Imagine a foreigner, an ordinary young lady from Any-Third-World-Country, winning a trip to America. Listen to her tell of her trip.
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The most shocking thing I found in America was the Americans themselves. Yes, their technology amazed me, but although my family has none of it, I had heard about things such as running water, electric lights, air conditioners, and hot showers, because our government has them. Many in our government even have automobiles, but no one I know has one. Even the Internet is available in my village—sometimes—but most of us can’t afford to waste money on such frivolities. It is quite enough to think about life’s necessities.
I saw many amazing things—huge cities, paved roads, strange food, and stranger clothes—but it was the Americans themselves who fascinated me most. There are a number of traits about them which at first perplexed and amused me (although some I found quite disturbing). They are generally friendly and amiable, despite what I sometimes saw as wastefulness. Americans must be very happy people. Do they know how much they have?
They are in the habit of changing their clothes daily, for example, and have enormous wardrobes with great selections of clothing for every occasion imaginable. Most folks in my village have one set of clothes, and generally they’re not the first owner.
Many Americans have cell phones, at which they stare as they stand or walk around. They must be very fascinating devices, because they are always looking at them. Sometimes you see a whole group of young people walking down the street, each on their phone. I wonder if they ever look up and see the stars, or watch the birds, or pay attention to each other. Even the very young have them. I wonder how much food a cell phone is worth.
Not only do Americans have clean water that flows directly into every home, they also have the convenience of easily adjusting the temperature to the desired heat. Even their public lodging places have such luxuries in every room. I had the pleasure of more than one hot shower, with plenty of soap, too. Because of the scarcity of soap at home, and because it was abundantly provided to guests, I saved up a large quantity to take home. My mother was overjoyed and declared my trip had certainly been worth it counting this loot alone. She immediately organized a washing operation to ensure everyone in the family made use of it—before hordes of extended family, neighbors, and especially Raakel’s old Babatunde began lining up outside our hut begging for portions to take home. Every bit of it was gone before the troops came.
I found the theaters particularly interesting. At home, every film entering our country must be approved by the premier. I asked the man behind the counter who approves movies in America. He stared. I thought it must be my thick accent, but after I asked two more times, he explained that the owner of the theater decided which films to show, and no government official had anything to do with it.
I overheard some American girls discussing their biggest daily dilemma. One said hers was figuring out which pair of shoes to wear, and the other laughed that hers was trying to manage her stick shift. I thought the first one was being a little ridiculous. I later learned what a stick shift is.
The biggest daily dilemma of most everyone I know is how to get a meal today, and it’s no joke. As for shoes, we dare not entertain the hope of ever actually owning any.
I had always heard that in America the people eat every day. I could scarcely believe it until I actually saw it myself. In fact, they eat three times a day or more. And most of them aren’t even farmers! I haven’t figured that out yet.
I was shocked by the things I heard in the public eating places. Some Americans treat food like an afterthought, an interruption, or a mindless ritual. Others take eating very seriously and treat it like their occupation. I heard one man complaining that his sandwich had onion, I saw a young couple get up and walk out because their food was too long in coming, I heard youngsters whining for dessert, and multiple times I saw plates being taken away with piles of food still on them.
I don’t know how many times I saw parents attempting to get food—usually vegetables—into children’s sealed mouths. My little brothers and sisters would have gulped down all of it and been mightily pleased with good, fresh food. When I described this phenomenon to my family, they stared dumbstruck until ten year old Akua asked with big eyes, “Why do they have so much?”
I have no answer. I wonder the same thing myself. One thing I had noticed in America was the lack of troops raiding homes. Is that why they have so much? Does their government not take away what they have? I dare not discuss these things at home, lest they spread to the wrong ears and the troops come, but I do wonder about the difference between our two countries.
Americans’ main method of transportation is the automobile, and most Americans possess two or three or even more. Many of them have large, sheltered spaces to store them when not in use, with doors that slide open as the driver approaches. My father wouldn’t even believe me when I told him about those marvelous doors. He said he’s ridden in an automobile once in his life, and that if he had one, he’d take Momma to Luchenza and see if they could find any spare lumber to come back and fix up our hut.
“Let me get a decent door on the hut, and then I’ll see about putting up a garage. Who needs fancy doors for cars?” he asked, but I couldn’t answer that one either. How do Americans have money to spend on luxuries? We do not want their wealth, we only want to know what their secret is.
Many Americans are very proud of their cars and almost lose their mind if there is slight damage. I saw numerous car owners who treated their cars better than their own children.
Everywhere I went, I noticed the lack of troops, huts, protruding ribs, dirt, and sickness. Even some of the nasty parts of New York were more sanitary than my village.
I saw a group of college students protesting racism and oppression. I didn’t understand this either. Most of them shared my own dark skin color, but unlike me, they are enjoying higher education and they have cars, comfortable places to live, jewelry, make-up, and clearly more food than they need—and they think they are oppressed. Do they know how much they have? There is only one person in my village with a degree.
Most of my friends would be jumping and shouting for joy in their position, but these students think they are hated and oppressed by the majority. They didn’t look very oppressed to me. If they want to see oppression, they should look around the world.
I met some incredible Americans during my trip. The one who made the biggest difference in my life was Willie, the friendly old groundskeeper at the small New York hotel in which I stayed for almost a week. He helped me understand so much.
He is the best patriot I’ve met, in my country or his. When he learned I was a visitor, he told me he’d answer as many of my questions as he could. I asked why Americans have so much, and he said it’s because they have a small government and the people are mostly good folks who like to live and let live.
“Is it really that simple?” I asked. “Isn’t there some secret to America’s wealth and peace? You have so much. What’s your secret?”
He grinned and whispered, “The secret, Kaarina, is liberty.” I didn’t know what he meant. “Freedom,” he said reverently, like he was telling a sacred secret. “The freedom to keep what one earns.”
When he said that, I remembered all the raids—the dreaded, recurring raids—in which troops swarm into our huts, looking for the wealth of the “greedy,” in order to take it and redistribute it. At least that’s what we’re told. What little they find worth taking from our village we never see again. Perhaps other villages are poorer than us and the troops give them our things. But that’s not what Papa thinks.
My father had just obtained a new shirt to replace his old one, which was falling apart, before one raid. My mother broke down when we heard the troops were coming, because she just knew they would take his new shirt, and he had no other, nor the means to get another in its place.
Papa told her the troops wouldn’t see anything of value in it, but Momma was right. Papa and Gaetano and took turns wearing Gaetano’s shirt after that, until Papa was able to get another.
Is that the kind of thing that doesn’t happen in America? Is that why there’s so much food and wealth?
One thing still perplexes me.
Willie told me that America has been letting its government grow too big, and that it actually is taking the people’s wealth more and more. He said if things don’t change, eventually America will look like my country, where troops raid the huts of the “greedy,” and the people are sick and starving. Do Americans know the secret to their success? Do they care enough to prevent their country from becoming like mine by keeping their government small? Do they even know what they stand to lose? Do they know how desperate times get when it’s too late to keep government small?
To the Americans I learned to love in my far too short visit, I have some questions.
How can ordinary Americans afford large houses, fancy automobiles, and higher education? We only dream of such things—when we’re not scrambling for food. Why is there such a difference between our countries?
Why are Americans allowed to have firearms and speak out against the actions of their government? No one in my village dares think of such things. The troops would come and we would be arrested. Guns belong to the government and they wouldn’t dream of letting us have them.
Why don’t troops go into homes in America and take things for the government to distribute more equally? It must be nice keeping what you have.
Do Americans know that they are in danger of resembling my village if they continue to allow their government to grow?
And the most important question to me is, why does America give money to my government so that they have weapons to keep people like my family very poor and hungry? My people are not fed by these gifts—our oppressors are strengthened.