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.