Years ago, when I first migrated to the United States, I was asked to read Robert Ringer's Winning through Intimidation as part of my acculturation process. Being a pacifist at heart, I was turned off by the title and never bothered to read the book. However, I learned about intimidation as a lifestyle technique from a Bangladeshi immigrant friend who claimed a fuller understanding of American culture. She narrated an interesting episode with sufficient relish and pride. The aim was to initiate me into the “true American way.”
It transpired that when this lady's daughter (a multi-talented, straight A student) received a B+ in her final 7th Grade English exam, she scheduled a meeting with the teacher and demanded a review of the answer paper. After the mom and teacher had invested an hour analysing and debating each answer, the teacher finally relented and changed the grade to an “A”. My friend claimed proudly: “This is America. What did the teacher think? Because my daughter is of Bangladeshi origin, her English proficiency is less than that of any white American?” She then turned to me and said: “Milia, in this country you have to fight for everything or else you will be left behind.” Being rather surprised and saddened, I asked: “But is it worth fighting for a 7th Grade exam result? What difference will it make in the long run?” Quick came the response: “It's not about one exam, but about winning—nobody in this culture appreciates losers. They only rally behind winners!”
I remember reflecting on this advice for some time. At one point, I was tempted to ask my friend a critical question: “What if your daughter falls in love with someone who doesn't reciprocate? Will she fight for love? Can you win someone's respect or affection by aggressively pursuing it? Or is it something that is given to you willingly because you earn it?” These thoughts disturbed me considerably because I was raised to believe that humbleness, empathy and respect for teachers are qualities that also help you get ahead in life. And sometimes you win the war by losing a battle.
Considerable time has elapsed since the incident, and I may have changed in terms of adapting to the culture of this country. But I still nurture a low opinion of aggressive boasters and self-promoters who try to bulldoze their way to the top. The memories of the encounter with my friend came rushing back last week when in the US Open final, Serena Williams lost her composure and took a belligerent attitude toward the umpire. The tennis celebrity, who has won 23 grand slams, diminished herself by berating the match official and throwing tantrums when she realised that she was losing the match. If she was trying to gain sympathy by demanding a reversal of the referee's decision to penalise her for her outbursts, her outrage had the exact opposite effect. She came across as angry, unsporting and unfit to be a champion and, more importantly, a role model.
By contrast, her twenty-year-old Japanese opponent, Naomi Osaka, remained calm despite the pandemonium around her. She never remonstrated that her moment of glory was eclipsed by Serena's histrionics and the crowd's hostile booing.
After losing the game, Serena Williams did what my friend told me we should all do when we compete in this country: fight with whatever tools we have. Even if we know we are wrong. In the post-match press briefing, Serena complained about the umpire's sexist attitude. “I've seen other men call other umpires several things,” she told reporters. “I'm here fighting for women's rights and women's equality... and for me to say 'thief' and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist reaction.” She unleashed her anger on the referee and used the gender card to state that she was actually championing the cause of women. The question that remains unanswered is: would she have behaved the same way if she was winning?
Part of the US media is publicising the match as one that will always have an asterisk attached to it—that Serena lost a game because of her emotional outburst. But for many like me, the asterisk will denote something else: we will remember the match for what a 20-year-old Japanese tennis star taught the world through her exemplary behaviour. By openly expressing her admiration for Serena Williams and apologising to the crowd for their disappointment, she demonstrated modesty, compassion and grace. These qualities may or may not win brownie points with most people, but I believe they are universal humane qualities and will always endure!
The incident is a gentle reminder that not everything is won by force and aggression. Naomi Osaka won the US Open with her superb tennis skills and her emotional resilience. More importantly, she also won the hearts and minds of millions with her dignity and humility.
Milia Ali is a Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.