Reflections on an American Visit
By Usman Hayat

As I approached the immigration counter at the Washington DC airport in the small hours of September 5, I had a feeling that this could be the defining moment for the next three weeks.

I, along with a diverse group of 14 people from various countries had come to the US on an international visitors program; we were guests of the American people and had arrived in their country to learn and exchange views on political, economic and social change. We were mostly young and came from a variety of backgrounds including political organizations, academia, corporations and media.

The officer at the counter had a look at my green passport and referred me to the notorious National Security Entry Exit Registration (NSEER) desk. I was moved to an isolated table where I took oath. The same officer, whom I had met at the front desk, asked me a series of rather harmless questions about my personal details. He took my fingerprints and a photo, ordered me not to forget to record my departure when leaving USA and then, let me go. Even though the NSEER process consumed more than an hour, given the grim stories I had heard about it, I found it to be a positive start.

In the next three weeks, we met a large number of people from political, economic and social backgrounds in Washington DC, Cincinnati and Cleveland, Scottsdale, and New York City. We visited the US State Department, the House of Representatives, the Cincinnati Islamic Centre, the Cincinnati City Council, the Arizona State Assembly, the Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs and the offices of Conference Board and UNDP in New York. In addition to these visits, we had a series of guest speakers to talk to us on topics like American culture and political system. We also visited many other places, such as museums, sports stadiums, and shopping malls, as part of the program and on our own. We wanted to take back first-hand ideas about the American way of life and put to test the perceptions that we were bringing along.

The first and most obvious thing that impresses you about America, in America, is its economic development. The skyscrapers, the highways, consumerism, wasteful living, obesity, and absence of all those symbols of poverty that we are so used to, reinforce this impression. However, this image was tarnished somewhat when, as part of the program, we were taken to Cincinnati and Cleveland in Ohio. According to some rankings Cleveland is the poorest city in the US and it has suffered much due to the loss of steel and other manufacturing jobs. It was here as well as in Cincinnati that we saw homeless people on the footpaths, worn out and abandoned buildings and a general feeling of gloom. Obviously our program designers had wanted us to know that not every American is rich, fat and happy. But visiting Ohio on the whole had the opposite effect on me. Having seen the tragic faces of poverty in Pakistan, I felt that even the worst in USA is quite tolerable.

Americans are working and working very hard to realize the 'American dream'. And just what is this dream? The Americans our group met told us varying meanings of this highly popular term, the gist of which, according to my understanding was that every American would be free and have the chance to become what he is capable of, particularly in radically changing his economic class, regardless of the circumstances created by birth.

Individualism, social acceptance of 'doing your own thing' and taking risks, make an enabling environment for creating generation after generation of entrepreneurs. While the US is closely associated with large companies with an unquenchable thirst for greater profits, almost 70 per cent of the American jobs are generated by small businesses. Amazing, isn't it?

There are also others who are working for their communities. These people, whether professionals or volunteers, are also working quite hard and long, even if this is not the global identity of the US.

For the social workers, having a neighborhood and community in which they would like to raise their family is very important. They take great pains to revive their communities and pre vent or undo the damage done by the loss of jobs and large-scale migration.

The American society has been described as a melting pot, one where people from all parts of the world come and become fully Americanized over a period of time. However, this idea does have its gray areas. Some African-Americans, the largest minority group in the US, told us that they have not fully recovered from the scars of slavery and segregation and are not part of the society the same way as white Americans are. Maybe this is why a variety of ethnic communities, including Hispanics and Asians, are preserving their own way of life by living in communities.

I was amazed to find Chinese shopkeepers in New York who have been living in the US for years but cannot even manage a few sentences of English. They survived only because they lived in areas mostly inhabited by the Chinese. This is why instead of calling it a melting pot, some people are now calling the American society a 'salad bowl' where losing your identity is not necessary for integration.

The Americans we met were polite and friendly. None of the group members had any different view on this. Most of the Americans we met on our own were strikingly simple, to the extent of being naive. Every time I met such people, I couldn't help thinking how wrong it is to hold responsible individual Americans for the acts their state commits in other countries. This distinction, while being simple and obvious, is often lost when the USA is condemned for its foreign policy.

Most Americans, however, are detached from the political process. They have little idea of life beyond their own communities, leave alone life beyond the USA. They neither have the time nor the interest to understand American foreign policy nor the means to take control of it. Less than 10 per cent of Americans have a passport so not many shall ever travel abroad to figure things out for themselves. Whatever little they do get to know of what is being done in their name in other countries is through their media.

The simplicity and unsuspecting nature of average Americans have made them vulnerable to media, owned by large for-profit companies. Americans often portray their media as a genie out of control, doing whatever it pleases which isn't entirely as the only time you see the US media providing international news is when it is covering the global weather!

In almost every discussion we had with Americans the group had provocative questions to ask. Everyone had bitter disagreements with the US foreign policy and curiosity about the American way of life. The Americans listened to us with great patience. On issues like individualism and freedom, they spoke with passion and confidence and put up a good defense. But on questions pertaining to USA's unqualified support to Israel and war in Iraq, they themselves did not seem convinced of the feeble reasons they gave us. It appeared that they too feel the need to understand these things better. Some of them are of the view that democratic values in the US are so strong that they would self-correct, in the long run, over-reactions, mistakes and deviations from American values.

Listening to the American people and media, you realize that US troops are a holy cow in American society. The only thing Americans say about the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they are doing a great job. Nobody dare disagree or even put a qualifier to the great job even after getting to know of bombings of innocent civilians and the sort of dirty works unearthed in Abu Ghraib. While the media keeps a meticulous count of US casualties in Iraq there is no systematic count of dead Iraqis. Patriotism is a serious matter in the US and questioning the actions of troops can easily be unpatriotic. There is strong mental resistance to accept that bombers and occupiers are not liberators and rebuilders.

It was quite important for me to listen to the views of the Pakistanis living there as well. They have lived in both societies and are better informed and experienced to explain things. And Pakistanis can be found everywhere. They are taxi drivers, shopkeepers, students, software programmers and Wall Street analysts. However, the ones doing low paid manual jobs were in a clear majority. During my discussion, almost all of them were of the opinion that though there was no obvious discrimination against Pakistanis, but deep down there probably is.
For the Pakistanis who live in USA, the very idea of hating Americans is absurd. How can they hate all these everyday people who are just busy earning a living like themselves? In fact, when you listen to them, it comes out that these Pakistanis love the USA from their heart, even if they do not say it in so many words. The US has given them economic opportunities, personal freedom, and social justice that are simply not there in Pakistan. They may work very hard to earn their living in the US, but they are not returning to Pakistan. The reason that was given to me was simple: they may not be able to realize the American dream, but they never want to relive the Pakistani nightmare! To them, Pakistan is a land of darkness and despair and nothing short of a deportation would send them back. That's sad.

After three weeks of traveling and holding intensive discussions with Americans and with fellow group members, it was time to go back. We were departing from New York as we stepped into a one room office to face the Homeland Security personnel. It was actually a broom-closet that had been changed into an office, due to budgetary restrictions. There we were fingerprinted and photographed, and our passports stamped. However, unlike the first registration, this time we were let off in 10 minutes. (Courtesy Dawn)


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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