Resilience of an American Woman

“My ex-husband complained that I smiled a lot, he did not want me to be happy!” cheery Puerto Rican driver quipped almost like Oprah in tone, but with a beautiful Latina accent. The confessional unfolded as I sat enthralled on the passenger seat of her spotless and fresh-smelling car. This was around 8:30 in the morning. We talked non-stop through all 40-minutes of this ride share. Past the upscale, but not gaudy, mansions of lush Kenneth Square in Pennsylvania all the way to the bit rougher, more urban Wilmington, in Delaware, the next State.  We laughed as quickly as we swapped life stories.

I needed to catch a Greyhound bus that would take me on a 7-hour (240 mi) ride from Wilmington to Pittsburgh, back to Pennsylvania, the State where we started this Uber ride.  Needless to say, I felt anxious. But she smiled soon as she recognized me waiting for her under the hotel awning. And out of the four or five cab drivers I’ve had on this trip, only she got out to take my luggage to stow in the trunk.

Soggy and in-between rains, the grey sky played the perfect foil to the previous days’ frenetic activities across four States – a meeting in Dover, more shop talk on the hour ride to Wilmington, a whirlwind visit to spectacular Longwood Gardens, season opening of their fountain show, New York, and New Jersey. You bet I needed an Oprah moment.

She confided without a hint of bitterness, “I decided to leave the relationship, he was abusive in words and… I did not want that no more, and for my boys to see that!”

“(Among Latino men)…the ‘macho’ power is really strong… But it is not real power,” she added. “(I believe that if) you respect me, I respect you, I don’t do anything (bad) to you, (then) you don’t do anything to me!”  She explained.

“I raised my (4) boys to be gentlemen,” she added. “When my eldest started to have sex with his girlfriend, at first I was afraid (that he would not finish school); but then I told them, ‘(just) DON’T CHEAT.’ Don’t hurt anybody. Break it up and let it go, (if your girlfriend were to cheat on you). I was cheated on and abused.”  With that she schooled me on  her take on the golden rule.

“I cried when my son graduated college. My son broke (the) record in school. He was working (at the college) to get a discount, and he was also working two other jobs. Now he owns his business. My second son plays music and spends a lot of time in a church, he wants to be a pastor.”

“My youngest son asked me why I was crying (at his brother’s graduation). ‘Mommy are you happy now?’ he said. Yes, I’m happy! (So he asked), ‘why are you crying and smiling (at the same time)?”

We had a good laugh.

“I’m happy,” she said. “No, not (just having) fun, fun goes away. I’m happy. I’ve been a single mom for 14 years! My life is stable. My life is full. I don’t need a man to tell me, ‘why didn’t you call me back?’

But she admitted that life had not been easy in the beginning.

“I worked at the day care where I took my children (right after the break-up). And when I could work a second job, I did. They told me that I cannot work for more money or I lose my Social Security benefit. So I said, I don’t need social security. I can work. I tell people that they need to get out of Social Security or they will never get out of it (at all). Just don’t be afraid. (Besides) I knew I needed more money, I had to take care of the boys.”

“I fell on my knees and prayed, ‘help me with my boys.’ I do not want to call myself a Christian, or anything, because I don’t want to be a hypocrite, but I pray. And I do what I have to (do) to bring up my boys as good people. My ex-husband complained that I smiled a lot; he did not want me to be happy. So I knew I was NOT going to be like his mother to my own boys, I will never say, ‘you are no good’ to any of my four sons. (You know) I bought all the frames with good sayings, and hang them everywhere in the house, so when they read them, it is as if I was talking to them.”

But she and her ex-husband are on good terms now.

“He is back, but we are not together. He is a father to my kids and since I have to travel for work (now) he gets to take care of his responsibility. It’s a win-win situation. Now he says, ‘I’m happy you are (my children’s) mother. My nephew also says, ‘I wish you were my mother. But (in life) you get what you get and you make the most of it!” she advised.

A light shower fell as we arrived at my destination – the Greyhound bus station. We made her next passenger wait outside while she showed me the pictures of her beautiful sons on her phone.

Motivational Books

“Solo Power, How to Harness The Secret Energy of Living Alone”
by Dr. Theresa Del Tufo

Do you know that close to 50% of people in Manhattan live alone? This stunning statistic is not an isolated but a worldwide phenomenon. Solo Power was written for the 32 million Americans who live alone and who are in search of happiness. Dr. Del Tufo takes us on a journey of self discovery as she explores the happiness, the challenges and the transition phases of the solo fliers she interviewed. Insights and integration from great thinkers, such as Martin Seligman’s Happiness Formula, Stefan Klein’s thesis on how to use the brain to make us happy, and the wisdom of Eastern Tradition are all reflexively interwoven into the happiness tapestry. What comes out are patterns—patterns of behavior that can be replicated by anyone who chooses to lead a happy and fulfilled life and a revelation that the Power is within all of us.

 

The Fullness of Nothing- Discover the Hidden Joy that Surrounds You”
by Dr. Theresa Del Tufo

 

Are you happy? How can you be happy and stay happy? The secret of happiness is explored in this book, and the message of the book is the revelation that happiness is available to everyone.

The book offers short nuggets of wisdom on how to be happy by adopting simple and practical habits that can affect positive behavior and develop a lifestyle of well-being and happiness. You can animate your life with happiness by adopting eastern spiritual traditions— ancient values and principles that have been universally-accepted and practiced by world religions and spiritual traditions, from Buddhism, to Taoism, to Christianity. The book also profiles the collective wisdom of ordinary and typical folks who have been successful in finding and sustaining happiness. Another section explores the seven habits of happy people and how their time-tested experiences have brought about a heightened awareness of life’s goodness and abundance. The final section concludes with suggestions on how to lead a balanced life to achieve enduring happiness.

The book is intended to be a companion  to SoloPower: How to Harness the Secret Energy of Living Alone, also published by Motivational Press.

“Behind the Golden Door: The Resilience of Today’s Immigrants” 

by Dr. Tes Del Tufo and Dr. George Banez

How do immigrants navigate the stormy waters of the American Society? What qualities or traits can they model and adopt to enable them to achieve their version of the American Dream? Set against the turmoil (i.e., rampant and open racism, sexism and xenophobia) that is plaguing today’s society, Behind the Golden Door chronicles the real-life struggles and triumphs of immigrants to this country. It explores the conflicting beliefs and values of the American National Character and the potential reasons for this confusing tension between what Americans say and think and how they behave.

The book profiles the collective voices of immigrants—how they were able to face and overcome the challenges of life in America, how they shaped their version of the good life and how they flourished, despite the deceiving and conflicting messages of a society that values some but not all of its people.

The insights and wisdom of ordinary immigrants offer powerful guidelines for action for others who are going through a similar experience. The authors examined and analyzed their diverse stories and personal legends, then sifted through their inspiring narratives to find the golden nuggets that accounted for their success. They then developed a replicable framework that could be adopted by any immigrant attempting to survive the cleavages of race, religion, gender, economic and political power in America.

WHAT THEY SAY:

“We are a nation of immigrants who continue to reanimate and revitalize this work in progress called the United States of America.”

Loida Nicolas Lewis, Chair and CEO, TLC Beatrice LLC

“The stories of ordinary immigrants offer powerful testimonies to the strength, courage and resilience of the human spirit.”

Hon. Trey Paradee,  House of Representatives, State of Delaware

“A compelling book that humanizes the current debate on immigration and the national character of the United States…. It couldn’t be more timely.”

Harry Whitman, Former Director of Research, Univision

 

Advice to Newcomers: Understand American Life and Enjoy the Experience

I recruited students from tropical countries to train as international interns at a botanical garden in Florida.  Below is the list of do’s and don’ts I gave them during orientation. 

WELCOME TO AMERICA!

it’s the country where you feel like a “visitor” only if you think of yourself as one. You only have to notice the multitude of languages, faces, sizes and shapes of the people to see that you are home. Soon as you appreciate being part of the mix, one with the many variations of humanity, you start enjoying the American experience. You will only be treated as a “foreigner” if you act like one – an “alien” is someone indifferent.

So, in order to “belong” and become part of this diverse cauldron of humans who enjoy the benefits of living in America, you need to know the American way of doing things. Below are some “do’s and don’ts” you need to remember in order to blend seamlessly into mainstream American life. Most of them may familiar to you, but some go beyond what you thought you knew just from watching American movies, TV shows (like sit-com reruns from generations past) or from what you have experienced as a tourist on a packaged tour.

DO:

1. ARRIVE ON TIME (NO EXCUSES) for appointments. Show up ten to five minutes before the scheduled time of appointment, but not earlier.  It means that you have to calculate the time it takes for you to commute (drive or get) to the appointed place, after considering the traffic situation that hour, events going on that day and the weather. Know exactly how long it takes you to get ready (e.g. time your grooming rituals) and plan to leave the house accordingly.

This scenario actually happened. When I scheduled a house meeting for interns I supervised, everyone waited in the meeting room at the exact time we were supposed to start, except for one international student from Africa. So I asked the interns present if she, this international student, knew the schedule. I was told that she did. In fact she reminded everybody of the start time. But then, I was told, she took a shower minutes before that time. This indicated to me that “start time” could mean the same as “get-ready time” in the old country.  This, however, is not practiced in the U.S.

2. TIP. Receiving a tip is not only expected by the server; tipping is required. When a wait staff, or server, takes your order and food is delivered to your table; or even when you pick-up the food yourself but eat at a table or a counter, you give anywhere between 15 – 18% of the cost of the food you ordered as tip (or gratuity) to the wait staff who in turn tips the hosts / hostess, those bussing the tables, and maybe also the kitchen staff. Tipping is NOT optional.

Places where you are NOT required to tip for food service would be fast food restaurants, drive through(s), and Chinese Take-out Counters. Food Trucks, Starbucks, or cafes where you get your own drink or food may have tip jars at the counter and tipping is optional.

In general, you include the tip when you pay with a credit card or you leave cash on the table. Tip your bartender for drinks you order. According to bartender friends (or those who are licensed to serve alcohol), a dollar tip for every drink, which would cost you from around $7 to $15, is common. But for all night drinkers, a dollar for every two drinks may be enough. If you leave your credit card with the bartender and “open a tab” you tip when you pay the bill, and tip according to how many drinks or the total cost of what you ordered (including bar food) at 15 to 18%.

3. SPEAK UP. Although this advice would benefit more those coming from cultural groups who tend to communicate in “indirect” or coded manner; still, the key to every newcomer’s success in the US is learning how to communicate as clearly and directly (but politely) as possible.   A good example of one cultural group that is less direct in speech would be Filipinos (and some say Pacific Islanders). The inability to give a straightforward “no” to an invitation for the fear of offending friends, even acquaintances, can be problematic in the U.S.

 For example, it is common for Filipinos to say,  “I’ll try to be there” instead of:

“No, I don’t want to go,”   “I don’t feel like going,”

“I’m not interested,”   “I can’t afford to go,”

“I’ll be busy that week and will be too tired (to make the effort),”

“I’ve made other plans,” or  “I prefer to go by myself.”

However,  not showing up when expected is rude behavior. Be straightforward and forthcoming because being vague causes confusion and miscommunication.

People in the U.S. come from many different cultural backgrounds and will therefore rely on the literal meaning of the English words used. Not giving a response, not returning a call or a text message, which in some cultures could mean a “no,” will only be interpreted as being disrespectful.

4. BRING AN ID WITH YOU AND SHOW YOUR ID. Your passport or international driver’s license (in English) would be the best ID to bring with you because it has your date of birth. Show your ID when “carded” or asked to prove that you are of legal age (adult at 21 years old) to buy and consume alcohol; and in some cases, to be allowed entry to adults-only bar.  Everyone who appear to be 30 years old or under (just about everyone) are carded. Asians will always be carded.

5. REMEMBER how long inches, feet, yards, and miles are.  To dress appropriately know how hot or cold temperatures are in Fahrenheit. Know where north, south, east and west directions point. Always google map-search your destination when planning trips or your driving route even if you rely on smart phones for voice guided driving directions.  Driving in the US is on the right hand side.

6. READ, and READ again the labels of food products for serving sizes, nutritional or other instructional information when shopping.  Watch what you buy and eat as the change in diet, food availability and eating habits can bring unwanted effects like weight gain. Note that the serving sizes at restaurants are big, so feel free to ask for a “to go” box  to take home any left-overs.

Read the return policy on non-food items you buy and keep the receipt.  It has the return policy information, so in case you are not happy with the product you can exchange or return for a refund almost anything you buy in the U.S.

7. EXTEND your hand for a handshake.  Or you may reciprocate a hug if initiated by people you know, friends and family.   The proper posture  when hugging is one that allows contact only in the upper third of the body. Otherwise, REFRAIN from touching anyone, including (or especially older) children and teens. Maintain two and a half feet distance of personal space to avoid being perceived as intrusive (“lacking boundaries”) or inappropriate.

 

DO NOT:

1. SHOW UP TOO EARLY (an hour early or a day early) for an appointment. This actually happened to me.  A friend who was giving me a ride arrived an hour early, and we both decided to head to our date with an elderly woman who invited us out to dinner. She was visibly upset to see us at the door that early  (50 minutes early), and would not let us in.  Instead she asked us to come back an hour later. While she looked dressed and ready to go, she actually had another appointment, with her accountant, when we got there. She made sure we knew it was rude not to be on time, this time too early.

A new immigrant from Southeast Asia excited to see her sister who lived in another State decided, with the rest of her family, to surprise her. They drove to see her a day earlier than scheduled. The sister turned them away and asked them to come back the next day.

2. AND DO NOT SHOW UP UNANNOUNCED. Call if you want to visit and only if you have been told that you are welcome.  Allow a week’s notice to schedule any appointments with friends.

3. STARE but offer a nod or a greeting when your see anyone coming or when your eyes meet. A smile and  greeting of “Hi, how may I help you?” on seeing a client or a customer while in the workplace is “standard” or expected behavior. But, “How are you?” is a greeting. “How is it going?” may be more familiar in tone but is equivalent to a greeting.  A person who’ve seen more than once, say in your apartment complex, but have not formally met or an acquaintance is just being polite when he or she asks you those questions. It does not mean that he or she is interested to know how you are.

“Good, and you?” response should be more than enough. DO NOT engage in a conversation about what is going on in your life that day. That is reserved for family and friends who may really want to know. They will be asking, “how was you day?” or  “what up?”

“Have a good day,” “enjoy the rest of your day,” “have a good evening,” “have a good weekend,” are standard ‘goodbyes.’ You could wish the other person the same by repeating the phrase or by simply saying, “you too” or “thanks, you too.”

4. USE CERTAIN WORDS (AT ALL COST).  Learn the list of “do not say” words.  Instead use politically correct words.  Say “African American” instead of “Black.”  Never ever say the N-word even when you hear African Americans call themselves or each other that.  Americans of Asian descent prefer to be called “Asian-Americans” or “Asians” but not “oriental” which denotes rugs.   Refrain from referring to people or groups by their distinctive physical attributes (e.g. shape of eyes, weight), mannerism or stereotypical characteristics.

5.  DRINK AND DRIVE…(OR TEXT AND DRIVE). All of the streets are wide, even in residential areas, and free of obstructions.  A “block” even in cities could stretch for long distances. This means that driving is at the prescribed speed limit; which also means that driving is fast. To get from one place to another, you often have to use freeways or interstate highways (with speeds of 40 to 70 miles per hour). It would be difficult AND DANGEROUS for drivers to make a sudden stop to avoid hitting you, and / or avoid getting hit.  

As a driver, you could make mistakes by being distracted by texting or talking on the phone, which are illegal in most States. Driving under the influence (or driving drunk) can lead to impaired judgement,  risky driving behavior, or even WRONG-WAY driving after missing road signs. Plan how you will get back home from a party or an event that involves drinking (again, legally allowed if you are 21 years or older). Designate a driver who should stay dry (or not consume alcohol); plan on calling a cab or ride-share services like Uber.

6. ASK QUESTIONS REGARDING SOMEONE’S INCOME, AGE OR SEXUAL ORIENTATION because personal information (like income) is confidential, or may be used to discriminate (like age or sexual orientation). Wait until the other party volunteers the information, if at all.  Similarly, do not initiate a conversation about ‘relationships’ or ‘relationship status’ as this could mean only one thing – that you are interested in having a relationship with that person. Who anyone dates (or “going out with”) is “none of your business” unless you want to date that person.

7. JOKE or even comment on someone’s religion and politics. More importantly, DO NOT TALK about sex or engage in jokes on sex. These actions will only be interpreted as “leading the other person on” (or as an “invitation”) if you were a woman, and as a form of sexual harassment if you were a man. Any remarks outside academic discussions on sex, gender, or sexual orientation are inappropriate. Despite what is depicted in movies, or media, Americans are less tolerant of public nudity (you can get arrested) compared to Europeans; and in general, are less approving of public displays of affection. HAVING SEX in public is a misdemeanor crime in most States or a felony (crime) in some. Likewise, urinating in public is illegal in all States.

 

Remember, the more you understand the culture and act according to the norms of American daily life, you’re more likely to ENJOY everything else that the U.S. has to offer.

Selfie Act of Kindness

The image appears dark.  The picture is backlit, but to me it is special.  It shows how a simple act of kindness can go a long way.  Kindness gives me this warm feeling inside from the thought that someone cares.   What may be a small gesture for a giver can mean a lot to the receiver.

Here’s the story. I’ve always made the mistake of assuming that it takes time for Uber to arrive.  So as I charged my phone on the second floor of the 7-story Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, I thought I’d then request for a ride-share car to take me back to the hotel. Of course, a driver two-minutes away responded to my call.

I unplugged the phone and rushed to the front door. Now outside, the urge to take a selfie overwhelmed me. The huge glass windows on each side of the entrance, looked like a Cartier display window. What could be more Warhol than a storefront for a museum facade?

It was nine o’clock in the evening, and I had just enjoyed a quick run-through of Warhol’s creations on each, except one, of the seven floors of the museum. Grateful that I got there in time for the only night of the week it stayed open till 10 pm;  I still had mixed feelings.  Earlier I  left the fancy garden opening party of the creative non-fiction writing conference I came to Pittsburgh to attend. But to be at there, I rushed without first making a stop at the hotel.  So I lugged the conference materials, my clunky laptop, tote bag and all as I savored Warhol’s genius.

Even worse,  I had to excuse myself from a fabulous networking conversation at the party.  And although famished, I could not take a single  bite out of the sumptuous spread prepared by the conference host, Point Park University. Instead, I focused on animating my elevator speech in between big gulps of red wine and deep inhales.  By some stroke of luck, I found myself sharing a coffee (or cocktail) table with two pretty literary agents.

Being broke, I did not sign-up to speak one-on-one with a literary agent before coming to this conference.  It would have cost me $45. Suddenly I was in the presence of two agents willing to listen.  I pushed my luck. But Andy Warhol’s stenciled celebrity art also kept calling my name.  I could barely hear myself finish the last sentence.

So back to the selfie-moment on the curb outside the museum’s front door –   not only was I hungry and a little frustrated,  the buzz from the rapid-fire doses of red wine and the excitement triggered the need to pee. Also, the phone battery again threatened to run out. But I stuck to the business of selfie-ing a few seconds more. My delusional attempt to compose an award-winning photo further complicated my short non-extendable selfie stick (aka my arm).

Then from the corner of my eye, I saw these two young, fit, and tall men, both in evening jackets and ties. They walked in and the door shut behind them. Did I mention that a fun reception was going on at the museum, and people were still  milling around the front door? Two seconds later, the taller of the two men came back out and offered to take my picture to save me from more embarrassment.  All these while Mr. Uber driver waited.

But if my selfie arms were short, my legs weren’t anything to write home about either. Long story short, my tall dashing selfie-savior, in tight shiny blue suit also had a hard time composing the picture. So he knelt, as if to propose marriage, with one knee on the cold Pittsburgh pavement just to take this picture. After hitting the “click” button on my three-generations old i-phone he said, “the picture may be too  dark.” That, I thought, was the last thing we should worry about. I got in the car.  I am not sure if I even thanked my savior.