A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1800
January 18, 2016

AMERICA THROUGH NEW EYES

MONTPELIER – Political campaigns in the United States are so long and so exhaustively covered by the media that they’ve become soap opera. The effect is intensified by social media, which foster a lively under-debate – the below-stairs lives of the servants in Downton Abbey spring first to mind – rife with all the features of the drama upstairs, but in a decidedly less elevated tone.

The resulting exposure to the twists, turns, and devices of the campaigns has helped us to identify the three most popular approaches to campaigning: educing the fears, biases, and perceived injuries of the common man; attacking the character, plans, and history of one’s opponents; or painting a rosy vision of what our future could be, if only we vote properly.

I follow social media rather more than I probably ought to, so I’ve had to notice that the default mode of, say, Facebook is almost universally angry, and even hateful. The United States, according to most folks posting comments, is in deep trouble and possibly irreversible decline, mainly because of – pick your villain – Congress, the Kenyan Muslim in the White House, the lying former Secretary of State, liberals, or Wall Street bankers who ought to be in jail the way they are in Iceland. It seems that many of the people who live in darkness have not seen any great light.

In view of this apparent decline and imminent doom of American democracy, I’ve been looking for some positive takes on life here. I don’t mean chicken pie suppers at the Baptist church. Predictably, I found them in the comments of immigrants, who tend to appreciate features of our environment that we’re probably inured to or unaware of. They were listed on a web site called Reddit (don’t ask; I don’t know), which asked recent immigrants if they’d had any pleasant surprises after they arrived here. Predictably, they ranged from the trivial to the significant.

My dad is Indian and was born in Trinidad. He says the first thing he ate when he came to the US was pizza. He said that it was magical, and that nothing has ever been as good as that first piece of pizza. That’s more than a comment on America; it’s an unwitting reflection on the extent to which we’re a melting pot of cultures. How many of us would enjoy a diet of Native American grub – or, for that matter, what the Pilgrims and pioneers subsisted on? Any evening, we can choose among Thai, Vietnamese, Tex-Mex, French, Italian, or German. What’s not to like?

I was pleasantly surprised how openly Americans discuss everything. Growing up, I was taught the Vietnamese version of the Vietnam War in school. In my mind, I thought in America people would not talk about it since it's a shameful thing and the government would suppress all discussions of it like in Vietnam. When I came here, I saw that people can openly speak about these things even when there are many disagreements. Disagreements? In America? Hard to believe. But how delightful it is to be able to express publicly even the most egregious sentiments without fear of government reprisals. The big-hatted and big-mouthed clowns currently squatting in the Oregon wildlife refuge, for example: If they even dared to try such a thing in many countries, they would by now have been gathered to their fathers.

Very seriously, free refills.

Free public restrooms and how every establishment has air conditioning. This person is clearly not from France, where pissoirs are available on street corners. The key word, though, is “free.” Most places, it’ll cost you – either a fee or a nice tip to a very grumpy-looking attendant.

I was very young when we moved here, but the one thing my parents always mentioned was that whenever we needed help, whether it was navigating the interstate or where to shop, people would go out of their way to help us find what we needed or show us how to do things. Think how many of us have experienced the basic generosity of most Americans – like the New Yorker who stops what he’s doing, says, “Follow me!” and leads us to the door of our destination; or the passing countryman who hooks on and pulls our car from the ditch. If people like these disappear because of the ubiquity of political rhetoric demonizing “the other,” the United States will be inexpressibly the poorer for it.

Grocery stores. Seriously. In USSR, where we came from, shelves were bare or at best stocked with drab, low-quality food. When I was a little kid, I loved going to the store just to see all the different crazy things they had that would never be available in the old country – produce, cereals, candy, you name it. Even though we were too poor to buy all the things I wanted as a kid, just going to see it was fun enough when I was first here.

And finally, my favorite. Having been shaken down by cops at Nicaraguan roadblocks, and hearing Mother’s story about having to tip an Italian bank teller for cashing her traveler’s checks, I can attest that we live in a near-paradise. Not having to haggle prices when buying things, not having to know who to talk to (or bribe) to get any little bit of paperwork filed in a reasonable amount of time, not having to worry about being cheated on every little transaction you have. Just having standard reliable procedures for daily tasks was wonderful.

We’re not perfect, and most of us feel that Congress is influenced by pots of money; but at least we don’t have to pay a “fee” to get our paperwork processed. Just knowing our country runs much the way it’s supposed to is worth a lot. Whatever you may be hearing, we’re blessed.

Photo by Willem lange