On Being Back in America

It was just forty-eight hours ago I was boarding a plane in remote Siberia after spending three relaxing weeks in the farthest place from busy New York City that I could think of. I waved my goodbyes and tried to think about what it was I was coming back to, the America I know and love but am increasingly becoming disillusioned with.

During my time in Siberia I successfully removed myself from the constant barrage of American culture and media (no television, no cell phone) that is an ingrained part of our daily life, but I was unable to escape my thoughts about the state of the country, the disturbing antics of the current administration and the increasing sense of hypocrisy we keep finding ourselves in by simply being an American in this day and age.

Today I am in Austin, Texas to attend the SXSW conference which starts tomorrow. I’m deep in the heart of the Texas, wondering how such a friendly state could produce such a bad President.

At 5:00 AM I woke up and drove my rented Chevy Malibu from the Super 8 to the Denny’s down the street. While I ate my All-American Grand Slam breakfast, the sun came up over the eastern horizon and three guys in baseball caps stenciled with “H&W Construction” drawled on about the day’s upcoming work. One of the guys, a well-over-six-foot skinny guy with a mullet and the name “Bubba” (I swear, I’m not making this up) stitched onto his grey work-shirt, kept eyeing me in my black pants, Moscow boots, and black leather jacket, silently implying that I was out of place in this land of theirs. It was then that I wondered if perhaps there was more truth to this than meets the eye.

In Russia, I learned very quickly to blend into my environment or I would have to deal with the inevitable schemes Russians employ to get as much money out of a foreigner as possible. I learned to let my Russian friend do the talking. In Russia I truly was a foreigner, a person out of place, and I knew that if I wanted to avoid hassles then I’d need to change my default behavior and personality. I changed my clothes, bought new boots, and changed the way I walk. I leaned to stop looking at people in the eye on the street and to stop staring at the police every time I saw them. These were both common behaviors for me in America but in Russia they invited trouble. It wasn’t difficult to adapt but I realized it was necessary and did it willingly. But I keep going back to the thought, if I am a foreigner in Russia then why is it now that I’m back in the U.S. that I still feel the same way?

For decades now, America has been a place where people dreamed of coming, to make a new life for themselves. It was a land of opportunities, where it seemed anyone with a strong will and a few dollars in their pocket could make a go at it and in all probability have some order of success. Every year, the U.S. government receives millions of applications for visas that would allow foreigners to come to American legally and in less than 5 years become a naturalized U.S. citizen. The famous diversity visa lottery receives approximately 10 million applications each year, of which a mere 50,000 are chosen randomly. Thousands more enter the U.S. illegally or come on student or work visas, of which a shockingly high percentage stay after the visas has expired. I don’t fault them one bit, but I feel that perhaps the America they dreamed of coming to as children is not the same America today and it’s certainly not going to be the same if we continue down the path that the current administration has put us on.

In America, everyone seems to come from somewhere else. New York City is a prime example of this, with millions of people of hundreds of different cultures and nationalities live together in an area smaller than the size of Greater Austin. In New York City, everyone can blend in because there is nothing to blend into. The very nature of the city is made up of the cultural fabric its residents import with them, but in places like Austin, Texas and Krasnoyarsk, Siberia the stranger stands out like a sore thumb.

While millions of people every year seek entry into the United States, a country that they are pinning their dreams to, I started thinking about the opposite. I’m sure it’s too early to tell but I am wondering how the current state of the country and the current immigration-unfriendly administration is affecting the numbers. For instance, I wonder how many Americans have applied for resident visas to European countries claiming political asylum from the current U.S. administration. I certainly can’t be the first person in this country to think of such a radical departure from the norm. How many non-resident aliens will decide that America really isn’t the place they want to live in for the rest of their lives? How many will suddenly start looking at other countries if the U.S. goes into another Great Depression, as some economic scholars are predicting? What will this mean for U.S.-born citizens and their children? Who wants to be from a country that is beginning to be so universally disliked simply because the political administration is so clueless about foreign policy? Who wants to be from a country that is on the rocks, going down the tubes; in short, being screwed because of the greed of relatively few rich people serving their own interests and beliefs?

I am an American. It’s a fact I used to be proud of, but now I am a little ashamed about. In Russia I had to repeatedly state to my Russian friends that I was not a supporter of the Bush administration and do not agree with its current push for war in Iraq. I had to reassure them that it is likely one of three things will happen within the next two years: either Bush will not get re-elected, he will be assassinated or he will be impeached. Given the current direction of the administration, one of these these three choices will certainly come true. I am an American, but I dread the day I will look in the mirror and wish that I were not.

It has become fashionable overseas to hate America because of the stupidity of Bush’s foreign policy decisions. Among ex-pat communities, Americans are telling each other to tell people they are Canadian and to keep their passports out-of-sight. How sad is that? One American I talked to in Moscow even told me that this trick doesn’t work anymore and now Americans should say they are from New Zealand, because as he puts it “Hey, who hates New Zealand?”

Posted by Cameron Barrett at March 7, 2003 12:05 PM