THE TIMES OF INDIA
Tread softly America
BY ASHALI VARMA
I am an anachronism in America. I came here a year ago, but the America I thought I knew is a 20 year dream. For countless children all over the world born in the post war period, America was the amazing new civilization where the science fiction works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne were fast being realized. From supersonic travel to the moon landing, the only impossible thing to do in America was to stand still.
We grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, fans of Elvis Presley, Woodstock and Coca Cola. We were fascinated by Hollywood and inspired by the Camelot years of a young and charismatic president, whose vision seemed to encompass the whole world.
We devoured American literature from Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to Hemingway and Michener. It, therefore, came as a shock to me that, though we knew everything about America, the Americans knew next to nothing about the rest of the world, beyond a passing peripheral curiosity prompted by the marketing possibilities to less developed countries.
The very world “alien” that the department of U.S, immigration deems fit to use for all foreigners, seems to insinuate that America is world apart –isolated from the planet Earth, where all visitors are clubbed together with E.T. and Alf. Even in schools, most children learn only about American history and geography and would find it difficult to place India or Indonesia on a map.
I constantly come across people who say to me: “You’ve only been here a year and you speak English so well.” To which I reply patiently: “India had a lot to do with it.”
They would be astounded if they knew the extent to which American culture has influenced children the world over. I even remember being taught “America The Beautiful” and “Meet Me in St. Louis” in one of the many Indian schools I attended. It seemed perfectly natural then – I wonder at its relevance now.
Those were the years that America reached out to the world and sparked an eternal flame in the minds and hearts of people. It stirred our imagination to conceive of a better world. Today, when those distant dreams are finally becoming real, you owe it to us, America, to be strong and untarnished.
It is disconcerting to see the gradual decline of American credibility and the willingness with which such a powerful nation is giving up its mantle of greatness. Why blame the Japanese, when the very helpful American salesman insisted we buy a Sony TV, because it has to be better if it’s Japanese. We prevailed over him and bought everything American and I am happy to say we haven’t regretted it.
What happened America? Fifty years ago, my father was the proud possessor of a model T Ford and a gramophone with the words, “Made in America” etched on it. Today, you will only see Toyotas, Hondas, Suzukis and Sony TVs in India. How complacent could a country get? Or is it the inevitable result of hubris, which has been the downfall of many a civilization?
One never expected to see the homeless, lying huddled on pavements of New York or the plight of victims of AIDS and drug abuse. Nor is one prepared to see poverty in the richest and most advanced city of the world.
So, I imagined a perfect land and came to a country of paradoxes: where the people are humane and compassionate and contribute to the world’s starving children, but also spend billions of dollars on household pets; where abortion is debated when children are born with AIDS and drug addictions; where the words of Emma Lazarus… “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”…are contradicted daily in practice; and where privacy is another face of loneliness and the importance of being independent leads children astray because they are too young to handle it; where quality time means a total lack of spontaneity and everyone tries so hard at relationships, while the divorce rate keeps rising.
However, I have discovered the heart of America. It exists in the older generation. They have the time compassion and courtesy to understand and accept the world for what it is and the patience to deal with it. I salute their sacrifices and their discipline which made this country so great. I am humbled by their ideals and their motivation to create a better world for their children and the world’s children.
As a citizen of this world and someone who has faith in the principles that America stands for, I can only request, treat softly America, there are children all over the world who believe in you, their dreams are fragile, and dreams are all they have.