In President Trump’s State of the Union Tuesday night, he said, “Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy and our values.”
As he delivered that sentence, my roommate and I stood in a crowded line in Madrid, Spain, waiting for a late-night food truck. People were pushing and shoving, but there was a spirit of friendliness in the air.
When my roommate and I were pushed into a small group of 20-somethings, we naturally turned around to introduce ourselves and apologize for bumping into them. The conversation lasted much longer than that.
The group definitely had accents, but I could not pinpoint from where. We joked about the busy atmosphere. One of the women complimented my shoes, and after about 10 minutes, my roommate and I had silently agreed these strangers would be our new friends.
Finally, I popped the question, “So where are you guys from?” One of the men, still laughing from a joke, casually said Russia, and for some reason, I froze.
I have never met a person my age from the country I have been raised to distrust. When I think of Russia, I think of the Cold War, Vladmir Putin and Olympic gymnastics. I have been trained as an American to associate Russia with cold weather, cold people and a lack of honesty.
I had never conceptualized until that moment that people my age, who have the same interests as I do and who laugh at the same things that I do, could come from a place which makes Americans like me very uneasy.
I forced myself to say something so as not to be rude to our new “friends.” All I could muster out was “very cool.” I dreaded the inevitable next question that came from them, which was, “How about you guys? Where are you from?”
I paused, and released a “the United States,” sounding so apologetic for an answer I could not change. Their faces immediately melted from jovial interest to a standoffish lack of comfort. I could tell their minds were playing the same word association game with U.S. I had just played with Russia.
The sole response from the group was one of the men saying "Woah." We all sort of uncomfortably chuckled. I attempted to crack a bad joke about how cold it must be up there and then we all turned back to our own groups. The conversation between our groups was over.
As I walked away from the food truck, I kept replaying this conversation in my mind. It astonished me how automatically our two groups lost interest in one another based on decisions made by our governments that we had little to no control over.
Through this small, random instance, I feel a sense of painful growth and sadness. Recognizing our rival countries are not completely filled with people actively plotting to bring the U.S. down is a seemingly obvious, yet mind-blowing revelation all at the same time.
Somewhere in that large Eurasian power are people just like me and my friends, who love where they come from and who have interests similar to mine.
Maybe if the youth of our nations started talking and finding common interests way before working in government, the world would be a more understanding place. Would this fix the complex economic and political problems among our nations?
No, but in a world where nuclear war seems more possible than many are comfortable with, I am a firm believer that taking small steps to create compassion and understanding can never be a negative thing.
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