Personalized License Plates

Two things are well known about U.S. culture: 1) Americans are very individualistic, and 2) their love of freedom is expressed in their ownership of automobiles.  The United States has roughly 800 vehicles per 1,000 inhabitants, more than any major country in the world.*

One way that American motorists express their self-identities is by personalizing their license plates.  Nearly 10 million U.S. vehicles have plates with unique messages (roughly 4% of registered cars, trucks, and vans).

Because of its large population, California uses 8 characters (letters or numbers) on license plates to identify all its vehicles.  My state of Michigan uses 7 characters.

Because of limited space, drivers must be clever to fit their message onto their plates.  In English, the following abbreviations are sometimes used:

0 – oh, zero; can also look like letter “O”                 

1 – won; can also look like lower case “L”                 

2 – to

4 – for                                   

5 – can look like letter “S”                                   

8 – ate; can also look like letter “B”

B – be                                   

C – see                                                     

R – are                                                     

U – you                                                     

Y - why

My own personalized plate says UBELONG.  This is related to our TV show, Feel Like You Belong, which tells immigrant stories of struggle and belonging.  One nonconformist friend of mine has YBNRML (Why be normal?).  My artist wife’s license plate has this encouraging message: ARTS4U (Art is for you.).

Below you can see one California driver who loves listening to jazz music.

This next plate reminds us that personalized licenses are sometimes called “vanity” plates.  (The adjective “vain” refers to people who like to look good and have others pay attention to them.)

If you want to know whether your personal message has already been taken, you can check with your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.  All 50 U.S. states allow vanity plates.  In Michigan, the Secretary of State’s website has this tool to check if your desired message is available.  (Note: you will have to pay an additional fee for this privilege.)

Can you guess the meaning of the following vanity plates?  (Some of them are connected to the kind of car that the driver owns.)

For a list of many clever vanity plates, visit this website.

Does your car have a personalized plate?  Send us a picture!  If you see a clever plate on the street, send us a photo or text us with the plate’s message (maybe noting the type of car and driver).

In the meantime, drive safely, everyone!

* The tiny nations of San Marino and Monaco have higher per-capita rates than the U.S.

Explanations to the five plates above:

A. This BMW driver owes a lot of money (due to expensive car payments).

B. This Californian hates to eat peas.

C. This Corvette driver loves (Cor)vettes.

D. This California driver only lives to go bowling.  (Note that the frame says that the bowler likes to finish a game with three final strikes.)

E. This grateful Virginian feels so fortunate.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.

Safety Pin, Safety Zone

You may have recently noticed Americans wearing safety pins on their jackets and sweaters. And you wondered what this was about.

Since the highly emotional U.S. election on November 8, there has been a sharp increase in the number of hate crimes across the United States.  In six days, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) tracked 437 incidents of harassment and intimidation across the country.  (To be balanced, the SPLC has recorded anti-Trump incidents; that number stands at 20.) 

The 437 incidents were dominated by anti-black and anti-immigrant sentiment, including:

·      white teens on a bus yelling “terrorist” at a woman in a hijab (Oregon)

·      white male motorist yelling “f•cking f•gg•ts” at two gay men holding hands on the street (N. Carolina)

·      white woman in pickup truck yelling “White Power!” at a Latina mom with her baby at the park (Texas)

·      Muslim teacher receiving note saying her headscarf “isn’t allowed anymore. Why don’t you tie it around your neck and hang yourself with it? [Signed,] America.” (Georgia)

·      white male telling Filipina middle-schooler at bus stop, “You’re Asian, right? When they see your eyes, you’re going to be deported.” (Texas)

Because of this upsurge in public hate activity, organizers are asking concerned citizens to show their solidarity for people who are being targeted.  This is especially important for white allies who do not normally face threats and discrimination.  A safety pin indicates you are a safe person in public spaces.  It indicates you will stand up against harassment.

One of my black colleagues pointed out that the wearing of the safety pin needs to go beyond the mere symbolism.  It means you are preparing yourself to act as a witness in cases of public hate and intimidation.  If you’re not scared away from this challenge, there are ways to get yourself ready, so you’ll know how to respond.  You might employ these acts of solidarity:

·      Step between the attacker and the victim.

·      Lead the victim to a safe place.

·      Spend time talking to the victim.  (They may be very shaken.)

·      Call 911.  Ethnic intimidation is against the law.

·      Take a cellphone video of the event, or ask bystanders to film it.

·      Take a photo of the attacker’s license plate.

·      Call your elected representative.

Finally, let me leave you with this well-known quote by Martin Niemöller. Niemöller was a Protestant pastor who survived eight years in Nazi concentration camps, narrowly escaping execution.

When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent because I was not a communist. When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent because I was not a social democrat. When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. When they came for the Jews, I remained silent because I wasn't a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out. 

Please summon your courage.  Declare that hate will not stand in these United States.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.

A Refugee Child’s Courage to Dream

by Nirmala Dhakal

My parents are from Bhutan, a country not a lot of people know about. It is approximately 8,000 miles from the U.S. and is roughly 1/6th the size of Michigan. It is pretty much all mountains, and 70% of the land is covered with forest. The population is only a little over half a million.

My parents were the citizens of this tiny country. They were born and raised there just like their fore-mothers and fore-fathers.

In the early 1990s, my parents, who had barely set foot in school, who had never seen a newspaper or TV, who had never protested or attended any political rallies, whose ancestors had lived in the hills and had never worked anywhere but on farms, those parents were suddenly seen a threat by their own government.

The government of Bhutan started sending soldiers to my parents’ house. They gave my parents a deadline to leave the country. They threatened they’d kill or jail them if they were seen around after that date.

On July 22nd of 1992, my parents carried my brothers, who were 2 and 5 at the time, and silently left the country. They left every little thing they ever owned behind them. Everything that had been passed to them over generations like their house, their farm, the cattle which they had raised as their own children, their relatives, and their lifelong friends.

After days of struggle, my parents and my brothers arrived in the neighboring country of Nepal. They started sharing a roof with their new neighbors, who also had fled the country for their life. My father said, “It was like camping over there except it was with an empty stomach, a heart filled with sorrows, and hopeless, beaten-down buddies. There was no cheering or smiling, there was only hopelessness, despair, and uncertainty.”

1993 – My parents and siblings

1993 – My parents and siblings

Then, on a chilly February night in 1993, while my father was away and my brothers were asleep, my mother gave birth to a little girl. My mom was lying on the floor groaning with pain when my grandma and other neighbors heard her, came over, and washed the little girl up. That little girl was me, and that was the day I joined a tribe of refugees.

Basically, I was living a life with no hopes and no dreams. I was living my life like the thousands of people around me. I woke up every single day and repeated the same schedule, over and over again.

Over time, my parents gave up their hope of getting repatriated. In 2009, we were offered a third country resettlement option. That offer came to us as an unprecedented opportunity, and in a heartbeat we chose to resettle here in the USA.

My family and I came to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in November of 2009. I started attending Kentwood Public Schools. It was unusual for me to be around people who were hopeful and filled with dreams. I faced a challenge of abundance and the air around me was so clean that I nearly got sick.

Our hut in the refugee camp

Our hut in the refugee camp

My life back in the refugee camp and the one here in Michigan are incomparable. Listing every single way how my life has improved in the past six years would take too long. But, I would like to mention one thing. One thing that I have today which I did not have six years ago. And it has made so much difference in my life.

That thing is courage. The courage to dream. Never had I dreamed of anything big before. Never had I dreamed of anything outside the usual. Never had I thought I was important and capable of change. Today I am filled with hope and courage. I know the purpose of my life. I know exactly what I want to do. My path has never been clear like this before.

I want to be a nurse and help other human beings. I want to ease their pain. I want to join Nurses Without Borders and travel to places destroyed by natural disaster or torn by war. I want to educate people, help them, and fill their lives with hope.

Currently, I am attending Northern Michigan University. I completed my second semester in Nursing and will be going back for my third one in a couple of weeks. I am on this new journey, and my motivation is my past.

I am very grateful that I was given a second chance in life. I am very grateful to all those people who dared to trim their daily expenses and donate to people in need even though they live half-way across the world. You all are my inspirations. Let us all realize our capabilities and acknowledge responsibilities so we can work together to make this world a better place.

-------------

This text is edited from a speech given in Kentwood, Michigan, at the 2016 World Refugee Day Commemoration by the Bhutanese Association of Michigan.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.

Stop Saying “Melting Pot”!

The United States is not a melting pot.  Although the expression got its official voice a century ago, it ignores an uglier side to our national history which we must acknowledge. We’ll come back to the actual expression in a moment.

First, what is true: over centuries of immigration, scores of ethnicities have moved to the U.S.  However, in the earliest years, colonizers predominantly came from northern and western Europe. That prevailing ethnic Whiteness set the tone for the nation’s future. Laws–the visible symbol of power–were constructed around race and ethnicity.

The following is a partial list of rules, made up by White (European-American) men:

1531 – Indian Reductions: appropriation of land, forced religious conversion of Native Americans

1619 – The first African slaves brought by Dutch ships to Virginia as “indentured servants”

1652 – Interracial relationships banned

1692 – Interracial marriage banned

1781 – 3/5 Rule: Slaves count partially for state representation, not equal to full personhood

1790 – Naturalization Act: Only free whites can become citizens, vote, own property

1802 – Jefferson signs Georgia Compact, extinguishing Cherokee land treaties

1830 – Indian Removal Act: forcible emigration of five native nations to the West

1838 – Trail of Tears: forced relocation kills 4,000 of 15,000 affected Cherokee

1854 – Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision that no African could be a U.S. citizen

1877 – Jim Crow laws mandating systematic segregation, inferior housing, education, etc.

1882 – Chinese Exclusion Act: 10-year moratorium on Chinese immigration

1896 – Plessy v. Ferguson: Supreme Court upholds separate-but-equal segregation

1917 – Immigration Act bans criminals, epileptics, alcoholics, anarchists, and Asians

1922 – Ozawa v. United States: Supreme Court denies citizenship to Japanese immigrant

1923 – Thind v. United States: Supreme Court denies citizenship to Indian Sikh immigrant

2010 – Arizona state legislature enacts SB-1070, so-called Show Me Your Papers Law

In short, membership in the “club” known as the USA was decided by males who looked like this: 

                    1776: founding fathers in Philadelphia                                              1923: U.S. Supreme Court

                    1776: founding fathers in Philadelphia                                              1923: U.S. Supreme Court

It has only been slowly and grudgingly that lawmakers of this land have given legal status to non-whites (and non-men, for that matter).  When Israel Zangwill wrote his now-famous 1909 play, The Melting Pot, the British writer used these words:

"America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming... Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians – into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American."

Do you notice anyone missing? Native Americans maybe? Perhaps the Chinese? Or Arabs? What about Latinos? Or Africans?  Zangwill reflected the racism of his time by saying that various European groups of immigrants could enter the United States and “blend” into a harmonious White race.  But the generosity of welcome ended there. 

                         1916 playbill                                                author Israel Zangwill

                         1916 playbill                                                author Israel Zangwill

Apart from the inherent racism of the melting pot metaphor lies the vanilla tragedy of sameness. What happens when we melt down our collection of beautiful rings and bracelets and necklaces? It becomes one indistinguishable molten slurry. Must immigrants from anywhere give up who they are to live in a new land?

On the other hand, what happens when we combine our many and diverse strengths while still maintaining our unique properties?  We become a tasty salad, where our individual assets stand out.  We work together to make a healthy meal, yet there you experience the crispy carrots, the juicy tomatoes, or the tender lettuce.  With a more artistic metaphor, we become an attractive mosaic, where our diversity works together to produce a striking thing of beauty.

In parallel fashion, we need to ditch the concept of assimilation, an overused word that represents an unquestioned blending into a system without acknowledging our innate human diversity.  Instead of assimilating (at its root, to make similar), let us take up the mantle of acculturation, where newcomers learn to work together, to lend our distinctive talents and viewpoints, as we contribute to the whole of this wonderful experiment in democracy called the United States of America.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.

At #119, Culturium Is Newest Addition

If you have a periodic table of elements on your wall, it's time to get it updated. Earlier this summer, chemists announced four new names, including Nihonium, which was discovered in Japan.  (Nihon is the Japanese word for "Japan"!)

The periodic table of elements. Note: This is before the new names were assigned to nos. 113, 115, 117, and 118.

The periodic table of elements. Note: This is before the new names were assigned to nos. 113, 115, 117, and 118.

In the spirit of expanding our global wisdom, we would like to humbly introduce an older element that is often misunderstood but critical to today's international business and travel. 

Announcing Element #119: Culturium!

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.