America With Fresh Eyes and a Critical Gaze

While traveling through Europe and Israel over the past three and a half months, I often found it difficult to describe to those that asked what it’s like to live in the United States.

Most, if not everybody I talked to, had their preconceived notions and assumptions — and how could they not?

These ideas of America sometimes came from personal experience: those that went to college in the American Midwest and appreciated the small town collegiate vibe.

Others had been on a California road trip with their parents as a kid and remember the beauty of Big Sur or the charm of San Francisco.

Some lived on the East Coast for several years and found the historic cities lively and fascinating, or had once visited New Orleans and loved the unique spirit of the south.

But if you haven’t been to America and all you know of it comes from the news, movies, music, YouTube and social media, how do you disentangle the good from the bad?

The real from the fake? The broadly brushed strokes of negativity propagated on the news from the intricate details of everyday life which establish the true, personal foundation of any country?

Perhaps by being open, curious, and willing to admit the extent of your own ignorance. This, I believe, is the only way to learn, and what I hope to never stop doing.

There’s much I don’t know about the world, about people, about life — that’s why I feel a need to travel more than anything else.

There’s much I don’t understand about the complexities of America, a country which undoubtedly has its problems, its pitfalls, its contradictions and incomprehensible moments of stupidity.

But at the very least, I can be thankful. To be from a country where ludicrous decisions don’t define the spirit of the nation, where people have a say and can make a difference, regardless of how small it may seem.

It’s no insignificant matter that things work in this country. That lights turn on and cities run. Businesses stock the shelves with a diverse and ever-changing supply of products that adhere to a free market.

Most of us are ignorant of how these things happen, yet we expect them to happen, and that is nothing to be taken for granted.

While abroad, I felt conflicted when questioned. It felt like the natural response to defend my native country, yet I wondered why I needed to defend it in the first place.

I was traveling by myself. If I was the only one in the group from the U.S., when the country was ridiculed, it felt like I was too.

It was up to me to explain the complex essence of the United States, a nature I still struggle illustrating with a satisfying clarity and understanding.

Yet maybe that’s what America is — not easily describable, because it’s more than just what it seems on the surface, what’s circulated on the news, even different in ways from what was originally established in the Declaration of Independence.

America means something different to each individual; its landscapes, ideas and even dialects vary as you cross the border of one state and cruise into the character of another. So this is America to me, at this moment in time, with a fresh, and, hopefully, more critical gaze.

I write this sitting at a cafe in Flagstaff, Arizona, a day after returning to the U.S. The morning is calm, the air is warm and the summer sky is changing.

The tables are sparsely filled, one with a group of novice bicyclists; another with a dad in a plaid short-sleeve button up who says cheers to… as he lifts his paper coffee cup to his family; a couple of friends in yoga attire sit at another with sheets of paper strewn on the wooden table.

The front door I sit beside jingles and creeks as it opens again and again; a cool breeze drifts through the dry mountain air.

What I wish I could’ve described while abroad is what I feel right now.

A profound connection to my home country, to this beautiful land and its nuances, its freedoms, comforts, quirks and faults.

There’s a sense of wildness and nature to the United States, a particular style to the towns and cities such as Flagstaff; I appreciate the individuality amongst those who walk the streets, who open the doors for others, who stand at the coffee shop counters and ride by on their motor bikes — this is part of the American identity.

Yet these things are just what’s on the surface, a scattering of leaves to drift through and kick, while their branches, what this country is founded upon, dig deep into the soil in complex patterns and forms.

While I don’t fully understand these patterns, I’m grateful, if nothing else, for what I have right now: the ability to sit with a cappuccino and scribble in my notebook, watching the sky change from calm, pale and blue, to grey, white and alive.

The vast western sky seems boundless.

A woman and her daughter sit next to me and notice me writing. They ask if I’m a student at the local Northern Arizona University.

I tell them I’m not — I’m just here visiting with my dad and brother — my dad likes it here.

I remember when that was my dad and me touring the University of Oregon; Chapman University in Orange County, California; Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where I ended up attending.

I can feel the excitement and enthusiasm of this young woman. I describe what I’m writing, and she explains what she believes defines the United States with a glint in her eye that makes me smile.

This country is the story of the underdog, she says. A melting pot of cultures, ideas, people, backgrounds, ethnicities, languages.

She’s intelligent, describing well what I failed to articulate for the past three months. That in itself is something to ponder — to live in a country that inspires this sort of enthusiasm from a citizen about to embark on her collegiate adventure.

We have our experiences. We have what we know, and often that defines the limits of our universe unless we’re willing to push, probe, explore the unknown.

America is where I’m from. It will always be home. But there’s a world out there, and just as I could immediately sense the comforts and familiarity of the U.S. when walking through the San Francisco Airport or when talking to this mother and daughter, somebody else feels that same familiarity walking through Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris or Berlin’s Brandenburg, Tokyo’s Haneda or Seoul’s Incheon.

Someone might feel the comfort I feel now when talking with a neighbor in an Italian mountain village, an experience I recently had where I felt as useless as a fly on the wall. Yet to those in the conversation, it was just a Tuesday morning chat.

I love and respect the United States, knowing full well that it harbors faults. Yet no country is without its own. We live in an age where dividing, separating, and playing us versus them is the norm.

This happens when human beings are no longer seen as people, but as part of a group, nothing but a broad brush of negativity that says in your country you’re all the same, think a certain way, lead a certain life.

That says everybody in your group thinks this way, and you are all fucking crazy.

When we dehumanize the other, we dehumanize ourselves.

No country is just a country, an idea or a mindset. A country is full of people, individuals, each with a unique perspective and story.

There’s an essence that makes us human beings, individuals as part of something greater, and if we don’t see that, if we continue to only view one another as generalizations, as an idea before a word even comes out of that stranger’s mouth, we’ll continue to divide and have our minds warped.

Our sovereignty is being taken from us.

What I’ve learned is we are all people, making do with what we have, what we know, how we’ve been raised, and the opportunities at our disposal. I am no better than you, and have my own preconceived notions about this world. But I hope, above all else, to be open.

I hope to see people as people. I hope not to buy into the broad painted strokes but to seek the details of everyday life, because that’s where the beauty resides; that’s where connection is found; that’s, I believe, the way forward.

We’re human beings after all.

The afternoon brought with it lightning and pouring rain. That’s what it’s like in America — a sunny summer morning followed by a stormy afternoon.

Beneath where we come from, wherever we call home, is a string of connection that unifies us all. Maybe the passing, drifting, universal arc of day, is it — something we all recognize — something bigger than us all.

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