Don’t Talk to Me About Bubbles

I’m going to tell you a story and I swear every single word is true.

I work downtown in Chicago at least two days a week and on at least one of those days I eat lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant right near my office.

This place is owned by a Vietnamese family.

On the menu, which is on the wall, they advertise that some of the food is halal.

They serve Chilean wine.

Yesterday, when I was there, the older and younger cooks were yelling at each other in Spanish over what kind of music they were going to play in the dining room.

The younger cook won. Biggie. Big Poppa.

I’ve read a lot in the past week about how I live in a “liberal bubble.” How I don’t understand the world outside, the concerns of others, different from myself. How I need to do everything from “get out more” to “just move to a red state” to “talk to more people.”

Do you know how often I would LOVE to live in a bubble? When my upstairs neighbors are yelling about the Cubs game or a guy is trying to sell me video games on the street corner or the entire train car is engaged in ignoring-down someone who should really be getting mental health services or even another drink somewhere. (Nobody wants to call the cops, because we don’t want to hurt this guy further.) Do you know how often I think to myself, I’m tired of working this hard to live here?

There is no isolation here. No shield from difference. No ignoring the “other.” I can throw a rock from my house and hit four drug dealers and so can everyone else in my neighborhood.

It’s all in your face, all the time, everything that has led us where we are: Poverty. Inequality. A lack of help. An education system that is broken by racism and meanness about money. Gloriousness. Music. Food. History. Something new to learn every single second. Art in museums and on street corners, books stuffed to the rafters in the libraries.

And people. People people people.

I was at a wedding once in a small town in Kansas and the mother of the bride cornered me in the bathroom and talked about how lucky she was to live where she lived. There was, she said, no real community in the big city.

My next-door neighbor had called the week previous, in hysterics. She was hyperventilating and for a moment I thought something had happened to her son.

There was a dead mouse in her kitchen. She wanted my husband to come get it.

Same neighbor, the week Kick was born, left homemade chili and a supportive note at my front door. The woman who used to live upstairs pet-sat the ferrets and I walked her dog. Mr. A travels for work for weeks at a time and I’m never worried; there are half a dozen people in my building who’d come if I called. There are half a dozen people on the street at any given time: safety in numbers.

Kick was baptized at the church down the block. I’m an inconsistent attendee, but they welcomed us as if I parked in those pews full time. They extended their hands to our new, fragile little family and they blessed us, and I felt it in a way I’ve never felt faith before.

They have a food drive the first weekend of every month. People pile bags of food and envelopes of cash on the altar to feed the hungry.

I understand my way of life isn’t for everybody. Like I said, sometimes I’m not sure it’s for me and mine, not always. But the values that make it worth living are those in every community, large and small, across this country, values the “white working class,” the “small town America,” the “heartland,” instilled in me: Generosity, connection, joy. A profound sense of place, of knowing. A love of God, and of difference. A constant reaching out, over and over and over, in the face of every rebuff, knowing that we are more together than we are apart. Values that were so cruelly betrayed last week.

Don’t tell me I live in a bubble. Don’t tell me I don’t experience difference. It’s at the next desk in my office, talking about teaching kids to read. It’s my Iranian downstairs neighbors playing country music; you really haven’t lived until you’ve heard an elderly Persian woman yelling enthusiastically along with Kenny Chesney.

(And not for nothing, but some of us live in “bubbles” because we couldn’t get work in our red states of origin. I’ve read a lot of commentary in the past week about shallow liberals who just want to eat ethnic food to show off. For some people it’s about eating, period.)

This “bubble” is the wide world, the same one everyone lives in. We are all as isolated as we want to be. If you have three neighbors and you know them, good. If you have three thousand and you know as many of them as you can, good.

Nobody lives in a bubble, not unless they want to.


5 thoughts on “Don’t Talk to Me About Bubbles

  1. My experience these last several days is that people who talk about other people living in bubbles are actually talking about their own situations. How many of the millionaires who control our media discourse regularly interact with people not on their income scale? Excepting, of course, those they or their similarly situated friends hire (that is, the cook, the chauffeur, the nanny and the au pair don’t count).

  2. This essay captures all the wonderful things about living in a city, even if it’s not a particularly big city (my city is the 15th largest in Canada, at about 400K people). I still remember walking by the tiny minor-league ballpark that’s at the edge of my neighbourhood, a block and a half away (the oldest continually-used baseball park in the world, incidentally) a couple summers ago, and seeing the fans waiting in line to get in enthusiastically bopping around to “Gangnam Style.” I doubt any of them actually spoke Korean, but it didn’t matter. When the city replaced our water and sewage pipes on the street, the people who own the Vietnamese restaurant at the end of the block and around the corner were kind enough to let me use their bathroom.

    And yes, we have drunks walking through here late at night (because of the bar across the way), and occasional incidents of stupid vandalism and stuff (someone tagged one of the neighbours’ houses, and someone else had their garden gnome smashed), but overall, it’s great and I wouldn’t trade it for living in a small town (again).

    Thank you for writing this.

  3. This made me miss the city where I used to live – Toledo. I now live in small town America, and the people are nice, but only nice to people who look like them. Which I do. Even so – when I first came here to take care of my mother, I was introducing myself as Jane Bennett. People were not friendly until I started introducing myself as Jane Gagle. My father and my mother are from here, and saying the name Gagle let people know that I was “from here.”

  4. The irony of them saying we live in a bubble is lost on those who surround themselves only with those who look and act like them. It’s they who should get out and meet more people, travel more, and experience more. Maybe then they wouldn’t be so damn afraid of everything they assume to be different.

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