Friday, June 16, 2006

This is America, when ordering "Speak English"!

The story has been around in the US for about wo weeks but it's now all over the media, from coast to coast - the controversy started when the owner of one of the most famous Philadelphia cheesesteak joints (Geno's Steaks) put up the folloing sign:
It reads: This is AMERICA. When ordering "speak English".

The owner, Joey Vento, faces a discrimination complaint from the city. You might find it ironic that Vento's own grandparents came from Italy without speaking a word of English and Geno's Steaks is actually in a neighborhood founded by Italian immigrants. But that shouldn't surprise anyone. Those descendants of immigrants who did well tend to be proud of their parents' efforts to become Americans. That's also part of the myths (and so is Italian bashing forgotten!)
More importantly what may explain the current crisis may be this:
Over the last quarter-century, South Philadelphia has been transformed from an Italian-American enclave to a melting pot of whites, blacks, Vietnamese, Cambodians and Latinos. (LATimes)

There are a few things that strike me:
  • Whatever your views of a national language may be, not every one who comes to the States is.... American. What about foreign tourists? As Brian said on Crooked Timber:
I’m very pleased that no place had a similar sign when I was trying to get fed in Paris.
  • Despite what many supporters of Vento may think, the question is really not about "freedom of speech" but about whether people will not be served on the ground that they do not speak English.
  • Even though "many Geno's customers insist that everyone in America should speak English", it seems a bit odd for a business also dealing with tourists from all over the world to be so in your face about speaking English. Isn't that a bit risky? (That's probably whyThe Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau is so concerned about the city's image)
  • How do you define "English" in this case? How much English does it take to order "Cheesesteak"? Will Geno refuse to serve you if you don't know what "Cheez Wiz" is. From experiencing it myself, I must say that it may be difficult for outsiders to order at Geno's or other local cheesesteak places if they don't know the "unspoken" code:
The requested language is to state the quantity, the type of cheese, and then "wit" or "witout" to indicate fried onions on the sandwich. A common order is "Whiz wit", a cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz, served with fried onions. It is not called "Whiz with", as the guttural South Philadelphia Italian-immigrant pronunciation actually appears on menus—ordering otherwise brands one as an outsider or tourist. Lines for the sandwiches can extend into the streets on certain nights, especially after a sports event at one of the major Philadelphia stadiums, thus showing the need for a rapid ordering system........ (Wiki)
  • What is at "steak" in this particular local event is clearly not Geno's place - after all you can always take your business to Geno's rival - the other famous cheesesteak place, Pat's steaks. (although I suspect that it would be just the same - if you hesitate in giving your order, the guy behind the counter will make the Soup Nazi seem nice and friendly.)The central issue here is the symbol of the entire divisive debate over illegal immigration.
One should be wary of a debate where people start discriminating in the name of patriotism.
and by the way, at Geno's they give in to strong patriotic sentiment - reflecting a very conservtive view.
At Geno's, they call french fries Freedom Fries, (reflevting the anti-French sentiment for its opposition in the United Nations to the Iraq war).
So what's next, banning French people from patriotic stores? Thankgod, Americans are smarter than that and definitely more pragmatic.

NOTE: for those of you who don't know "Cheesesteaks", here's a picture worth a thousand words:

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