Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Good, the Bad and the Shameful

On my way to class, to take my International and European Law midterm, the bus suddenly comes to an abrupt halt, at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere.

"The woman who got in at central station with her two Dollar bus ticket, this is your stop," the bus driver suddenly yells loudly, sounding pretty aggravated.

An older foreign-looking lady, in her early fifties, looks at the angry bus driver with confusion.

"But Sir, this isn't my stop – I didn't push the stop button," the lady says confused.

"Your two Dollar ticket will only get you this far. Get - out," bus driver yells.

The older lady starts getting up and walks towards the bus driver - she shows him his ticket.

"Yeah, what did I say? Do - you - not - understand - me?" Bus driver asks, as if he's talking to a six year-old.

"Yes, Sir I do, but - "

"You obviously don't, because otherwise you wouldn't have shown me that useless little ticket of yours."

"Sir, I'm sorry, I assumed - "

Bus driver interrupts her, "Oh, you a - ssumed huh? Well, that's the problem with your people, we don't just assume here in the Netherlands, we know. Maybe you should try integrating one more time!”

The bus is dead-silent. What is happening? Racism in a packed bus? Seriously?

I feel a sudden mix of rage towards the bus driver, and compassion for the woman. I don't know which is stronger. I want to stand up for her, but I can't. I know this driver; he has a high temper and today is not a good day for him. I can't risk getting kicked off the bus and miss my midterm – because he will kick your ass out.

"I'm really sorry Sir," the lady says softly.

"Sorry?! Well, being sorry is easy. It's the thinking that's a little harder, isn't it!? You and your goddamn people. You're just sorry because you got caught," bus driver yells in her face. "And I always catch them. So, what are you gonna do now, huh?"

"Err, I'd like to buy a ticket please, Sir…" the lady says quietly, remaining awfully polite and almost docile.

"Ah, so now you want a ticket…" bus driver retorts sarcastically. "Buy the right ticket in advance in the future, like all the normal people do."

He pulls the money out of her hand and nearly throws the ticket at her. As she's walking back to her seat, bus driver looks at her with disgust and annoyance, turns around, accelerates violently and continuous his route.

People watch, when the lady stumbles back down the aisle, trying to stay balanced as the bus rocks heavily. Our eyes meet as she's walking towards me. She gives me a faint smile, as if she's saying,

"It's okay."

Bu this is far from okay. A funny feeling comes over me, which I don’t know how to interpret. I just smile back, as if I'm trying to convey that I'm on her side - hoping that my sympathy will make things better.

The lady stumbles along down the aisle and takes her seat. Her face doesn't give anything away – there's no embarrassment, no sadness, no anger, there's nothing. She just stares outside and she looks - almost peaceful.

I'm not sure how to interpret her calmness. Is she just embarrassed? It can't be, because those few seconds we connected, she was the one telling me it was alright – that I shouldn't be worried about her.

The mixed feelings of anger and compassion turn into to shame and self-pity. Why did I not stand up for her? I know I should have said something, but I was too selfish - too weak. I let and sweet lady get shamed and discriminated against in public for an honest mistake, and what did I do? Not a damn thing.

I also felt shame those people that were on that bus with me. The people who, just like me, acted as voyeurs - eyeing her, listening to the crude and racist words coming out of the driver's mouth, just sitting in our seats, watching a show – pretending as though the woman didn't know we were here.

But we were all here. And we all saw what happened. And we all collectively ignored it. I don't know when we just - stopped caring. Is this what they call progress? Is this what individualism is leading to? And is this what tolerance means nowadays - minding our own business ?

I had my reasons for what I did – or rather, for what I didn’t do. And I’m sure they had theirs.

I know they had their reasons.

Because I don't want to believe anything else.

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