The Price of American Exceptionalism

Last night the New York Times had a live interactive thing on Facebook entitled “Me Time”.  It featured yoga, meditation, and Tibetan ringing bowls.  Don’t get me wrong- as a bipolar person I know how important it is to take good care of yourself, and I also believe that yoga and meditation and Tibetan bowls can also help some people.  Still, calling it “Me Time” seemed perilously close to the Trump administration’s anthem of late.

Maybe we need less “me” and more “other people”.

I highly recommend the new documentary “I am not your negro” about James Baldwin.  It calls in to question so much about American life and American ideals, and left me feeling like I was suspended in mid-air.  Like there was nothing to hold on to.  But really, there isn’t any ground, there isn’t any thing to hold on to.  And that’s as it should be.

Americans cling to the notion of American Exceptionalism–that we are somehow more special,  more deserving than any other nation.  That is simply a bunch of hooey.  I agree with a friend, too, that American Exceptionalism is dangerous because it promotes the belief that we don’t owe anyone else anything.  Somehow we are unto ourselves, sufficient as we are, and not connected to people around the world.

In 2005, I left America for China because I was disappointed in my own country.  I thought I could have a better life elsewhere.  I thought people would be better somewhere else.  I know, I know, it was a foolish notion of mine.  After three years in China, I went to Saudi Arabia, and suffice it to say a lot of bad shit happened there (stay tuned for the book I’m writing), and suddenly I realized I was disappointed with the world in general.  I was manic and oh-so- angry.  I, again, foolishly believed it was about the place.  The place was bad.  So then I went back to China, and there, too, I was disappointed.  Again I thought it was the place.  I blamed Saudi Arabia; I blamed China.  But I was wrong.  I was wrong even to blame humanity, which you would think is so much more individual and therefore more blameable.  I was wrong.

After nearly seven years in China, Saudi Arabia, and Japan, I came home in 2012.  It’s taken me years of quality medication and therapy to come to my own perhaps more sensible  conclusions:  the world, humanity, the universe, whatever–they don’t owe me a thing.  It is I who owe the world.  I know these are not new ideas.  Plenty of people have said the same thing, including a farmer-philosopher in the literary magazine The Sun some years ago whose name I wish I could remember now.

Perhaps the only reason I would recommend travel is not to add to your Instagram account, but to see how other people live.  To see that other people work, and strive, and suffer just as we do.  To see how the rest of the world is indeed connected to us.

In the movie, James Baldwin says that America is very immature in its outlook on race, racism, and a host of other things.  This makes sense to me.  Friends from other countries have always mentioned the “innocence” of Americans, but I think what they mean is indeed immaturity.  More and more, I think that Americans may have problems with abstract thought, and in particular, the abstract thought, as a friend talked about recently, of empathy.  Why do so many white people have a problem accepting that racism exists?  Why can’t they accept that one person’s reality is not like another person’s?  I think in part it is this inability to make the leap into abstract thought, and therefore the leap into empathy.

We do not live in a society that promotes empathy.  We do not live in a society that punishes selfishness-in fact, it seems to reward it.  It’s all about the “me”, and increasingly so, with Muslim travel bans, a halt to diplomatic discourse, the dismaying cuts to the EPA and lifting of car emission rules that date back to the 1970s.  I don’t care, I’m not listening, it’s all about me, damn it.  And the world watches on in horror.

I remember a very good friend of mine, who is Chinese, screaming at me “You are so selfish, Americans are so selfish!” in Xinjiang Province when I left the confines of a travel group to find coffee.  Now, I admit to being selfish about coffee.  Mostly I think you don’t want to be around me if I haven’t had it.  But in this case Xinjiang Province was having some political turmoil between the dominant Han ethnic group and the minority Uighurs, and travel was a bit dicey in some parts.  I don’t think I was ever in danger, but my hosts felt very strongly that I should be protected as a foreigner.  This was the same place where I accidentally shut down an entire hotel because it wasn’t deemed “safe” enough. My travel company, at the behest of the local police, moved me to a “safe” (more expensive) hotel which was pretty much the same as the previous one, down to the curtains and carpet.

But I think about my Chinese friend screaming at me, and I think, yes, we are pretty much a selfish lot.  There are good points about individualistic societies, of course, but this is the downside.  We don’t think very much about the choices we make–from the cars we drive, to the food we eat, to the clothes we wear.  We think we have the right to the life we live, when in fact it is due mostly to dumb luck and an indifferent universe.

We are not better than anyone else.

We are allowed to make mistakes, and to be disappointed.  We are human, after all.  I think many people struggle with these issues, and that’s important.  Thinking about it, struggling with it, these are beginnings.  We are certainly right to start with ourselves in making the world a better place, and if that means yoga and meditation and Tibetan ringing bowls, so be it.

“Freedom is an illusion.”

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.

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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.

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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.

balloon lady

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.

statue of liberty

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.

A harangue about travel and how we talk about it

heaven lake xinjiang

(Above, Heaven Lake in Xinjiang Province, China, taken by my friend Yang Fu Chun, also known as Benjamin)

This was just pasted on my Facebook (thanks Caitlin), entitled “Everyone Should Live in China at Least Once” by Andrea Xu.  Of course I had to read it, because I spent five years, on and off, living in China.  I was relieved that the author didn’t make it into one of those lists – you know, “Seven Reasons to live in China” or some such shit.  I hate all those reductionist articles – “The Five Best Whatever Ever” or “Seven ways to overcome whatever”.  As if people can’t or won’t read an article that’s not a list?  Pandering to the lowest common denominator.  Ugh.

But I digress.

I really wanted to write about travel, and how we talk about it.  Andrea Xu captures a lot of truisms in her piece –  like how both exhilarating and frustrating it can be to live in another country.  I also like how she ties what you can learn in China to what you can apply it to when you get back home.  I think too often Westerners travel with nothing more in mind than getting something out of it for themselves.  But I wish I could ask her why she would invite everyone there?

Here’s a question I struggle with:  Should stupid, ignorant, bigoted people travel to other countries?  Will they come back less stupid, ignorant, and bigoted?  Maybe.  I hope so.  Certainly I have encountered a number of this type while living overseas (and not only in China – in Saudi Arabia and Japan as well).  I think it’s possible to remain pretty myopic in a foreign place, especially if you’re with a group.

Maybe some people thought I was stupid, ignorant, or bigoted living overseas.  That’s entirely possible.  And I know I learned a lot.  But really, it’s not like I want to stop anyone from going anywhere.  I just hope they think about it long and hard before they go, and that they are as open as they can be while there.

I have a problem with the phrase “The World is your Oyster.”  It’s not your fucking oyster.  (I write about this in my book, actually.)  It’s a complex, sometimes terrifying, place.  It’s hard not to be changed in some way by a place, in either a good way or a bad way.  Moreover, YOU change a place by going there.  You affect the people you encounter, in either a good way or a bad way.  I know this isn’t rocket science, but I think some people forget this.

Jordan, a man I work with, says he often asks foreigners what they think of Americans overseas.  “Inevitably they say, ‘Entitled’,” Jordan tells me.

I asked my Spanish friend Monica what she thinks of Americans, and especially Americans overseas.  “Innocent,” she said.

Interesting.

I know that a college semester in Kenya changed my life, and I also know that at age 21 I most certainly was an idiot.  I was also traveling with a group.  But it changed me in so many ways, and to this day is vivid and important.  I wouldn’t want to deny any college student that experience.

(Although my alma mater Earlham College no longer sends students to Kenya.  Too dangerous.)

What can I really say here?  I want people to travel smart.  I want them to be careful.  I want them to be realistic, but joyful.  I want them to soak it all in, but at the same time to be as green as possible.  I want them to know, really know, people in the countries that they visit.  And I certainly don’t want them to come home as bruised and battered as I was when I came home from Saudi Arabia.  Tough place.

The Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) is reported to have said, “Don’t tell me how much you know.  Tell me how far you’ve traveled.”

Maybe he had something there.