The Thankful Foreigner: An Award-Winning Essay from a Millennial

And now, as I keep a vigilant eye over the discrimination in my society, I wonder: When will the other people, blinded by prejudice, have the eye-opening experience I had that day?

This little story from a few years ago is incredibly relevant today.

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Let the adventure begin!

In 2011, an incredibly cheap last-minute Houston-to-London roundtrip airfare offer coincided with my son’s 14th birthday and a lazy Thanksgiving week in which we had nothing planned.

So we cooked up a weeklong Mom & Kid trip to give the young ‘un (our last milennial) an opportunity to experience his first international travel:  three nights in Paris, followed by three nights in London.  We left Houston right after school on a Friday afternoon, tickets in hand for our first adventure, scaling the Eiffel Tower less than 24 hours later.  I knew it was going to be a worthwhile trip when, dazed and tired from the overnight flight to London and a couple of hours of fitful sleep on the high-speed EuroStar (Chunnel) train on the way to Paris, he leaned over to me – before our adventures even began – touched me on the arm and said:

Mom, thank you for showing me the world!

We alighted in Paris, stumbled to our hotel, took a few minutes for a power nap, and set out to ascend the Eiffel Tower.  But I digress; that’s a story for another time. Today’s focus is on my son’s memory, captured in his award-winning essay, which he shared post-competition on Facebook, as follows (in his words).

From February, 2012:  The following essay is what I wrote at the Klein Academic Competition that won first place for 8th Grade Ready Writing. The story is non-fiction; these events did actually happen.


The Thankful Foreigner

The sounds of honking European cars, people of all kinds conversing in French, and muffled, slimly audible brakes from subway trains all formed a soundtrack to the beginning of my day.

Trying to force my eyes open, I sat up, told my mom good morning, and, after slowly rising to my feet, walked over to the window of our hotel room. Pushing the red curtain away, I looked down upon the busy Parisian street, where people were walking in and out of shops and cafes, waiting to cross the intersection, and riding on motorcycles or in cars.

Now I knew it was true. The previous day had involved exhausted scrambling through airports and train stations, causing more of a feeling of trauma than that of a vacation. But now I was sure; I was really in Paris.

Within about a half hour, both my mom and I were dressed, clean, and ready to hit the street. Our first stop, as we had already discussed, was going to be a nearby cafe. We needed breakfast.

It called out to us the second we stepped out the door; across the street, a nice neon-red sign reading “La Porte de Montmartre” flashed out at my eyes. Immediately, I asked, or, I should say, STATED: “We should go there.”

So we took a risk; we waited for a pause in traffic, then dashed across the street.

It looked even better from up close. All the tables occupied by regular French citizens who all looked like some character in a classic movie…we had to get coffee here.

So my mom and I walked straight through the cafe to the bar, where we instantly mounted ourselves upon two vacant stools, and at the bartender’s acknowledgement, ordered two cups of coffee.

I noticed soon enough that this man was very young and handsome, yet obviously exhausted. He also, however, seemed like the kind of Frenchman that one of my less considerate classmates would sneak snide comments about back home. I knew about the unfounded views other countries have of the French, but…I knew that not ALL the French people were pompous and arrogant.

As he came back from the kitchen with our two cups of coffee, my ever-so-inquisitive mom asked what I’d been wondering: “Where are you from?”

The second she asked that, his face brightened up. “You tell me first,” he said through his grin, his French accent indeed present.

“We are from Texas, in the USA,” I said. “And you, sir?”

He stood up straight and said, rather proudly,

Normandy Beach. The ruins of the D-Day attack. All of the American liberators are buried there…Many of my people are not as grateful to the Americans as they should be. I mean, thanks to your country, we are all still French. So, personally, I thank you and all your people.”

Within two seconds of his ceasing to speak, I knew that any anti-French sympathies I could’ve had prior to this day would be gone.

It was obvious that this man was at least 30 years too young to have experienced the historic World War II battle that had brought recognition to his hometown. Yet he had the heart to honor and respect a foreign country and its military for the well-being of his own.
Since then, the “French” slur and stereotype has been something I make a goal to avoid. I now see the prejudice and ignorance behind many comments that, before that sunny Parisian morning, I might not have seen.

And now, as I keep a vigilant eye over the discrimination in my society, I wonder:  When will the other people, blinded by prejudice, have the eye-opening experience I had that day?


 

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The Thankful Foreigner, himself
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The wise 14 year old, our last millennial 
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We’ll go back to La Porte Montmartre when next we are in Paris

Back to the Present

Back to the present, back to my voice…Wow.  I’ve experienced this story in a myriad of ways:

  • When it originally happened; I realized that the young French man would be someone we remembered forever.  “Because of you, we are all still French!” is how I remember him proclaiming his appreciation for the American and Allied liberation of France.
  • When my son’s name was called at the UIL district competition award ceremony as the first place winner…I I lost my self-control, rose from my seat in the uncomfortable gym bleachers and screeched “Woooooo!” before sitting back down, red-faced and yet unabashedly proud.  Then, a few minutes later as I almost strangled him with hugs, he told me the topic of his essay, and we reminisced about that morning, that young man, that authentic gratitude.
  • When I actually read the essay after he got it back a few weeks later and understood what the magical moments with the young man in the coffee bar had meant to my son, and wondered at how he translated the ridiculousness of petty prejudices into this insight:  “I now see the prejudice and ignorance behind many comments that, before that sunny Parisian morning, I might not have seen.”
  • And now, more than 5 years later, as our country struggles with immigration, our place in the world and how we interface with those who are “foreign”.  Perhaps I’m biased – well, heck, of course I’m biased – but I find my son’s final statement in that little essay truly profound:

And now, as I keep a vigilant eye over the discrimination in my society, I wonder: When will the other people, blinded by prejudice, have the eye-opening experience I had that day?

What’s that old saying…”out of the mouths of babes”?  How about:  “out of the mouths of millennials”?

Copyright 2017, Glover Gardens Cookbook; The Thankful Foreigner printed with permission of the author, Thomas Wenglinski

 

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