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Life, love and war taught by a Liberian cab driver

It’s 2:15 a.m., Monday morning, and I should be studying for tomorrow’s quiz. But if we’re here at Duke to learn, I’ve got something much more important to think about—and it all started when my plane from Chicago arrived at RDU around 12:30 tonight.

I hailed a cab and soon proceeded into the usual chatter with the cabbie: “how’s the weather been this weekend?” Then I asked about his radar detector, which led to a discussion of speeding tickets, cops and accidents.

I detected a fairly thick accent, which I could not immediately place, but I could quickly tell this man was smarter than I immediately suspected. I suddenly shook myself with two thoughts: First of all, this guy who I dismissed as an average Durham cabbie was not an average Durham cabbie. Second, what the heck was I doing stereotyping cab drivers?

I’ve always considered myself open-minded. I’ve always repeated and believed the phrase, “Don’t judge others.” But it’s not so easy in a real-life scenario, and I was soon treated to a strong dose of reality.

As we continued talking, I found out that the cab driver goes to N.C. State. He is a graduate student in public administration. And he is from Liberia. He just moved to the U.S. six years ago.

I was slightly embarrassed not to know exactly where, in Africa, Liberia is, but I pursued the subject without much thought. Hadn’t I been hearing about Liberia lately? Who know? I had never thought too deeply about it. So I innocently asked him how were things back home. Did he come here to escape, I pondered. Is his family still here, I thought.

I was, quite frankly, blown away by his answers. Liberia is in civil war, his family is still there, and he has not heard from them since May 27.

Sure, I knew there was civil war in Liberia, didn’t I? But I classified it along with the shrinking rain forests in Brazil—under my “Bad stuff happening in the world” file. You know, the stuff people tend to think about for a few seconds before checking out what the basketball team did or what "Calvin and Hobbes" are up to.

I suddenly realized how ignorant and apathetic we can be. Do most of us know that Pakistan’s prime minister is going to trial this week? Or even that she’s a woman? How many of us know that North Carolina leaves will be turning in about two weeks? And how many of us dream of working for the United Nations, without also worrying about the BMWs, European vacations, or million-dollar homes?

We don’t all need to know everything and act perfectly. I’m sure that my cab driver is not a saint, either. And I’m sure that there are people on campus who have a good understanding of world issues, who are in touch with people outside Duke and who re guided by morals as much as money.

But I thought about some of the popular shirts on campus—the ones that say: “We’re not snobs . . . we’re just better than you,” NC State sucks . . . but Carolina swallows,” and “Duke is one big party . . . with an $18, 000 cover charge.”

I attend what supposedly is one of the finest schools in the country, costing more than $20,000 a year, and yet I was taught quite a few things by someone attending that “inferior” school down in Raleigh.

I realized that an N.C. State student taught me more in one short cab ride than most of the professors I’ve had at Duke have taught me in a semester.

What I learned tonight—about stereotypes, misconceptions, world events and human nature—Duke’s professors will never teach me. And though they might try, they will never get through to me like that young man who has been wondering for four months if his family, thousands of miles away, is all right.

I sincerely hope that they are.

Jason Greenwald is a Trinity sophomore. He is a sports reporter for The Chronicle.


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