerary to for a 24 hour Vegas blitz. What restaurants to go to, sights to see at which resorts, what to drink, what to skip. I guess when you only have one chance and only a day to visit Las Vegas, you try to gobble up all the info you can. They thanked me once again.
Some people went to play some of the games but a few of the darker skinned folks stayed to ask me about America’s perception of immigrants and people of color. I’m not a very political person but I did my best to let them know that not all Americans are what they’re portrayed to be in the media. They thanked me for welcoming them and showing interest in a country and a culture other than my own. The unassuming international native. The quiet guy at the end of an empty bar with an impressive wealth of worldly knowledge and experience.
We all have the chance of being a kind and thoughtful ambassador of our homeland. For me, representing the United States of America in a positive way means more to me than some high paying, high stress yet boring occupation with bank of knowledge that can only be shared with a small group of people. Studying what I wanted to in college made the experience much better. I may never have six figures in the bank but I know I’ll never be culturally bankrupt. Unlike GAAP, residential law, or efficient coding practices, I could talk and learn about the intricacies of culture and language for the rest of my life.