This past July I got a chance to bask once again in all the wonderful things about the United States and Chicago in particular. And for the first time in years, I was able to enjoy a Chicago summer, with its mix of bustle and laid-back lethargy, the city at times seeming to pulse with activities and events and at other times to be almost empty, set up just for you and those you are with to enjoy alone.
The lead-up to our trip was very satisfying. A childhood friend and his family (including a boy just about our Sam’s age) came to visit us in early July. They stayed with me in our unfinished house, and I even had my son there with us for a week, the first time he’d spent a week in our hometown with me and not his mother. Caro had to stay in Bogota and work, but we two couples got to spend some time together on the weekends. Otherwise, it was just me, Sammy, and our guests in our small city.
I spent most of that week working frantically to close the semester before heading on vacation. In the Huerta Muisca project, we’d had to take measurements of our achira experimental field, organize a seed exchange event where peasants from different towns all converged on a rural schoolhouse to trade their diverse, colorful Andean tubers with one another, finish a series of information sheets on the ten species we were researching, and finally plant a small seed multiplication plot at the university with all the different varieties we’d gathered in our ethnobotanical fieldwork.
But in the afternoons and evenings I would rush back home to greet my son and to spend long spells conversing with my guests over home-cooked meals, or in front of our toasty fireplace. In conversations I had with them and with my wife in those weeks of July, I started to come around to a new way of looking at the US and its problems.
Ever since college or so, I’d been constantly frustrated with what I perceived as misplaced priorities in my home country. People seemed overly concerned with consumer goods, superficial things, television shows, and not concerned enough with justice and morality and responsibility. Especially in our worst collective problems such as violence, obesity, and financial crisis, it made me at once sad and angry to think on the one hand that my neighbors and compatriots were suffering, but on the other that many of these problems are so clearly of our own making, such that even their victims play a role in their genesis. How to explain, much less deal with, the fact that people resort to violence even when their material living conditions are more comfortable than those in many other parts of the world, or the fact that people continue to eat junk food even when it is expensive and clearly harmful? I didn’t see a viable way to contribute to solving my society’s problems, and it was unbearable for me to simply sit around and tolerate them.
The result, as I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, was that I normally evinced hostilitywhen talking about US culture, as if I were a spurned, rejected lover. I felt somehow inferior (or at least judged as inferior or aberrant by the society at large), which left me with no qualms about berating my fellow countrymen, such that my feelings of victimhood and inferiority finally ended up with me feeling superior, more righteous than everyone else.
Now, both in talking with my dear wife, who after getting to know the US a bit is always so worried about our problems like obesity and generalized loneliness and solitude, and especially in talking with my friend, a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, I became convinced that simply blaming and condemning my countrymen for their problems (an attitude borne of my thinking of myself as a victim of the society’s shortcomings) wasn’t at all productive. If I do indeed have some talent or understanding that might be of use to others, then the appropriate attitude isn’t scorn or frustration towards those who don’t think the way I do or who don’t share my privileged access to certain information, but rather one of humble sharing of my ideas and abilities with my countrymen. Many people, probably most, in the US have very different lifestyles and consumption patterns than I do, but my caricature is incorrect of them as neurotic, addictive consumers mired in ignorance and apathy. Some of my critiques are surely valid, and others may just be a difference of preference (what does it really matter after all if someone likes pop music that I consider vapid?), but in the end, these compatriots, different as they may be from me and from each other, are often trying to do good in their way, in their place in the world. As for my laments that much of the US electorate is uninformed and thus in some way undeserving of the vote, my friend made the very good point that we are all uninformed voters to some extent. No one can really know about all the complex systems that surround and impact our lives in a modern society, so it’s impossible to make 100% informed decisions.
In fact, my friend’s take on the present decade has none of my defeatism and moroseness, and he made the valid point that our perception of a period is shaped especially by our own personal experiences of that time. I saw the early 2000s as lost time because my life in the US sputtered, and I left the country impotent and rejected, only to get overthese feelings ten years later! My friend's vision of the past decade is not one of decline and nihilism but rather as the decade he launched his teaching career and began to engage students, to improve his little corner of the world. He was enthralled by the Bush-era questions of how to deal with anti-democratic terror, the conflicts of liberalism and illiberalism on the world stage, but now he feels that the most intellectually-stimulating and pertinent questions are more on the domestic front. He frames the challenge of our generation as addressing the problems of ignorance and cultural illiteracy, closing the yawning gap in wealth and education, and generally taking on the question of how to provide a decent livelihood for the working class in a job-scarce service economy. Put that way, I am all the more convinced of the need to help as opposed to jeer from the sidelines, as I wrote in a blog post shortly thereafter.
On top of our deep discussions and revelations, I just enjoyed sharing US culture and customs with my friend and his family. On car rides with our kids we sang a wide range of songs, from spirituals to 1950s rock to kid’s songs, and it was amazing to be able to drift in and out according to which lyrics I or they did or didn’t know. She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain was a great example, as we took turns with obscure verses that the others didn’t know. Normally I’m the only one that has these referents, and it’s as if I’m alone holding the torch of my culture for my child. This was a brief bout of company in that respect, and it got me excited about our impending trip to Chicago.