A View of America

January 28, 2008
By Celeste Wilt, Bland, MO

We were a diverse group that night. A few Brits, one or two representatives of Canada, some Zims, and a fair share of South Africans, as well as the boisterous Americans, I myself one of them, enjoying the day and laughing at our own antics. We were all ex-pats in Tanzania, and while there were a number of nationals present, the white community dominated on this particular evening.

Trivia night. A harmless bit of fun to help us all forget that we weren’t at “home” right then. By mere coincidence the evening was the 4th of July. Brits had arranged the whole thing, and the trivia questions presented to the teams were leaning rather heavily towards British history, sport, and entertainment, areas that many at my table were unfamiliar with. I had been careful to seat myself with a few non-Americans, in the hopes that it would help us all answer the questions together as a team, but we didn’t have the precious commodity of a native of the UK to help us through the inquiries on the Queen’s birthday and the latest hit rock group.

Jess, our table’s representative from Zimbabwe, was always quick to laugh at our mistakes on questions that other tables were answering flawlessly. A fellow American, Doug, couldn’t help but shout out a few American 4th of July questions to some other people, just to test their knowledge, all the while keeping our table in stitches with his ridiculously absurd answers to the questions. And then began “The Discussion”. It started when we got to a section of the trivia that actually did concentrate on some American subjects. There were a few questions about entertainment figures in America, about America’s government system, about baseball and American football and jazz. Elvis Presley was in there somewhere, right next to Mark McGuire, and the Mason-Dixon line. The Gettysburg address had its fair place and everyone ended up humming the tune of “American Pie”. And what was the discussion really about, you may ask? That may very well be an unanswerable question…

How does a discussion ever begin? A thoughtless comment followed by a heated retort? A soft sigh followed by a memory? There’s no definition of what begins a discussion. In this instance, I really don’t know what sparked everyone’s interest at the exact same time. One moment we were answering questions and the next, well, we were deep into American ideology. The questions on America led us all to think about our knowledge of American history and pop-culture. The greatest surprise of this particular evening was that everyone seated around my table knew the answers to the American trivia questions. As the discussion developed I was so struck by the realization that other countries learn about America, and we don’t learn about them, that I couldn’t even join in. Instead, I listened. I would like to tell you what I heard, but first, I will clarify whom I was hearing from.

Val, an older South African lady, seemed very independent. She wasn’t one to press opinions on you, but she seemed very secure in her own beliefs. Throughout the discussion she rarely voiced her opinion, and was very calm in hearing out the other side before responding. On trivia questions themselves Val seemed content to not give input until we were about to mess something up, and then she would very calmly put us back on track with a few well chosen words. Val’s background is still an unknown to me, but she seemed to be a formidable woman.

Jess, who I’ve mentioned was a Zim, was somewhere in her early thirties. She had that adorable accent that seems British but has something thicker in it that you would never place unless you had previously identified its origin. Jess was a genius on a number of levels, and would have been a brilliant mind for her country if she hadn’t left to find a safer, quieter, existence in Tanzania as an assistant in a lab that trained rats to sniff out land mines. Jess had been a driving force that night in the trivia, as she really seemed to have at least an inkling about even the most obscure subjects. Jess was self-confident, and very unlikely to stand down from her opinions on any given subject.

Doug, who I’ve also mentioned already, was from California. Doug was a middle-aged nobody who didn’t seem to have ever done anything in his life. His presence in Tanzania was unexplained, but he didn’t seem anxious to leave anytime soon. I found his personality frustrating, as he was incredibly laid-back. On previous visits with each other he had seemed to disregard the general conversation around him and choose to be off in his own world.

Then there was Augustus, a classic Tanzanian. The Tanzanians have a penchant for naming their sons very odd, very classy sounding, Roman names, such as “Augustus”. Augustus was a young University student, who was very bright but didn’t seem to know much about the world in general. He was helpful in the trivia when the questions were on science or math, but pop-culture and entertainment weren’t in his realm.

We also had the distinct pleasure of a Canadian in our group. The classic passive attitude of Canadians was sorely lacking in our good friend Curtis, who was quick to get in amongst any and all subjects, regardless of his actual understanding of the issue. Curtis was young. His actual age was an unknown, but he couldn’t have been more than about ten. His parents weren’t there that night, and Curtis felt like he finally had a chance to be heard of his own right.

And, of course, there was me. I was in my twenties, an American, a native of Tennessee from high in the Appalachian Mountains. I was a schoolteacher at the international school at that time, though I’d never studied to teach. Sometimes life does weird things to your plans. But this really isn’t about my experiences in general. It’s about a single conversation.

Once we began to realize that we all seemed to know the answers to the American questions, Curtis became lost in the confused attitudes of the rest of us. He couldn’t quite understand why we were all a little stunned. For the first time that night he was quiet. Augustus, pleased that he knew almost every piece of the American section, wandered off to chat with a few friends. Jess decided to make a statement.

“Well, that just proves America’s arrogance.”

Doug actually looked upset by the statement, like a lion that has been disturbed from his nap and wants to bite someone. Val, though she looked ready to agree, felt a need to clarify before throwing her lot in with Jess.

“How do you think our common knowledge of a few questions on America proves that America as a whole is arrogant? I fail to see the connection, though I’m not sure I would dispute the claim to arrogance.”

Doug was ready to speak.

“And yet, Val, I would dispute the claim to arrogance. I don’t see the connection here, and I don’t think there ever could be one, as we’re not arrogant.”

Jess clarified.

“But don’t you both see? American’s have developed their ideas and opinions of things in their sports, music, media, and food, and they press that knowledge on the rest of us. The only reason we all know the answers to some of these questions is because Americans get in your face about it and make sure you know how great they all are. I call that arrogance.”

Doug simply couldn’t hold back after this.

“Couldn’t it equally be said that out of jealously of the American way of life people from other cultures voluntarily choose to learn about American principles and culture? I don’t think a common knowledge of America proves arrogance. It proves appeal. It proves general superiority!”

Needless to say, I had never before seen Doug get so upset about a person’s opinions. Val looked stricken. She seemed to be fighting with herself to come to grips with the situation. Val was the type who prided herself on her understanding of human reactions, and she saw that this mattered to Doug. From my own experience, I’ve never seen a people more naturally patriotic than Americans. It’s bred into us from birth, even if we try to fight it. I should know; I was one of the fighters. And on that night, far from my homeland, I was desperately wishing that I were at home, eating barbeque and watching fireworks on our country’s day of Independence. I felt a need to throw in my support of America.

“I think Doug has a point. True, America’s culture is widespread, but due to who’s actions? Are we to blame because Hollywood is the greatest think tank on the planet for visual entertainment? Did we force ourselves on others with our ideals of freedom? Granted, we’ve had a notable hand in the development of some third world countries, but at the invitation of those countries, and only after we had allowed ourselves years of isolation as our own country to stabilize and become unified.”

Jess seemed to be mulling these thoughts over. As decisive as she was, Jess was wise, and always considered the situation before blurting out her next thought. Curtis, on the other hand, having followed the conversation at least partially thus far, felt he needed to say his piece.

“America stinks.”

Val, a natural born mother figure, again gave a constructive comment, rather than offering her own opinion.

“Curtis, I should certainly hope you have something a little nicer to say about America than that.”

And then Curtis’s response.

“Well, I think they stink. They think we don’t exist. They think they’re more important then we are. They just stink.”

This malicious, and inevitably pointless, exchange was cut short. Augustus was rejoining us and inquired as to the topic of conversation. No one seemed able to answer him. Jess was still being quiet, Doug was brooding, I myself was slightly ticked by Curtis’ attitude, and Val was trying to get a more positive answer from him. Jess suddenly seemed to snap from her revere, and came to a conclusion that she would bring in another voice before defending her previous thoughts.

“Augustus, what are your impressions of America?”

Augustus, ever the student who is prepped for a question, had a ready reply.

“America is a land of hope and opportunity, free to those who wish to be a part of that great country, and the people of that land seem eager to be of assistance to others on earth. But I think they often overreach. They don’t see their own limits when they enter a situation, and have difficulty resolving conflict because they are not always unified within themselves, though they come much closer than many other countries.”

“But what makes you think that America is a land of opportunity?” Jess continued her questioning.

“Well, it is. It was created by men who took an opportunity to be who they wanted to be. People who were willing to risk everything to make their way into the wilderness and survive developed America. It is strong today because the people there continually have hope for a better life.”

Val finally chipped in with a thought.

“Jess, I think that Doug had a point about jealousy. People who have simpler lives and are still faced with adversity in their country, such as Augustus, see America as a land of hope and opportunity. I think that we find ourselves dissatisfied with our own situation and don’t like to think about the people who have it better.”

Jess had finished her brooding by now.

“But Val they don’t have it better. Americans will never succeed in being a strong and independent nation for more than a few years. Their founding fathers were terrorists, and yet they feel they have the right to conquer terrorism in our world today. The United States killed thousands of people in their own civil war but they continue to belief that it is their duty to prevent other countries from becoming entrenched in any sort of internal conflict. The United States may be a world power today, but they don’t have the mellowness to continue existing when someone else finally makes it to the top. And it is inevitable that someone else will make it to the top one day. History repeats itself, and always will, and like many great nations that have come before, America’s day of triumph will end.”

Jess had been getting more and more heated throughout this statement, and when she finished a silence followed. There didn’t seem to be anything to say. The break in the trivia game was coming to an end. Doug seemed so offended that he couldn’t even speak. Curtis looked bored, which I think was a defense against admitting that he didn’t know what was happening. Augustus looked guilty, as if this was his fault. Val looked resigned. She seemed the sort who had been in talks like this before and didn’t want to fight the system again. And myself? Well, I had thoughts bouncing around like popcorn in a hot pot. The quizmaster began passing out the next set of questions, and the topic seemed to slip away.

We managed to come in 5th that night on trivia, as we all seemed to concentrate very carefully on the second half of the questions. There were no more jokes at our table. We each answered what questions we knew, and I haven’t seen any of my teammates since that night, except Curtis, who was in one of my classes at the school. At the end of the semester I went my own way to other places on the globe. But the conversation that night made me think for some time afterwards.

I believe in America. I believe in what we’re trying to accomplish in the world. There are many people in a number of different places who just need some guidance, and we’re willing to offer that. But are we assuming too much? And, truly, how long will it last? We’ve come to believe that we have earned our freedom and we deserve it, but many of us haven’t. We sit quietly at home and avoid getting involved, and expect “the government” to deal with all the world’s problems. Yet we’re a democracy, a republic. The people are the driving force behind every decision. If we don’t step up and say our piece where will we end up?

America is a place of opportunity and hope. America is a place of freedom and acceptance. America has striven, and succeeded, in becoming a true home of the brave, just as our ancestors wanted. But the same restless spirit that brought so many together to conquer the British and build a new nation continues to dwell in each of us today. And that restless spirit is our future. A single question remains unanswered, a question that will shape the very world as we know it. Will that restless spirit unite our people against the horrors and cruelty in the world today or will it turn us against each other as we vie for positions, and slowly defeat everything we have worked for?

I don’t know the answer. No one does. And no one can be sure what actions will bring about which end. But we’re still moving forward doing only what we think we know is best.

A single night in a little known country in Africa helped me understand my view of America. I will always love my country and I will always be ready to defend it, and I believe there’s a good reason for that fierce loyalty. We’re still trying. We’re still pushing forward. We’re still taking action. We’re known for our mistakes, but at least we took some chances and made those mistakes because we were trying to create peace. We’re not always right, but we’re always well intentioned and pro-active. And the world is changed by the people who show up.

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