I was exhausted as we landed in New York. It had been almost a month long trip to Russia, dealing with Soviet style bureaucracy, when we finally succeeded with the adoption. I was bringing home the two older sisters to my previously adopted younger daughters. These two girls, in their mid teens, spoke almost no English. I never would have imagined that one of them knew the n word.
Emily was fifteen when we walked down the jet way into JFK Airport with her fourteen-year-old biological sister. Where Emily was adopted as an older child, post-9-11, it took a while to clear immigration as officials grilled her about her reasons for leaving Russia and entering the United States. We were all exhausted by the time we got into the cab and headed for Manhattan. I wanted my new daughters to spend one day in New York, learning that emigration to the United State was no new thing. I had even brought in a friend as a translator to help us. He would arrive the next day.
My oldest daughter is intellectually challenged and has since been diagnosed with several mental illness diagnoses, but she really can be a sweetheart. In fact, she can be one of the most charming people I know. She is, however, a person of extremes. Her personality can swing the other direction very quickly. That wasn’t what happened the first time she said it, though. The first time I heard her say the n word, it was in ignorance.
Emily was excited as she pointed out the window and screamed one of the most offensive words that the English language possesses; the n word.
Both of my new daughters were fascinated as we drove into the city. They had never seen anything like it. There was something else my daughters had never seen, except on television; Black people. There were crowds of people like nothing those teens had ever imagined waiting to cross the road in front of us. Many of them were Black. Emily was excited as she pointed out the window and screamed one of the most offensive words that the English language possesses: the n word.
Have you ever heard New York turn silent? I have! The silence was broken by our cab driver shrieking in his Hindi accent; “SHE CANNOT SAY THAT HERE!” I think that my response may have included a catch phrase involving a lack of excrement and a famous nineteenth century English investigator as I told him to roll up the window, run the light and get us out of there. I didn’t need to say it twice. My daughters use of the n word was all the encouragement he needed.
During the rest of the ride to our hotel, I was very stern with Emily as I told her I had no idea where she had learned the n word, but that it was never acceptable to use it. My daughter acknowledged my admonition, but inside, she filed it away as a word that could evoke the maximum amount of response. The n word got undivided attention. The n word gave her power.
Immediately after dropping our bags in the room and freshening up, I suggested that we go down to the hotel restaurant and get some dinner. As we were seated at the table, the waiter, a Black man, handed us our menus. He didn’t understand Emily’s broken English, so even though I knew it was futile, I translated. “Sorry,” he responded. “We don’t have Russian menus.” He didn’t understand her response, either, so he looked back at me. I told him she said that she would just have a bowl of borscht. “What?” I told him it was Russian beet soup. She’d have been able to order that in practically any Russian restaurant. “Yeah. Sorry. We don’t have borscht, either.” I told him I was sorry, but she wouldn’t accept my answers, so all I could do was translate. He and I shared a chuckle.
“Don’t be like that, man,” he said. “Let’s show her what America is all about.”
Emily didn’t appreciate being laughed at and her face turned bright red. The n word, screeched out at the waiter, needed no translation. He was shocked as he looked at me. I became painfully aware of my Western cut shirt, Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots. I believed that there was no way that a clothing stereotype like me could convince the waiter that I wasn’t behind my daughter’s use of the n word. I had to try, though.
“Look, I’m sorry,” I said as I stood up and slid my chair back under the table. My wife and I have just adopted these girls from Russia. I have no idea where she learned the n word.” I took a sizable monetary note out of my pocket and slid it halfway under my plate. “We’ll just go up and order room service. I really am sorry.”
I was surprised to see a smile on the waiter’s face as he picked up the bill and stuffed it back into my shirt pocket. “Don’t be like that, man,” he said. “Let’s show her what America is all about.” It took some coaxing on his part. He even had to nudge me back into my chair. And then, one of the greatest men I have ever met stooped down next to my daughter. He spoke slowly and clearly, explaining the different soups they had before bringing her request, along with the other two meals. He acted as if the n word had never been spoken.
Emily hated the French Onion soup. I told her that she had ordered it and if she didn’t want to eat it, that was fine, but she couldn’t change her mind. The waiter came back a few minutes later with a pasta dish like the one my other daughter had, which was what my oldest daughter was now requesting. I objected as he placed it in front of her. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “I talked to my boss. It’s on the house.” I still objected but all the waiter would do was smile at me while he walked away while waving me off. Just as we were finishing up, the waiter walked up with three huge ice cream sundaes. “On the house, my friend,” he said as he served Emily first and then my other daughter and me. While my daughters may have had some sort of ice cream on a stick once or twice a year, this was unapproachable by anything they had ever eaten. “Welcome to America!” he said.
I wanted to cry. As I paid the bill, the waiter showed Emily how to “give him five,” and taught her a few acceptable, even fun slang words. He never referenced her use of the n word. He trusted me to take care of it later. Even now, almost eight years later, Emily still thinks that Black people are the most friendly race on the planet. Do I need to tell you which is her favorite city? Do you even wonder if she thinks the n word is acceptable for use? (Of course she doesn’t.)
I don’t believe that racism and hate language should be ignored. I believe that in almost every case, those things should be met with intolerance, resistance, and at times, force. Even so, I bow to the man who knew when to make an exception when the n word was spewed at him. I honor that man who teaches people how we should act by his example.
To my dear, forgiving, wonderful friend, whose name I never knew: Thank you for welcoming my daughter to her new home. Thank you for doing something that I don’t think I could have done. Thank you for BEING America.
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