7/2/2003

Portrait of a Young Man as Global Citizen

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

Rochester, MN -- The kid has a sharp eye for shoes.

"How are your Rockports treating you?" he called out from across the Tradehome shoe store at Apache Mall, where he's working this summer.

I'd gone in to buy a new pair and the kid had me fitted within seconds. He had great sales banter, friendly but not too, and the whole store pulsed to his energy. He'd grabbed a new customer before I'd even left.

But not before I discovered, chatting at the register, that this sandy-haired 16-year-old Mayo High School junior is foreign-born -- a "resident alien" in our government's strange parlance. Behind his winning all-American facade, Kevin Strehler, fluent in teenager English down to the last muffled "you know," is as worldly, as well-traveled, and as truly exotic as our Somali neighbors who brighten Rochester in their brilliant chiffons.

In other words, he's a global citizen.

Born in Zurich, Switzerland, and still a legal citizen of that country, Kevin moved to Rochester as a child but spends a full month each summer with relatives in his homeland. His first language, which he still speaks at home with his parents, is Swiss German, the dialect of German that's spoken by 60 percent of Swiss and has the rather remarkable distinction, considering it is a German dialect, of using the French word "merci" for "thank you."

His bi-national outlook influences every facet of his life, down to the unusual way his mother, named Marie-Antoinette, quickly dispatches unwanted telemarketing calls.

"She is very particular to use both names," explains Kevin, "because in Switzerland, if there is no name after the hyphen, Marie is the name of a girl cow. So when the telemarketers call and ask for Marie, my Mom always says "There are no cows here!'"

The invisible and yet the most powerful thing about the kid is, simply, his international outlook. He carries it easily and unpretentiously. It's darned easy to miss in a shoe store. But make no mistake, he's a European.

We went for a coffee and I asked how being born and raised partially in Europe affects his political thinking. Bearing in mind that political thinking, like learning a second language, is not a skill American teenagers automatically acquire as most European teenagers do.

"It leads me to try to harmonize conservative American and liberal European thinking," he says. "With the war in Iraq I had friends who said 'Let's get Saddam out of there. We'll amass a huge army and wipe theirs out and nothing will happen to us.' And I said, 'Are you willing to send family members over there? What about the money you need to spend? And what about the future of Iraq once the war is over?'"

The rap on global citizens is they're not patriotic, either to their native country or their adopted land. I threw that challenge Kevin's way.

"I'm patriotic both to Switzerland and the United States, and I'm proud to be from both places," he said. "By placing your loyalty too much in one place you cause problems. If your country is doing something wrong with the right intention, you might not accept that it might be wrong.

"As a Swiss I'm proud that such a small nation has been able to think for itself and have such a say in international affairs. As an American, I'm proud there are many freedoms and opportunities. You have to earn it, but once you do you can say 'I achieved this and America is supporting me.'"

Does his global perspective give him power?

"Absolutely," he says. "I have an advantage because of my multiple perspectives and sometimes I get hassled for it. A person may disagree with me and have a valid point, but not argue from a wide perspective."

As we drained our coffees, Kevin explained the European take on American child rearing, public transit, cohabitation before marriage, and how folks in Zurich look on their neighbors compared to how folks in Rochester do.

"Here, people look at what you are and form an opinion, whereas in Europe you let them do what they do, and you don't judge so much."

My favorite was his take on the Minnesota legal drinking age.

"The idea here is when I'm 21 I can go into a bar and order a drink on my own and get piss-drunk. Whereas in Europe you already know by that age there is no point to just doing that."

Now who said global citizenship was impractical?

Go for it, kid. Thanks for your perspective -- and the shoes.

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report