Smoldering

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Ballet of ice at the tips of branches dipping in Jamaica Pond, Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts, 1989.

I’ve been trying to come to grips with the maelstrom of thoughts and emotions concerning the United States, especially these last two and a half years. Susan of A Line Cast asked me, in a comment, what I thought of the effects of America:

“Funny how when we try hardest to justify and protect our way of life, and extend it to others, we create the most animosity in others. A recipe for further terrorism if you ask me.
It also strikes me as interesting that we don’t see any real need to be truthful in our portrayal of other cultures or even our own. I remember traveling to Asia a little over 10 years ago when it became apparent that what the US had most successfully exported was the television show “Dallas.”
I commented in my blog last night about a conversation with an ex-serviceman about how the only crime he saw in Japan during his stay was that which his fellow US troops had committed. I wonder what your impressions have been over the years about the ongoing export of “westernization” (in reality americanization” and if you think it destructive there?”

It’s taken me several days to digest her question and to delve into my feelings and thoughts. There is simply too much there, from too many years, a lot of it now stretching into numbness and deep, deep anger and distrust. The feeling is like the nervous suffocation that you feel when you are standing on the block the moment before the gun goes off for a swimming race, skin exposed to the cold air of the swimming pool hall, all eyes on you, the anticipation of water inhibiting your movement big enough to incur a kind of anxious frustration. In a place like this blog, where the vast majority of readers are American and the whole discussion is weighted in favor of what Americans might find distasteful or appropriate, rather than there being a worldwide dialogue so that all the unseen reactions to America can be fully aired, you risk quite a lot of backlash for opening your mouth about something that Americans are so sensitive about. And yet it is America that is disrupting the balance of the entire world right now, no one else. It is America that is fanning the fury that so many people around the world feel.

Just how do you deal with this huge debt of outrage, and still remain a fair and compassionate human being? Why must I carry this sense of outrage in the first place, or feel that I must somehow apologize to Americans for not being one of them?

This whole week fighter plane after fighter plane has been booming by over my apartment, in constant reminder of what the United States is asking the world to do and to submit to. I sit under my roof, staring up at the ceiling, cringing in the roar of sound, and feeling, well, what the hell can I do? And yet I must put up with this, because that is what the Americans want. I, not being American, have no say in the matter. I certainly have no say in whether or not Bush should be allowed to dictate to all the rest of us what we can and can’t do. As so many irate American e-mailers have enjoyed reminding me, “If you don’t like it here, get the *___* out!”, not stopping to think, of course, that I don’t live in the States any more and actually left it for many of the reasons that I list below.

I admit that my anger towards the States began long before its first reaction to the New York tragedy, in fact way back in high school when I had to endure the bullying that the American (and Australian) kids inflicted on everyone else in my school. All my life I’ve been watching Americans play this thespian mask game, one moment the comedian and do-gooder on the block, the next moment the tragic victim and raging machine gun wielder. My twenty years of living in the States brought me in contact with segregation in schools; with police throwing me up against police cars because I looked like a Mexican; with being asked to pigeon hole my identity by being given a series of boxes to check off in government surveys: 1) White/ Caucasian 2) Black. African-American 3) Oriental 4) Latino 5) Pacific Islander 6) Other… Please explain ______; with hundreds of movies in which the Arabs or Latinos or Germans or blacks are always evil, while white, American men are always hulking, innocent, wronged-but-I-single-handedly-will-wreak-my-revenge-on-a-whole-army heroes; with the devastation and despair of such places as the Bronx, which literally looked like a bombed out war zone, or the Douglas Fir clear cutting in Oregon; with professors in school telling me that my desire to study ancient Asian architecture for my graduation thesis was a waste of time because Asian architecture didn’t contribute anything of note to the development of world architecture, or a group of research doctors at the New England Cancer Research Center where I worked part time as a glass washer, during one lunch period when I sat with them discussing new directions in medical research, staring at me as if I had committed an error in the ways of propriety by daring to open my mouth and suggesting that they take a look at Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for some new ideas; with the loud-mouth ways of so many Americans who step into MacDonald’s here in Tokyo (heaven forbid that they would try the local food!) and literally shout at the girls behind the counter for not understanding English, or English teachers who whisper to me under their breaths about how ignorant and stupid they think Japanese are, and expecting to find a comrade in arms in me; with the dozens of books by people who lived in Japan for one year and propose, without speaking a word of Japanese, to “get” Japan now; with surprising number of American Jews calling me a “Jew-Killer” and “Mass Murderer” just because I happen to be part German, but who themselves have never experienced anything like the Second World War and wouldn’t stop for a second to ask what role my mother’s family played in the whole Nazi Germany mess (my family was pacifist, my grandfather refused to bear a weapon and became a medic in the national army… as distinct from the Nazi army…, and they harbored a Jewish family in their attic through most of the war until most of the family was discovered and sent off to the camps); with the almost chest-poundingly proud way of so many “patriots” who unapologetically condone the use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but vehemently deny that it is anything like terrorism; with one of my closest friends in college, a Viet Nam vet, going through the whole Agent Orange thing, and another friend, a Vietnamese room mate who felt so lonely in America that he almost committed suicide; with some fruitcake sticking a pistol in my face while I worked the night shift at a hotel gift shop in Boston and snarling at me, “Get the *___* out of this country, you *—* Ayrab!”; with… with…with…

So much. I couldn’t possibly put it all into words here. So yes, I am angry. It’s like this enormous duffel bag of injustices and bad attitude toward the rest of the world that has been shoved at me and the perpetrator taking off into the dark. I am left with more weight than I can carry alone. And yet alone I have been forced to carry it. What American is going to truly listen or care? Or truly comprehend? I am told I complain too much. That everyone has a difficult life. And yet what other point of view can I validate, but my own?

There are, of course, a lot of wonderful experiences and growth that America gave me, and most of the time I concern myself with the small things in my life that have only to do with every day living, but that is not the point of this post right now, is it?

My father and I had a conversation on the phone yesterday, a long one, in which we both tried hard to make a fair assessment about why we are both so angry about the States. And to our surprise it was not what America had done or what they lied about that incited the anger, so much as the attitude behind so much of American thought and life. Americans seem to live in a state of perpetual existential discontent. Nothing is ever good enough. Nothing can differ from what they conceive as the “right” way to do things or think things.

Americans have the answers and business rights to everything (America threatened economic sanctions against the Asian cooperative economic group ASEAN when many countries balked at the United States demanding to join the group). They feel they can bash into anyone else’s garden and demand tribute, but take great offense when anyone else attempts to gatecrash their parties.

And the populace seems to argue and get angry about everything! Look at the movies and television shows… every other minute it is someone losing their temper and shouting at another person.

Look at the amount of suing gong on! Once, while living in Newton, in Massachusetts, after my roommates had spent days disturbing the neighbors with drunken horseplay, I proposed that we go around apologizing to everyone… one of my room mates, a lawyer, looked horror stricken at me, and announced, “Miguel, you’re living in the States. You can’t just go around apologizing to people! They will take that as admission of guilt and sue you!”

Look at such supposedly little things as the covers of video games… there was a game called “Spyro the Dragon”, in which a little dragon goes about trying to save his friends. The Japanese cover showed a cute little dragon, smiling and flying about with his friends (basically exactly what the game was about), but the American cover showed this fire breathing monster, destroying a village and looking mean as a devil… an interview with the American distributors revealed that without the mean-looking cover the game would never sell in America.

Or look at the sarcastic and often militaristic anger of women towards men in the States… (or the childish reaction of men towards the issues the women are trying to talk about) While I understand and support the need for men to change toward women and that women need more representation and opportunities, but even women know that disparaging another person, being sarcastic with them, or ridiculing them, in private or in public, rarely gets the other person to see things your way or gets them sympathetic. When I watch these popular talk shows on TV, such as Oprah Winfrey, or these movies where it seems every single time some woman has to make the point about how deceitful men are or how stupid men are or how socially superior women are or how much more nurturing and emotionally mature women are, well, it just turns me cold. Things are much more grey and unclear in the real world.

It seems there is no attempt to find a center point, to reconcile. It’s just, “You are wrong. You are evil. You this, you that.” Almost never, “I have a lot to learn. I have a lot of faults and habits I must work on. I need to see things more clearly and from a more balanced point of view.”

This kind of attitude is every where in the States. It’s what must, in part, lie behind the high school shootings or this insane “Homeland Security” nonsense. It most certainly is what lies behind the Iraq War. I have never felt this level of discontent anywhere I’ve been in the world (note: I haven’t been everywhere). While Japan has a lot of problems of its own, there is one thing I love about this country: there is at least an attempt to find peace and balance first, before throwing a tantrum or finding fault with everyone.

It wouldn’t matter so much what the States felt or did, if it didn’t affect everyone else. The whole world is turning on America’s whim, though, and no one can nay say it, lest they risk attack or sanction. We have to have the Coca Cola, the CNN (international, no? But with 90% of the news about America, of course), the jeans, the barage of movies, the computers, the basket ball games, the Nike shoes, the hip hop music, the MacDonald’s, the secular life set, the Puritan work ethic, the plastic shampoo bottles, the War Against Terror (“Against us?” we all ask ourselves here outside the States), the war planes screaming overhead. While I like a lot of these things and have found my own cultural uses for them, at the same time it feels like hegemony. What if I don’t want a secular government? What if I want to sing songs condemning the States? What if I want to wear a sarong rather than a business suit? What if, if I go by America’s dogma of “freedom”, I don’t particularly find the States a bastion of all that I want to be or want the world to be? What if I don’t think the States is a particularly good role model?

Arundhati Roy, the author of “The God of Small Things”, puts it much more eloquently than I: Do Turkeys Enjoy Thanksgiving?.

My wish is that the world work toward peace, not war. That we all talk as equals, not as master and servant. That we put aside our anger and try to understand each other. That we work for the common good of all, not just a privileged few. We don’t need some far-fangled project of settling on Mars; we need to figure out how to live together here on Earth, now. Not tomorrow.

6 Responses

  1. Wow! Quite a screenful for the first thing of this morning. One thing you should know is that there are Americans who feel as you do. Imagine how desperate they feel living in America, putting up with the very things you find so distasteful. Public discourse in the States has devolved to such a sorry state one dares not even raise issues as you’ve done out of fear of retribution, ridicule or worse. Then, despite the despair, one encounters good people, doing good things. All of America is not corrupt and for sanity’s sake, focusing on the positive aspects helps. The easiest thing to change, always, is one’s attitude. “Desire is the root of suffering” and all that. I’m sure you can recall pleasant memories of your time in America too. Don’t forget them in your anguish. As you pointed out in this post, peace and balance. You will be a far more effective critic if you are at peace with yourself. Much of the crazy behavior Americans exhibit is, I believe, a consequence of NOT being at peace with themselves. It’s easier said than done, I know, but, as the environmentalist’s slogan goes, Think globally, but act locally. You are a terrific writer with a special view of the world which stems from your unique heritage and background. Make use of it, keep writing about what you see. But, first, take care of yourself and be at peace with your self.
    IMHO.

  2. Miguel, that post must have taken an extraordinary courage to write, and the mere fact that I say that is a telling agreement with what you’ve said. I agree, and my experiences are not all that different from your own, although I’ve never experienced the horrors of racism as a target.

    That being said, how do you understand the astonishing fervour with which Americans defend their land, culture, history against all criticism?

    I remember one Friday evening, standing in line at the liquor store with four other customers. The Latin man in front of me is bursting with some sort of uncontainable joy, and he looks around at me, at the elderly black man behind me, and the oriental behind him, and says, “You know, today, I passed my citizenship exam!” And his smile is wide and his pride visible, and we all congratulate him. But he goes on…. “And look at us. Here I am, from Mexico, and you are,” he points to me. “Italy,” I reply. He points to the oriental, “Vietnam,” he says. He points to the black man and says, “And you are from Africa!” And the old guy gets 3 inches taller and smiles as though it’s something he doesn’t usually state with such obvious pride. Then our Mexican friend says, laughing between his words, “And here we are in Texas, all of us speaking English to each other!” And we are all laughing because when you think about it, it’s almost absurd. After that, without a moment’s hesitation, he invites all three of us home with him to the celebration of his gaining citizenship. The other two have families to return to, but I don’t and I go, because I know he’s probably giving one hell of a party. I am not disappointed. I am fed to bursting, I am taught to speak numerous lascivious phrases in Spanish between endless gulps of Presidente brandy while listening to vibrant music at an incomparable volume, surrounded by 50 or 60 people who have decided on the spot to make me part of their family for the evening, the rest of the night, and well into the next morning. I fall unconscious on the man’s floor with the party still around me, thinking that Mexican Americans are gifted with the most superior sense of community, welcoming, friendliness, and love. I wake up with the most excruciating hangover ever imagined, the conviction still firm in my mind.

    This is the American dream as I experienced it. It has very little to with money… enough to get by, and everything to do with openness and freedom, not just constitional freedoms as guaranteed by law, but freedom to co-exist not just tolerantly, but ecstactically. It’s the immigrant’s dream.

    So much of that has been perverted by the propaganda machine of conservative governments, corporate boardrooms, and racist ideologues into mindless individualist striving for money wherein self-interest dictates all action, and wealth is EVERYTHING.

    Imagine that as the dream which Americans so proudly defend, and you vomit. And rightly so because it is not, when you come down to it, what it’s all about at all. It’s the other, the freedom, the real, palpable, experiential freedom, and the ideal of love which is the dream. And who wouldn’t defend that against all criticism?

    The trouble is that the two are confused and the greatest American virtue, their tendency to speak loudly about everything no matter what, becomes their greatest fear as the dissent they hold sacred becomes confused with division, while what truly divides (increasing poverty, increasing concentration of wealth, racism, xenophobia, and religious belligerence) is denied.

    I do not want to visit the States at the moment. I fear her laws, her police, and her fear. But my vision of what an American is includes that brand new citizen who took me home to his family and friends and got me thoroughly drunk on Mexican brandy and the American dream.

    They’re worth fighting for, these Americans, you know. But their corrupt corporations, their current government, and the large number of idiots among them who know no discourse but that which takes place in the language of hate, they are not worth a breath.

  3. I agree with both of you, Dan and Tonio. I spent the entire day biting my nails, wondering, “God, what have I done, sending out a post like that?” Even here in Japan I worry about what Americans might do to me in retaliation!

    But I do remember wonderful, wonderful times in America. Some of the best times of my life. It is partly those memories and the great people I know that made me write the post: What is happening is not the America that means so much to me. I am profoundly in pain listening to my family in America, or friends, or people here among the blogs, telling me how helpless and siderailed they feel. I am fed up beyond imagining with Bush and what he is doing to the world. I am fed up with even the sound of the word “war”. I am fed up with 2 and a half years of constant tension, with the sense of danger and impending violence seeping into every thought and every activity. I’m tired of just talking about it, but feel I must because there can be no real peace until people like Bush are taken from power.

    I don’t want to live any more with this sense that I have to fear everything all the time.

    I just needed to air these feelings and to remind myself of what part of the reason for my sadness last year was. The constant blows to my hope and to my sense of a balance have engendered a cancer like growth on my spirit, and I want it out!

    And how will any of us, who are against all that is happening, ever feel peace as long as someone like Bush is there, in our faces?

    The “American Dream” is just that, a dream. America is not the only place in the world where all kinds of people live together or where diversity brings people together. It is time to tear down all those borders and stop coloring out the neighboring lands and cultures. This is one world, and within it, America should only be seen as and acknowledged as one of many. I mean, why in hell should the whole world suffer just because America is too short sighted and selfish to join all other nations in the Kyoto Treaty? Or the World Court? Or the Rio talks? Or so much more? Excatly what is the contention they see? It is like the rich kid who feels himself too above everyone else to join in the preparations for the party. Who wouldn’t look askance at such a person?

  4. “We don’t need some far-fangled project of settling on Mars; we need to figure out how to live together here on Earth, now. Not tomorrow.”

    Absolutely true. And how to live on Earth without spoiling it. If I were in charge, I would cancel the Mars missions and spend the money on exploring and understanding the Earth, which humans have not yet done.

    America is a horribly imperfect place. True, though it’s a little like saying that Betty is an imperfect person. All nations are primitive and shockingly imperfect. I wish we could elect political leaders that actually would make hard decisions to improve this nation in thousands of ways. That said, I must say I have traveled and lived abroad 10 years of my life, and I would rather live in America than anywhere in the world. Seeing this country with all its failings, that’s how I feel.

  5. I don’t what I could add, Miguel, to what you and others here have said. But I wanted just to say I hear you and I feel for you and I too am frustrated and angered by what’s happening to my country. But I know so many people that I talk to every day that feel the way I do. So I’m probably a lot more hopeful. I know that Bush and his followers are not the country, though they currently have the power. Many people here want him out of power, something like 45% of the voters. With any luck, we’ll prevail

    BTW, I was reading your post instead of watching the president’s state of the union address tonight! Now doesn’t that give you just a little teeny bit of satisfaction?? :-)

  6. “Men go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one.”
    I am very much in debt for the time and risk you took to answer my question and share your experiences and perspectives.
    I hope, in fact I trust, that the best chance Americans have of understanding why we should be targets of the terrorism, of understanding why the Iraqis would be planting mines under the feet of their “liberators”, of understanding why CocaCola and Shell Oil and Nike are not welcome everywhere, is to sit with words like your’s and hear how they are true for you, sit with the anger and honor it, sit with a history that is different than they’ve been told since they were five and not argue it, sit and for once listen with an open heart, willing to believe some of this is our fault. That some of our best intentions might have been perverted into blasphemous actions. That liberating a woman from her head scarf might not be a liberation if we don’t even understand what that head scarf means to that woman.

    Anyway. Thank you. I realize there is a cost to educating us, one by one. I’m sorry for the burden of it.

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