The difference between having lived in a foreign country (particularly while you’re young, relatively poor, keenly observant, and ever so slightly insecure) and NOT having lived in a foreign country is profound. If you were paying attention, the experience was life-altering. It made you realize there were no absolutes, that almost everything you previously took as “normal” or “universal” was merely one version of reality. The Western version.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the difference between having lived abroad and having NOT lived abroad is not unlike the difference between having entered puberty and NOT having entered it. Yes, it’s a dramatic and embarrassing comparison, but it’s true. Once you’ve crossed that line, nothing is ever the same.
Back when I spent two pre-Internet years working in Northern India (Punjab state), the Indians were still exceedingly curious about America. Even those nominally “anti-American” Indians (political science professors, members of the CPI—the Communist Party of India, students, etc.) couldn’t help themselves. They were clearly fascinated with the United States.
And because I was likely to be the only American these people (mainly English-speaking city folk and “townies”) were ever going to meet, and was aware that their view of the U.S. was, therefore, going to be based almost exclusively on how I comported myself, I did my best to modulate my responses. Thus, I went out of my way to consciously present myself as the “average” American.
I wasn’t always successful. There were lapses. For instance, when Indians asked me what the “best” American city was (and, oddly, way more Indians than you’d expect asked me that question), I usually answered by saying that the notion of a “best city” was simply too broad and subjective a category. But I didn’t always say that. Sometimes I told them it was New York City.
Not that I had any personal or institutional attachment to NYC. While I had visited the city, and was overwhelmed by it, I had never lived there. It just seemed like New York—the center of finance, publishing, art, fashion, theater, organized crime—was the appropriate answer. Similarly, when asked what the “worst” American city was (a question also asked) I said it was Las Vegas, Nevada. Again, it seemed appropriate.
When the conversation turned to American practices and “values,” I was usually a reliable and informative respondent—indeed, a veritable fountain of Americana. But not always. I could also be entertainingly glib and downright Gore Vidalesque when I was in the company of Indians I knew to be critical of the United States, especially when we were drinking alcohol.
On these occasions, and with this audience, I insisted that once you cut through all the rhetoric, anecdotal history, symbolism, and flag-waving patriotism, we Americans believed strongly in two things. Two things, and two things only: liberty (i.e., personal freedom) and consumerism. The Indians listened intently.
Now fast-forward to September 11, 2001, the day the World Trade Center was attacked. As many will recall, President George W. Bush went on national television that very evening, understandably and visibly shaken, and spoke to the American public.
His message was both sobering and stupid. In this time of national confusion and nervousness, President Bush didn’t ask us to pray, or mediate on what had just occurred, or spend time with our loved ones. Presumably, his economic and foreign affairs advisors had already taken him aside made clear what our priorities should be.
Rather, Bush urged us to go shopping. As nutty as that seems, it’s true. Aware that our economy depends on consumers buying stuff we don’t need, he urged us to grab our wallets, jump into our SUVs, and head for the malls. If we failed to do that, it would mean the terrorists had won. To me, it felt like I had just re-entered puberty.