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  • Yesterday, I stopped at the Somali grocery to buy a big sack of basmati rice and some tandoori masala spice. There is a large Somali population in St. Cloud. I always have good conversations when I go to this particular grocery. Last time a Nigerian woman walked around the small store with me talking about her life and cooking and asking me how I used various ingredients.

    This day the man behind the counter was new to me. He was wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers baseball cap and a grubby jacket. He had very few teeth and a disturbing red spot in the corner of his eye. When I brought my things to the counter he said, “This is the best rice. It cooks so fast.” I agreed, and we started up a conversation.

    He took out his cell phone and started talking to someone in Somali. I didn’t know what was up, but soon figured out he was calling the owner to learn the prices. We checked the size of the rice bag and he read off the label of the spice mix. When he hung up I said, “You’re just helping out, huh.”

    “Yes,” he said. “I just got off work.” He told me he worked at the Hormel plant.

    “First shift?”

    “Yes, I’m in human resources,” he said. “That’s what my degree is in.”

    “That’s a really hard job,” I said. “Do you handle people’s complaints?”

    “Yes, all day long. ‘My boss didn’t give me my break,’ and so on. I speak Spanish, Somali, Arabic, French and English. It’s not a hard job physically—it’s all mental.”

    “And lots of cultural misunderstandings, I’d imagine.”

    “Oh yes, always cultural misunderstanding. Talking to one guy in Espanol, then the next in Somali, and the bosses in English. Always figuring out which language I’m in.”

    “They are lucky to have you—you have very valuable skills. Do you like it?”

    “I wish I had studied something else. I worked so hard in college. Now I work so hard and I’m still stressed. I’m ready to go back to Somalia. What I’d really like is just give me 20 camels and I’ll follow them around. I’ll sit under a tree. I won’t own anything.”

    “It sounds like you’ve lived here a long time.”

    “Yes, 20 years. But I’m really done with all this. You know what I’m thinking about? The hobo life. Do you know what that is, the hobo life? To not have stress.”

    “You just want to live simply,” I said. “It’s hard to do in the United States.”

    “Yes,” he said. He took out his cell phone. “I wish I could get rid of this. I have my cell phone bill. My cable bill. My insurance, my car expenses, all these things I stress about. My rent every month. I can’t get away from it. My doctor told me to stop reading, especially politics. I’m on three medications for high blood pressure.

    “I’m 27 years old. I just want to go back to Somalia and sit under a tree and not own anything. Take life as it comes.”

    Another Somali man had entered the store and stood patiently beside the counter. We finished our conversation and I wished him well and left. This is a common story. I recognize it from the wonderful documentary film God Grew Tired of Us. What does it say that you’d rather live in a failed state than in St. Cloud, Minnesota? And winter coming on…
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