The writer and activist Nawar El Saadawi once said, “Freedom is an illusion.” Even in America, perhaps especially in America, that is true. If we are not bound by larger forces such as racism or classism, we have more personal lack of freedom – we’re stuck in unhappy marriages, we suffer from addiction or mental illness, we have issues with our children or parents or siblings. Life is hard.
I, myself, went looking for freedom in 2005, when I moved to China. China might seem like a very strange place to look for freedom, but I think that’s what I was doing. I was hoping that there was somewhere else on earth that I didn’t feel judged and disapproved of. I was hoping that at age 34, I wouldn’t feel like I had failed – at a career, with men, with myself. So I stayed in China for three mostly happy years. Certainly I was judged there, and laughed at, but most of it seemed less personal than it does here in America. I was a foreigner after all. I was strange to the Chinese, I knew I was strange to them, and it was ok.
But then I moved to Saudi Arabia. To be sure, I wasn’t looking for freedom there. It was partly a desire for something new, partly a longing for adventure, and part ignorance. From the stress of the place, I also spun into my first manic episode. Saudi Arabia is a spectacularly rotten place to be manic. It could be argued that it is a spectacularly rotten place altogether. I was changed by the place – I woke up to the world, in a sense. I didn’t just know about evil in the world in an abstract way – I felt it personally. I saw it firsthand. And then I continued seeing it, perhaps unreasonably since I was manic, every place after that – back in China where I returned after Saudi, then to Japan the year after that. It wasn’t just evil – it was a desire for control that I experienced. It seemed as if every place I went was obsessed with controlling people, and I realized I didn’t feel this way in America.
It is probably obvious how control functions in Saudi Arabia. Women must be covered in public or in front of men who are not from their family. Even I had to wear the abaya, the black covering that goes over women’s clothes there. I also usually covered my head as well, just to avoid trouble with the religious police that trolled the malls in Riyadh. Women in Saudi can’t mix with men who are not family members; they must be accompanied by a male family member when they are out in public. Although women are just now beginning to have jobs in the Kingdom (they still can’t drive a car), there are a million other restrictions on them. The place is not much easier for men, to tell the truth. There’s no dating, no movie theatres, not much to do and work is hard to find. And all of this (and more) is about controlling the populace. An obsession with control has seeped into the very fabric of the society there, so that I felt it keenly at the college I worked for. And because of all the control there, people did what they could to go around it – driving insanely on city streets, widespread abuse of domestic workers from third world countries, drinking and drugs (yes, they are problems there, too.). If you could get away with it, you could do it.
When I returned to China, I was angry at the world. China, too, didn’t seem the idyllic place it had been to me when I first moved there. Suddenly I was furious with all the little idiosyncrasies that are China – people driving their motorbikes and bicycles on crowded sidewalks, someone taking up three seats in a crowded train station, all the water and electric outages in the small town where I lived. And then there were the controlling things – like the strict lives my students suffered through in their school, locking the gates of apartment complexes at 10 o’clock at night, the pressure for women to be married by 25 or risk being “on the shelf” for the remainder of their lives. And so on. It dawned on me that the seemingly selfish actions of China’s citizenry were a reaction to all the control in their lives. The water shortages and power outages were examples of poor management, where it was about what you could get away with, not what you were responsible for.
So then I moved to Japan – supposedly a free society, a major world power, a wealthy, privileged nation. In Japan, I worked for a company that dictated where I would live (in a shoebox, basically), how long I would commute each day (nearly two hours each way), who could visit me (NO OVERNIGHT VISITORS), and how long I would work (8-6 each day, and we were not allowed to leave the campus). I was off my nut manic at the time, so of course everything little thing was magnified, but yet again it seemed that my company was indicative of the wider society – a society that killed itself working (literally), a society that probably drank too much, and a place with many restrictions on what you could do, who you could be.
Granted, this is merely a brief discussion of larger things (you can read more about it in my book, if it ever gets published). And because I was so sick, I don’t completely trust the feelings I remember. As Josh Billings once said, “There are lots of people who mistake their imagination for their memory.” Still, I don’t think I’m completely wrong about the obsession with control in the world.
And so I come back to America. I returned from nearly seven years overseas two years ago. I’m not manic anymore, nor am I an angry person. Lots of things are different. It’s interesting, though, I have a number of friends from other countries, and almost universally among them, they say they feel “freer” in America. My friend Monica from Spain says she feels less judged here – fewer people telling her what to do, or how to be. She says the Spanish are very direct and outspoken in how they judge you, and that here in America people may judge you, but they keep it to themselves. I’m not sure I agree with that. I still feel pretty judged. Maybe it’s a function of my friends being away from their close relatives and the familiar. Maybe it’s how I felt when I first moved to China – free because I was in a new place, being a new me. Maybe it’s something in the ether.
I used to want to believe that there was someplace better than America. Then I wanted America to be that better place. Neither really applies. Even in America people have controls in their lives that impede them in some way. I don’t even know that I can say it doesn’t have larger forces at work controlling people. Unfortunately, I think there are plenty of those for less privileged people. Maybe in the end, this is merely an argument for traveling and coming to appreciate what you have just a little bit more.