It all started with an international snowball fight.
I had left the smog of northern Utah in search of blue skies and sunshine down at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. I was snapping photos at Sunset Point, where several large tour buses had disgorged a flood of visitors from Asia. I had been surprised to see that the groups included large numbers of young children.
I hate to see people traveling together trying to take pictures that will leave someone out, so I began asking – as I often do – if they would like me to snap a photo of both or all of them. It took just a little sign language and soon I was surrounded by people speaking a language I couldn’t fathom as they thrust their cameras toward me and called a wife, girlfriend, good buddy, or family members to gather so I could record the occasion for them.
It struck me that the demand for my services may have been so great mainly because they suddenly had an opportunity to interact for a few moments with a real American. As I shot picture after picture, I tried to ask where they were from. Korea? No. Taiwan? Uh, oh. Bad question. China? Nodding heads all around. One man kind of whispered, “No Taiwan. China! China!”
We finally ran out of photos to take and were all walking back toward the parking lot. That’s when it happened.
A little girl – about the same size as my 5-year-old granddaughter – leaned down, made a small snowball, turned, and threw it right into my chest. I had inadvertently cut between her and a man I think was her grandfather.
A look of pure terror flashed across her face.
An enormous gasp arose from the crowd surrounding us. Shrill voices began scolding the poor child who was almost ready to burst into tears.
My grandfather instincts kicked in. Without stopping to think, I reached down and grabbed a handful of snow, laughed, and made a grouchy face at the girl as I tossed a snowball back at her just as I would have done had she been my little round-eyed grandkid.
A smile. The scolding stopped. I grabbed another handful and threw it. She retaliated. Laughing.
Laughter began to come from the crowd around us. A couple of adults tossed some snow. Just as quickly, the Third World War ended.
The sidewalk was icy. We all walked slowly and carefully. One man biffed hard. I tried to ask if he was okay. He picked himself up and smiled. Thumbs up and a big grin. I started to slip and a hand caught me and held me up. I thanked the lady who had rescued me. I could tell she understood as she nodded a "you’re welcome" to me.
In the parking lot, many of them joined already-long queues at the restrooms. Just as I headed for my truck, someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was the Chinese tour guide. He had a big grin on his face and he spoke English just like an American. Maybe because he is an American. What followed was a short but really intriguing conversation. Maybe it could even be called a brief friendship. I’ll have to paraphrase, but will try to make it as accurate as I can.
He’s an American. Born here. He’s actually an attorney. Not practicing except when his father, who now owns companies started by his grandfather, needs legal help. “I enjoy traveling and showing America to my countrymen. It’s much better than law books.”
“I hope I didn’t cause any problems or embarrassment.”
“No. It was a great chance for them to see a real American and enjoy some time with you. Too often, the only Americans they contact are waitresses or clerks in stores.” He paused and added, “You made them laugh. That was good.”
“I think I sort of stepped in it when I asked about Taiwan.”
He nodded. “That is a touchy subject. It’s a matter of great national pride.”
“I wish I spoke Chinese.”
“Yes, there are very few Americans who do. But most of these people understand more than they let on. They’re just shy about trying to speak. And you have to remember the country they come from.”
That’s when I told him I used to be a park ranger and added that I believe our national parks are some of the best ambassadors the country has.
He agreed. “Yes. And people who make a little extra effort to make others feel welcome here.”
We talked a little more. Turns out, he has never been to China himself. He wants to go someday, but that will have to wait until his grandfather is gone. He “left China in the days of Mao” and won’t allow any of his family to go back there.
He lamented that their tours must be so rushed. “They want to see as much of America as they can, and time is too short. They all have long lists of things they must see. Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Zion, Las Vegas. And so we are always rushing. But you have to realize this is the only chance most of them will ever have to see things they have heard about through all their lives.”
One thing he said really struck me. “I have to be careful of what I try to tell them about America and Americans. I may be monitored, and if I say too much, we could lose our contracts. There are strong cultural and political issues that must be respected. It’s actually remarkable that they are even here. So I just let them watch and listen and learn and make up their own minds. China is changing and some of these people may be guiding that change. I let America be its own ambassador.”
As we talked, many of his clients came by to shake my hand or just smile. The little girl stopped and did a quick curtsy.
And then ...
A couple of hours later, I was at a sandwich shop just outside the park. I was waiting for my sandwich to be constructed when a familiar tour bus pulled in and a stampede headed for the door. It was amazing to watch the shop’s crew churning out sandwiches by the dozen. There were five empty chairs at my table, so I motioned an invitation to join me. Over at another table, two men who’d come in earlier in a GarKane Electric Cooperative truck pulled out chairs to share theirs. The tour guide joined my table and their Chinese bus driver, who spoke English, sat at the other table. Others in the group pulled chairs up and surrounded the tables.
It wasn’t long before two tables were filled with conversations translated back and forth by the guide and driver. But what the guide had said earlier kicked in. Some of the visitors tried to use their English skills.
I tried to start the talk. “What do you think of America?”
One woman was amazed at how empty America is. “So much land! So ... so big!”
One man added, “It is much beautiful.”
Our little snowball tossing girl was making faces when her mother tried to get her to eat the sandwich set in front of her. The man I think was her grandfather said, “American food is much different for her.”
Mother finally convinced her to eat the bread – but not the meat and other fillings.
An older man had been sitting quietly watching and listening. Finally, he spoke in Chinese to the attorney/guide. “He is asking what you think of Trump.”
I just shook my head and made a face. They got the picture.
Then I asked, “What do you all think of Trump?”
No one answered for a long time. The guide said something to them and I could see them relax a little. One man who had spoken English earlier said, “We fear he may make war.”
I nodded. “So do I.”
There was a lot of head shaking and talk I couldn’t understand. Then the question, “Why did you make him your president?”
I was struggling to find a way to answer when the driver stood up and pointed to his watch. I was saved.
As they all filed out, the guide turned to me. “Another thing that amazes them is the freedom we have. It’s hard to explain some of it. They are here because the Chinese government sees it as an economic issue. Many of these people are in business or government jobs. I have to be careful what I say to them. But they see it and they are taking it home with them.”
When the bus pulled out, it turned west while I turned east back into the park.
My first night at home, I turned on the news and saw the final Muslim refugee family allowed to settle in Salt Lake. As they arrived at the airport, they were met by about 200 to 300 cheering Americans waving signs of welcome. The family is Afghan. The father had worked for the U.S. military in some way. Several children. Something’s wrong with the father’s leg. Crutches. Maybe a prosthesis. They are worried because a grandmother was turned back and is feared to have been returned to Islamabad. We have to be very wary of those dangerous grandmothers.
Our national parks may be great ambassadors for America. But they are only a teeny tiny part of it all. The real ambassadors of America are its people. You and me. Those folks at the airport.
Here’s my plea to everyone who reads this: When you meet someone from far away, whether it be China or Korea or Moldova or Mexico or Germany – all places from which came people I met this week in Bryce – take a moment to let them know who Americans really are. Take pictures for them. Buy a sandwich for them. Try to talk with them. If nothing else, just smile at them.
Or throw a snowball and laugh with them.
Because the world is watching.
What are they seeing? What are they thinking?