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.

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Cuba and Romancing a Place

Americans can be so charming.  I mean that.  I think a lot of the world would agree.  Without a great burden of history (relatively speaking), we are mostly a hopeful people.  That “can – do” attitude extends to a lot of things, but what I want to write about is how it pertains to travel.  I have written about this a little bit before, but I decided I haven’t exhausted the topic yet, and so I hope you’ll have patience with me.  What prompted this post was a photography blog in the New York Times, “Lens: Photography in Cuba: It’s not easy”.   As the article explains, the phrase “It’s not easy” is used ubiquitously in Cuba, and then also as a title for this photography exhibit.

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Considering that diplomatic relations are being restored between Cuba and the U.S., it’s a timely exhibit at the International Center of Photography in Long Island, New York.

One of the curators, Iliana Cepero, a Cuban-born art historian, said rather aptly, “Cuba is perceived as a place of nostalgia in the American imagination, It’s the place where their grandparents honeymooned, this incredible site of longing and joy, music and leisure time. We do not want that image anymore. What this show is trying to do is to make clear for the American audience that Cuba is much more complex. Life is messy. Life is complicated. Behind those beautiful scenes everyone is attracted to there is a complex canvas waiting for them.”

Yes, I love that she said this.  Even in America, perhaps especially in America, people love nostalgia.  Nostalgia at any price.  Sometimes that price is forgetting all the muck that lies beneath.  And we musn’t forget the muck underneath. If we do, we are forgetting about, or even whitewashing,, a culture, a people, a place.  We are simplifying part of humanity.  Making it cute and digestible, when maybe it shouldn’t be.

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Cepero goes on to say in the article that she finds Americans’ desire to go to Cuba now, “before Cuba changes”, or is “ruined” is particularly odious.  “Our cities may be picturesque, but our lives are not,” she said. She added that many people in Cuba would be happy to see a McDonald’s in their midst.

Many Americans want this “picturesque” aspect in their travel.  The old cars, the paint peeling on buildings.  But what is that really?  Poverty.  And yes, it is wrong to romanticize poverty.  I was reminded myself of a Turkish movie I saw in the last year called “Bliss” (on Netflix).  It’s about a young girl who is raped in a very small, conservative village, and how her male cousin is commissioned with the job of taking her away and killing her.  A brutal way of life, to be sure, but then I thought, what if I had just visited the village without knowing this story?  Wouldn’t I have thought, “how beautiful, how charming this place”?  Without thinking about the muck underneath?  Yes, I probably would have.  It’s so easy to romanticize a place.

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I’m not saying it’s wrong to see beauty, to look for beauty.  I’m not saying it’s wrong to travel.  Yet I think it should be done carefully.  Dare I say it?  With mindfulness.  Too often travel is all about me me me.  That “nostalgia”, that “romantic poverty” we might see in Cuba is not for us.  It’s not about us.  That goes for anywhere you might travel.  We are guests only.  We don’t have a right to say how things “should” be.  That McDonald’s we might see someday in Havana might be a symbol of progress to people there.  Will the grasping consumerist capitalism of the West make things bad in Cuba?  Possibly.  Still, I don’t think it’s for outsiders to say what Cubans should want, what Cubans should keep.  It’s really up to them.

The Hired Man and Moral Choice

the hired man

I forgot to tell you that I will also talk about books in this blog, because I love books and they make up a lot of who I am.  So I want to tell you about a book I just finished last night, Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man, which came out late in 2013.  I read a lot of old books, as you can tell from my affinity for Anthony Trollope, but I’m happy to say that I also find new books that are just as important – Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss comes to mind, or anything by Hilary Mantel.  Yes, there is still good literary fiction being written!

The Hired Man is set in Croatia, the present day or close to it, and tells the story of Duro, a native of a small Croatian town called Gost.  He works for and befriends an English woman and her two children who have bought a summer house in Gost, and who, unbeknownst to them, stir up painful memories for both Duro and the town folk.  It’s about friendship, and the souring of friendship, and about outsiders and what happens to them.  It’s about war and its aftermath, and about the choices we make in our lives when faced with adversity.  It’s  beautiful, haunting, devastating.

Laura, the Englishwoman in the story, has a dream to buy up houses all over this area of Croatia; to restore them and beautify them just as Duro is doing for her summer house.  Then she’ll sell them to English people or other foreigners as summer houses for a profit.  She invites Duro to be a business partner, and Duro is partly pleased, but mostly nauseated by such a plan.  Laura is ignorant of the area’s dark history and seems to breeze through life like nothing can touch her.  It’s not that Duro wants Laura to be aware of what happened in this place (in fact he goes out of his way to hide it from her) and for that to stop her from carrying out her plan; I think it’s more that Duro doesn’t want the past covered up and forgotten.

Naturally I was entranced by this story because it plays into one of my on-going rants (the world is not our oyster) and raises hard moral questions for me.  Does Laura, or anyone like Laura (and I think there are a lot of people like this) have a right to march into Croatia and live as if nothing horrible happened there?  Does “moving on”  necessarily mean forgetting?

After talking about this with my dad, he asked me if I would like to visit Croatia.  I had to admit that it sounded marvelous.  The pictures on Google are beautiful, of course.  But do I have a right to go to a place with such a poisonous recent history?  Could I enjoy myself?

Did I have a right to work in Saudi Arabia, a place with plenty of its own atrocities?

This may seem silly, because wherever you go there have been plenty of atrocities throughout history, and even recent history.  But I really struggle with this question.

My mom once said she likes to travel, but that she doesn’t want to go anywhere with a lot of poverty.  I balked at this when she first said it, but there might be some sense in what she says.  On the other hand, there is plenty of poverty right here in my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana.  There is plenty of poverty in places that my parents do visit, like Chicago or New York.

But then I worry that I’m turning into a moral absolutist, and I don’t think I want to be that.  Places, and people, after all, are many things.

I’d really be interested in anything my readers have to say on this matter.  How should we live with the memory of tragedy?  Where should we go?

A harangue about travel and how we talk about it

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(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.