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
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
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
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
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
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