If you hanker to see culture clashes while on vacation, then you should visit Virginia Beach on our nation’s birthday. My wife and I made the trip there for the July 4 festivities, and I saw a few things that reminded me of the wonderfully chaotic disunity of our land.
Traffic barely crawled past groups of tough-looking Mexican guys sauntering down the sidewalks lining Atlantic Avenue, the beach’s closest road. They shared the sidewalks with New York “gangstuhs” yelling across the street to their friends: “Phone check for Brooklyn!”
Groups of young white girls, trailed by suburban white boys, meandered down the street, stopping to flirt, eat and shop. The madness was controlled, pinned down by groups of police at many of the intersections.
It was easy to see why the city’s leaders passed a “No cursing” ordinance, and it was obvious that the police directing traffic were also necessary to keep an eye on things. Through their efforts and those of others, plus the general goodwill of the visitors, culture clashes leading to serious violence were avoided.
But I foolishly walked into a clash while visiting the town recently. I’d never thought of myself as an “ugly American” type, but all I had to do was go to the beach to see my colors.
I’d just left my wife sunbathing on the beach, telling her I’d be back in a while after I did some bicycling. I’d wanted to rent a bike and ride down the beach, so I went to one of those bike rental vendors that set up beside the boardwalk. I walked up to the bespectacled guy who was leaning against one of those two-seater, four-wheeled bike-carts that families and kids like to race down the bike path.
“Twenty-seven dollars an hour,” I thought I heard the guy say with an accent. That was too much for me to pay, though I didn’t realize at the time that he was talking about the carts. I noticed his accent, and he seemed friendly, so I asked him where he was from. He said he was from Turkey.
“What do you know about Turkey?” he asked in an accusatory tone.
I responded that it was the home of the former Ottoman Empire, which stretched into Europe and up into Spain. I said I also knew about Turkey joining the European Union, and about the struggles between the Turks and Greeks in Cypress.
Then the bike rental guy’s co-worker and friend rolled up on a large bike laden with tools for repairing bikes. The second guy looked more serious than the first, and he wore an intense, angry expression on his face. The first guy told him I knew a little bit about Turkey, and then he said something lower to him in Turkish, which of course I didn’t understand.
The second guy, who’ll I’ll call Yeter, had a pointed face and severe, sharp features. He was darker than the first guy and he stunk of body odor. He immediately began to debate me, picking up the discussion where it left off. As he quizzed me about politics, it began to dawn on me that I was in over my head.
The first guy, who I’ll call Yagmur, had a more limited command of English than Yeter, but he still seemed to enjoy arguing with me. Apparently arguing about politics is a national pastime in Turkey. These guys could argue in English almost as well as they could in their native tongue.
Yagmur began to hammer at me: “In America, I think the police officer is God,” he said, laughing with his face to the cloudless sky, then glancing back at me with a disbelieving look.
“From what you see on TV, it’s the cops and the doctors who rule,” I agreed. I’d also say now that the lawyers have a bit of an advantage over “commoners,” who don’t have special protections enjoyed by the aforementioned.
Then Yeter came at me: “What do you think of the Iraqian War?” he asked.
I said I felt it never should have been fought in the first place.
“See, I think Bush was right to invade. He did it for America’s interests, so he was right,” Yeter said.
We went on to discuss the reasons stated for the war, and those reasons that seemed implied, such as America’s need for a cheap oil supply. Yeter still felt that Bush was right to invade, even if it was just for oil. Here these guys were working 15-hour days to be in America at the beach for a month, from a predominately Muslim nation, and one of them sounded something like a Republican to me. It was surreal.
I explained to them that half of America’s voters didn’t vote for Bush, and many were against the war. They looked at each other and shook their heads and laughed.
“We in Turkey were reading in the newspaper stories about who will win, Bush or Kerry,” Yeter said. “And Americans I ask who they vote for, they can’t even remember the guy’s name.”
He stopped for a second to point a finger at me, saying: “And that is the thing that makes you, America, corrupt.”
Thankfully, a countryman of mine walked up to inquire about renting a cart, and I told the guys that it was nice meeting them and that I’d come back later and we’d talk more. I was relieved. During our conversation, Yeter had repeatedly prefaced his statements by saying, “I know you are American and I don’t want to offend, but…” I felt beaten up by the end of it, and glad to quit the scene.
I walked up the boardwalk for a dozen blocks, then I doubled back to check on my wife, who was still on the beach. We decided to go back to the room, clean up, and go out for an early dinner.
After cleaning up we walked along Atlantic Avenue, then we cut into a park, where a band was playing. I had told Anne about meeting the Turks, and how they had told me about Americans who were taking advantage of them, which made me feel guilty. Then it occurred to me that my argument with the Turks was one of the most American of activities. Americans love to fight about politics, and those Turks were acting more American than they could possibly guess.
A we walked into the park, I was so hungry I’d already forgotten about the Turks, but as we were walking by them, just thirty or so away from them, they were staring at Anne and me and talking to each other. Anne smiled and waved at them, saying: “How are you?”
Honey, it’s those guys you were talking to, she said in a low voice to me.
“I’m not talking to those guys now, I’m hungry,” I said to her. I waved quickly at the Turks and said “Follow me” to her, walking quickly for the restaurant.
I was about ten yards ahead of Anne, and she finally caught up with me at the restaurant.
“Great,” I said to her. “Now because of me, they’re going to think all Americans are two-faced.”