(Photo by Andrew Harrer - Pool/Getty Images)

I have spent the greater part of the last week grappling with the leadership implications of The Ban - it’s basically a proper noun at this point. On one particular morning this last week, however, the ban was not on my mind. I was in Washington D.C. in an Uber on my way to work. It was a typical morning. I was looking over my calendar and reading emails on my phone, stressing over the meetings I had and what I needed to get done that day, when I felt the car jerk hard.

We had been about to cross an intersection on Massachusetts Avenue, when a car came flying in from our left, blowing past the red light. He missed us by inches. Fine, I thought. It happens. But then, the driver, just an average looking guy, dressed in business casual, probably on his way to work, stopped the car, got out and started hysterically yelling at us, using both his hands to give us the middle finger. He was waving his hands frantically and starting to turn beet-red. Meanwhile, the Uber driver and I were sitting in the car, calmly observing him, wondering whether he was going to stop or whether he might become violent.

When he finally got back in his car and drove off, the Uber driver calmly shook his head. He apologized for the inconvenience. I was the one that was in a rage: What was that? The Uber driver remained calm and laughed it off. He told me he sees things like this all the time. When he first came to the U.S., it really shocked him but not anymore.

 

He had emigrated from Cameroon 10 years ago. I grew up speaking French, so our conversation naturally switched into French. I asked him what he thought about the ban. It saddened him, he said. He loved the U.S.. He was still on a visa and was worried about how changes in immigration policy might impact his future. He had a family here. He was proud of his work. And he was proud he could provide opportunity for his family.

Made In America

I was born in the U.S. but growing up, I knew more immigrants than multi-generational Americans. I grew up in Washington D.C., the kid of two foreigners. My parents were as foreign as it gets. My dad is Australian and he still remembers how confused he was the first time October 31 rolled around: Why were all these kids in costumes knocking on the door? These anecdotes were normal and I wasn't the only one with this upbringing. I attended an International school that attracted mostly World Bank and IMF types. It was an odd little utopia that had a few Americans, but mostly first generation Americans or - gasp - immigrants.

In my adolescence I assumed this was America. When I went to college, I would ask people I met, where they were from. They would answer Boston, New Jersey or the likes. Confused, I would follow up with “No, but from where? Like what country?” It took me a minute to realize not everyone is a first generation American. But what I also found, perhaps what struck me most, was compared to the Americans I met, the foreigners I knew loved America, they idolized it. In their eyes, America really was the land of opportunity.

Many foreigners I know are more patriotic than I am. I love the U.S., but it is usually an afterthought. For them, it’s a consistent source of pride. My mom dreamed of coming to the U.S. when she was little.  She loved the openness and possibility that the U.S. represented. When she finally became a U.S. citizen, we celebrated with such a big party it could easily compete with any Indian wedding.

There is definitely something to the influx of immigrants. It keeps the culture of openness and opportunity alive. Even as a first generation American I can see how I had become almost oblivious to the opportunity I’d been given. Immigrants shake things up for those of us who were born American. They embrace the spirit that in the U.S. we work hard because we believe it will make a difference. In France, let’s say, I've always suspected there's a lot more emphasis on living the good life and eating cheese because there isn't the same kind of openness, especially not in work. Foreigners love the U.S. in a way native born Americans rarely do because immigrants have an alternate reality to compare it to.

Madeleine Albright’s America

It reminded me of former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who has often recounted the story of when she was little, witnessing the German annexation of Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s. It was only when the U.S. entered World War II, that the situation improved. “I learned at a very young age that American involvement and engagement was absolutely essential, so that things turned out in a decent way.”

The experience marked her and made her proud to serve as Secretary of State. Her pride is typical of foreigners, having seen and lived through a very different life in a very different country. Foreigners look at the United States through this lens, a lens that can act as a friendly reminder to those of us who occasionally take it for granted.

Without perspective, it’s easy to think the greatest challenges for our country come from the outside. When Madeleine Albright was appointed Secretary of State, in 1997, there was a widespread concern that leaders in Middle Eastern countries with restrictive views on women wouldn’t take her seriously. Albright said it was quite to the contrary. Instead, the biggest challenge by far was internal. It was the men in the US government who had trouble viewing her as a woman in a position of power. Instead they saw her not as a peer, but rather someone for “their wives to be friends with.” Her biggest obstacles were the colleagues sitting right next to her.

A few years ago, I saw Madeleine Albright in a Sushi restaurant in D.C.. Ever since, I have regretted not going up to her. At the time, I wanted to tell her she was a rock star role model and that I had read all her books. But if I had the chance today, I would ask her instead, what have we done with our country?

My hope is she would answer that without new immigrants, America might lose its luster. She did after all recently tweet: "I was raised Catholic, became Episcopalian and found out later my family was Jewish. I stand to register as Muslim in #solidarity." The America my parents, or the Uber driver, sought out was one where openness shines through. Let’s hope that’s the one that prevails.