I have a bit of a weird relationship with America right now. This is not a qualitative evaluation of the country, nor am I saying that I have mixed feelings about good ol’ ‘Murica. I’m saying that my relationship with America, that is, the way in which I am able to relate to America, is weird.
You guys (most of you) are immersed in America. It’s everything you see every day. All of your daily experiences and routines are subsets of America. For me, though, America is something I see at a distance, through specific windows – friends’ stories, news stories, remembered stories. But the biggest of those windows, by a long shot, is Facebook.
These days, when I think about “America” as a country, I think about the themes playing out on my news feed. America is a collection of opinions about Caitlyn Jenner, the degree to which various supreme court justices resemble various animals, what racial privilege means. It’s a public juxtaposition of simultaneous and non-intersecting declarations of support for various sides of the currently popular issues. I say “non-intersecting” because that ominous possibility that used to terrify us back in 2010 has finally become manifest: we no longer see any viewpoints that contradict our own, and if we do see them, we apparently never comment on them. Because I almost never like or comment on any political post, I see an endless stream of strongly-held beliefs on vital issues, each more contradictory and inflammatory and contradictory than the last, each trailing a stream of violent “OH YEAH”s and “HELLZ YES BRO”s, with narry a post problematized by a single opposing viewpoint.
Welcome to the age of the loud and deaf, I suppose. But that’s not point of this post.
The point of this post is to pose a question: What is America? Or any other country, for that matter. To citizens of other countries, it’s a foreign entity, generally assumed to be homogenous, with more or less unified opinions and actions as defined by the government. I can only assume what America seems to be to the members of the government itself. To ordinary citizens, it’s the basis on which their lives are built: the conditions, social and legal, that define not only their prospects and daily routines, but also the worldviews that have been developed over a lifetime of facing those prospects and routines.
To me, America is my origin, my “character class” as assigned at birth. It occupies the role of the distant homeland, to which I occasionally “disappear,” for which I’m often asked to explain or apologize, and the prospect of permanent return to which defines, in many ways, my social life and career.
But – and stick with me here, we’re about to get philosophical and I know how annoying that can be to the unsuspecting reader – suppose for a moment that the only thing that truly can be said to exist is the moment as experienced by an individual. Outside of that which can be immediately experienced, all else is inference and illusion (there are some lawyers in the audience, so to avoid a fistfight, I should say that this is not a value judgment. Keep on keepin’ on with all of those abstractions! Go go go! Keep that world spinning!).
Starting from this point, what can America be said to be? It’s nothing within your field of vision; at best, it’s an adjective temporarily attached to any of those objects you can see. It’s not a history or heritage, because a history is an idea of what has come before, which is necessarily warped and/or untrue to a lesser or greater (greater! Very greater) degree. My point, which I will now state even though I’ve already kind of beaten it to death, is that America is an epiphenomenon that coats and flavors all of our stuff. It’s a set of opinions – or rather, things that we think we should have opinions about, and a short list of suggestions as to what those opinions should be. It’s not your car or your mortgage or your coworkers, though most of those things are Americans, more or less. It’s the conditions surrounding them, always out of reach, always only inferred, never actually popping up in a star-spangled top hat and proclaiming its imminence.
So in a way, the America I get here is not warped at all by the fact that I can only see it through “windows.” If America is really just this larger set of ideas and conversations and conditions, then I see it and learn about it and participate in it in exactly the same way as you do.
This occurred to me today while taking a particularly long shower (there’s a bit of a mismatch in the above sentence that will only be amusing to those as bored and whimsically overeducated as I). I was thinking about privilege, or more specifically, wondering what to call the mechanism by which friends and employers and romantic partners keep giving me the massive benefit of many doubts despite my tendency to take hour-long showers on Sunday afternoons which would be better spent working out, or reading, or working on that one really, really big project that would be a seriously timely boon for the company if we manage to win the pitch. Despite a distinct midriffial amorphousness, a flagging ability to make clever conversation, and a lackluster and clearly disinterested professional performance, why am I consistently hired, promoted, and showered with beautiful women? (One of those is sexist hyperbole. Can you guess which?)
The answer, or at least part of the answer, is White Magic Syndrome, the patron saint of white people in China. It’s the assumption that white foreigners are more mature, responsible, and professional than locals. Just putting us in the same room as your kids will magically make their English better. Just putting us on a project will make it more organized. Just putting us in the room will make the client respect the company more. That’s the privilege of WMS, something I’ve been openly decrying (and benefiting from! Heartily!) for all five of my years here.
The weird switch that has happened lately is that I’m starting to realize that WMS has been with me for more than these five years. I’m the perfect example of a guy who doesn’t want to work, who would be content to sit around the house and eat junk food and contribute nothing to society. Like, I would be super happy doing that. I was not born a particularly studious or even responsible person, and if the people dealing with me throughout my youth (sorry again, teachers) had been more likely to sigh and shrug this off as a grim cultural fact than see it as an unfortunate, individual tendency of an otherwise potential-rich future society upstander, then I would probably have taken a two-hour shower this afternoon, likely in a significantly less comfortable bathroom.
It’s after 8 already. Better get started on all that work.