On occasion, the most unsettling events are ones that possibly only you can understand at that time. This particular one came in the form of an American in Valencia.
It was Tuesday night, two nights before I was to leave for Barcelona at 6:40 in the morning. After dinner I was invited by two Americans with the Australians to hit up Finnegan’s, which I reluctantly accepted on a carpe diem attitude in contrast with a feel fine for class attitude. Now one of the Americans had her boyfriend in for the break, and he seemed an agreeable sort to me, with a firm handshake and a look-you-in-the-eye carriage. They bought soft drinks from the bar and snuck in their liquor, as I more or less silently sipped my Killian’s. A Brit to my back was bent over in deep concentration on a paperback while Thin Lizzy hung from the speakers like an invisible but weighty aural fog, brushed by the antics and laughter of my Western table-neighbors. After this scene ended we met up with Callam and went to his apartment near Plaça de l’Ajuntament, where several Belgians, Germans, Frenchmen, and his Swedish girlfriend were enjoying themselves. At this point the boyfriend began speaking loudly about American foreign policy matters, etc. in a very jingoistic way with several of the foreigners in succession. A postcard nightmare, my stomach was tightening and I had an increased heartrate. I told those who were within earshot, quietly, to please understand that the viewpoints he was expressing were not representative of most Americans. They laughed and said “We understand, don’t worry!” Later I wondered how much asking that question further scrambled their vision of “The American,” and whether I should just stay silent in the face of monolithic policies.
Now he was speaking with someone and said …”and we assembled the largest army in history, seven million people!” At this point, I had to interject on factual grounds with “Actually, the Chinese have the largest standing army in the world, at 200 million (thanks Shawn Wick for throwing out that completely off-the-mark number many months ago, but at least you were right in relative terms).” He immediately yelled at room-clearing volume “Shut up! You’re biased! That’s not true, they’re forced into it!” By the end of “Shut up,” I had already lost control of my facial expression and my jaw was wide open, my eyes staring. I managed to slowly ask, “How am I biased?” (Mind you we’d shared almost no words, certainly not on anything belying any kind of politics or social matters, up to this point) Just as aggressive as ever he continued with some specifics I cannot remember (due to my remaining dwelling on the shockingness of his first reaction) and ended this round with “Trust me, you DON’T want to argue with me about this!” After two seconds more pause, all I said was “No, no I don’t,” hoping that was the end of this encounter. Instead he delivered a finishing line of “SO SHUT THE FUCK UP!” and turned immediately back to continue cultural intervention.
I could not believe what had just happened. I am quite sure that I have not been that disrespected since I came to Georgia Tech in 2004. I had to sit staring into space for about three minutes just running over in my mind what had taken place. The music was loud enough and conversation abundant enough that it had not been a needle-rip kind of moment, thankfully, which prevented more spread embarassment. After a few minutes when I could find the girlfriend alone I explained to her what had happened, but just as I finished the part about “they’re forced into it,” she grabbed my arms and demanded, “But you know they are, right?” “No, it’s a factual issue, but that’s not the-” “You KNOW that, right?” “Factually he’s-” “No, he’s right here, you understand that it doesn’t count because they’re forced into it!” “This isn’t even the point!” I had to admit after about thirty seconds of this wrangling that her boyfriend was right, just so I could explain the _real_ issue of the disrespect. She did not seem to think he had comitted an error worth confronting him over, leaning more into the thorn of disbelief. The very few people I was able to come to some consensus over the issue with (away and in more private settings) did not seem to share the same acuteness of shock that I held.
Events like that make me wonder how “right” I am about my fundamental judgment of situations. Was I really wrong to feel so grossly disrespected? Had he committed nothing more displeasing than the Clemsonians who declared loudly, but not aggressively, that as Americans they would say stupid things? Was I wrong to intervene on a purely factual basis? (I later learned that I was at least right in that the Chinese have the largest standing army.) I don’t know what shifts the doubt other than someone confiding to me their own respect for me, which I think is the “best” compliment I can receive from most anyone – and I also think it is one of the best that I give.