This piece was published on January 5 in the Whittier Daily News and today, January 7, in the Pasadena Star News.
It was in junior high school civics class that I was introduced to the concept of the melting pot. The teacher said that our country was a nation of immigrants and that when people from different countries came to our shores and became American citizens, they fell into a big pot and melted together. No matter where you came from, when you took the loyalty oath, you were as American as anyone else.
I understood the concept, but as I looked around the classroom at my fellow students, I saw a big bowl of Cool Whip. I was raised in a small town in Ohio where ninety-nine percent of the residents were white, Anglo Saxon, and Christian.
In grade school, I opened my lunch box and pulled out my peanut butter and jelly sandwich on Wonder Bread, which was as white as bread can get. I paid three cents for a carton of white milk. The kids who looked different had red hair. The rest of us were brunettes and blonds. All the people on TV were white. It was all I saw.
There were a few African Americans in my high school, a couple of Jewish kids and, as far as I knew, there were no Muslims, or even atheists. There was a small population of Mexican-Americans, families who came to work in the fields and settled in town. I graduated from Cool Whip High and set out into the world.
I had a Jewish roommate in college. She rushed sororities that wouldn’t accept Jews and we would joke about it. My first exposure to diversity taught me that some people don’t like people who aren’t exactly like them.
Several years later I married a Jewish man and my education in ethnic differences expanded. Now I was the one who wasn’t wanted because I wasn’t exactly the same. When I walked into my husband’s childhood home, the difference was palpable. His parents were refugees from the Holocaust. Although my husband attended a school much like mine, in Texas, his home life was very different. His parents melted into the pot, but retained a distinct culture that made them no less American. They enriched the pot. They did not contaminate it.
I have spent the last thirty-six years in Los Angeles, and have seen firsthand how new Americans melt into the larger society. Many of my co-workers were immigrants or first generation Americans. Over the years, staff potlucks have expanded my palate. I was introduced to Christmas tamales at one office, which were made by the receptionist’s 100-year-old Mexican grandmother.
I worked in an office with a young African-American woman who, born to a fourteen-year-old mother, came up hard. I watched in awe as she raised three children, earn two master’s degrees, and became a seasoned professional in her field. I consider her to be a good friend.
There are thousands of people in Los Angeles for whom English is their second language. I started a Spanish language study course a few years ago. One of my colleagues, a recent immigrant from Mexico, helped me with my pronunciation and I helped him with his. It is hard it is to learn another language, particularly with my aging brain, but I am making progress.
I had a medical issue a few years ago, diagnosed by Dr. Chen. He sent me to Dr. Chang for further tests and I ended up in Dr. Chin’s office for treatment. I call my dentist, Dr. Kim, a painless dentist because she is so gentle. My Syrian born auto mechanic earned my trust and undying gratitude when he kept my Camry running for 230,000 miles.
Enter Donald Trump, who kicked off his campaign for president by attacking Mexicans. One of his first acts as president was to try to keep Muslims out of the United States. An equal opportunity offender, he has taken the essence of our country, a nation of immigrants, and spat on it.
Unfortunately, he has riled up the Cool Whip enthusiasts who want to make American great again by destroying the very foundation on which we stand. Although Trump has left a swath of destruction in his first year in office, the groundswell that began the day after his election, when citizens took to the streets to demonstrate against his hateful rhetoric, will prevail.
Cool Whip crusaders yearn for a past that never existed. Cool Whip is fake. It looks like whipped cream, but it contains no cream or milk. It is a nondairy product. Don’t get me wrong, I love Cool Whip as much as anybody, but it is faux whipped cream. It’s not real, just as the country that Trump promised his followers we would return to is not real. It never was, and it never will be.
Kathleen Vallee Stein