When you travel to a foreign country, it is just that: foreign. There are no familiar sights at first unless you are lucky enough to stumble upon a despicable McDonald’s (though I hardly find those establishments comforting after reading Fast Food Nation). If you are traveling in a group you cling to your friends for safety and familiarity, and if you are traveling alone and do not derive pleasure from the idea of being somewhere completely unknown (the mark of a good explorer and frontiersmen), you are scared and confused.
Then, on your first day or maybe your second day, you find someone on the street with whom you successfully communicate in either English or the native lingo, and it is a vastly fulfilling experience. For the first time you feel welcomed and relieved, that maybe there’s hope for you yet in this unfamiliar setting. Or perhaps you are studying abroad and have a foreign home-stay where the family welcomes you with open arms and makes you feel as though you were born there: they set a place for you at breakfast and even pack you a lunch. This was the situation for me when I visited Madrid in Spain as part of a singing tour of the country, and it was an experience I will never forget. When you lived at home in high school and years previous to that, home comforts and niceties became routine and taken for granted because it’s your family etc. But when you get the same treatment from a family you have never met before in your entire life in a completely different country, the effect is surreal and beautiful. Sitting down at the kitchen table to discuss global politics with Fabio, proud resident of Guadalajara, and his father was something that made me feel (at the time!) more at home than anywhere else in the world. As el padre said to me on our first meeting: Soy el padre: yo bebo, y yo como! (I am the father: I eat, and I drink!)
So when Jasmine encounters Lillian Gordon she probably experienced something close to rapture in the face of such unexpected and unprecedented kindness. It’s flattering for the narrator to call it “the best in the American experience and the American character,” especially since that opinion is now collecting dust in the face of our current global image. But essentially Lillian was the person who first made Jasmine feel as though America could be a home for her, that she could have a place in this country. That sense of belonging, that someone you’ve never met cares enough for another person they’ve never met enough to give them food, lodging, and a Christmas present every year. So what does Lillian’s eventual prosecution and imprisonment say about the home America advertises to the world?
Although Lillian was harboring “illegals” and providing for more people to have access to America’s “welfare” dollars, was it really necessary to send the old woman to jail? Along the rocky trail of time America has forgotten what it is to be a country born of immigrants, and it is up to the few Americans who have not forgotten and fellow immigrants such as Professorji to take care of the new Americans who are looking to stay and become a part of society. While there are those who wish to work, make money, and leave, or even freeload, that is not a sufficient statistic to generalize with everyone else’s.
Tourists, immigrants, visitors, students on exchange or studying abroad: all of them are depending on the kindness of the natives to survive and praying to whomever that they never meet their Half-Faces. Showing kindness to strangers is what allows those fears to dissipate a little and in turn bring forth the mystery and intrigue of a new home, a new setting, a new life.