Friday, April 17, 2015

Farewell to America

After 15 years of living in the Washington, DC area, I have come to the conclusion that every prejudice about the United States is true. Hear me out and read on.

The local specimen can be mind numbingly narrow in how they see the world. It's America's backyard and it all could be so much easier if the world would agree and did things the American way.

Depth is not a strong suit and Americans never seem to carry a lot of baggage with them. They can be humble for 5 minutes (but not more) and then it’s back to business. You can certainly accuse Americans of being superficial.

The social safety net is a joke and there are people who have no moral qualms trying to bring down universal healthcare as un-American. There is a deep-rooted mistrust of government and the market is always right. People have taken the American dream to be all about getting rich while the founding fathers spoke about the pursuit of happiness.

Segregation is alive and kicking and schools are some of the most segregated places in this country. If the school population is “diverse” it means, there are hardly any white kids and in the opinion of some too many black and Latino children. When we moved in, our white neighbors told us about every one in the street except for one house. At the time, that’s where the only black family in our street lived.

On the other hand, the phrase “not possible” is non-existent. It is pretty impressive to witness an entire country bounce back. I have seen it after September 11 and after the financial crisis. I have seen it in neighbors whose business went bust and in my professional life. You screw up, you learn from it and carry on. No time for finger-pointing. They cheer you on and want you to succeed.

Once you get passed the INS officers, America has an unfailing way of making you feel welcome, in your school, your workplace, the neighborhood or at church. Call it team America but somehow they always manage to pull together. Where social safety networks are nowhere to be seen, the neighborhood, the church or friends chip in. When I was hospitalized for most of the year, we didn’t cook a meal for months because people got together to help.

Private initiative drives charity in all forms. People don’t wait for some official body to design plans. After September 11, volunteers traveled to New York to help. They traveled to New Orleans and New Jersey after hurricanes. They just showed up without any idea what to do but got their hands dirty.  To do this Americans give up scarce vacation days and pay for the privilege to travel to the disaster zone to help. And they are flexible. Boy, are they flexible. When hurricane Sandy hit, the New York City marathon was cancelled but thousands of runners had already booked their hotels. So what did many of them do? Since they were in the area, they got themselves to Staten Island to join the effort to clean up the mess.

It’s not a melting pot but really a salad bowl. If you just get off the beaten track a little, if you leave the all white or all liberal or all Jewish or all black and at times self-segregated communities, there is a whole different country. If you look for it, you can strike up a friendship with gun-toting angry white men and illegal immigrants (yours truly excluded obviously). You can find yourself at neighborhood parties in newly trendy areas where a World Bank director mingles with the son of the original owner next door who just got fired from his job flipping burgers at MacDonald’s.

The diversity is breath taking and Americans are not shy expressing it. They are some of the least self-conscious people I have ever met. They can laugh about themselves and have a knack for finding or making almost everything fun. And behind the mantra of “I want it my way”, there is also a little “I don’t take shit from anyone” attitude, which includes self-appointed authorities.

I am going to miss the openness of this place, the space, the willingness to let people try, to give it a go. I am going to miss the craziness of it all. This is a country that manages to make the weather reports interesting with all the hyperbole about the next monster rain. They drop everything to jump on the next bandwagon and then giggle about the silliness of it. I take a superficial “how are you” at times yelled across the street with a smile over the fierce “don’t talk, don’t smile and leave me alone” attitude elsewhere anytime. I also take a little chaotic praxis over over-engineered theory anytime.

Lastly, I hope that some of that craziness, flexibility, self-depreciation and dare I say fun seeking psyche has rubbed off on me. Every prejudice about the United States is wrong and I want to come back.


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