To be able to contemplate saying anything about politics without jeopardizing your health, or your safety was to imply real freedom. Though unshackled, we didn't know what that was. There was enough to allow us to go about our business and have jobs, and for that we were grateful enough. Often times, we'd watch Western pundits on satellite TV duking it out with bluster and conviction about their ideologies, the state of the union or the common man's dilemmas. They were so confident. We were not.
It was not a place where you could express your personal efficacy through a vote, even if you had one. It would get fixed or sold or falsified. So my first lesson in politics, as it was for the rest of life, was to comprehend the difference between the Ideal and the Real. There were those things neatly laid out in books which remain perfectly preserved in words, and then there were those things that just happened, either caused by nature, human will or both. Tragic, unfair and terrible things, punctuated by lives torn apart by ambitions, by greed, by political parties, by both military and insurgents determined to gain their territory. And everywhere, blood.
My mother the Latin Piscean, fortunately made it a policy to never expect anything from the hired help we couldn't do just as well or even better ourselves. That usually translated to summers of waxing floors, doing the laundry and the ironing, going to the wet markets, cutting grass, tending gardens, cooking, gutting fish, yes you read that right - all of which in the tropics is compounded by proliferating dust, oppressive heat and a lack of sanitation. My parents were themselves migrants, and still retained the sting of what the last war did to their childhoods. It was over, but they carried it in their heads framing their lives thereafter.
The DMV (Dept. of Motor Vehicles) is a good microcosm of this, all walks of life, all sorts of colorful bizarre fashion, a profusion of languages, everyone lining up for the same driver's test. Where I'd come from, the test to the fees were surname contingent. Mine's Chinese, so my fees were always higher. Passports, license, the lot.
It also confused me that so many people over-relied on these rules, at times eschewing common sense and even the obvious to stay faithful to the technicalities. America is serious about her laws, as one finds when in the clutches of an irate police officer. Faced with the babel of tongues, it is the one unifying language no one is exempt from, even if you choose not to learn, speak or write English. And thankfully is not determined by a single empowered individual at the cost of many.
On some occasions as if volume rather than thought would give their reasons weight. Did all that noise really amount to anything? I'm still to this day, inclined by training and nature to quietly observe first before saying anything - and I'm not exactly introverted. It wasn't till much later that I realized this vigor owed much to a passion for exercising the right to free speech, which sometimes can also be overused, misappropriated and alienating.
These are just a few of the things that highlight the paradox America is. But it's enough to contrast how it's citizens, especially the ones who know no other previous life of hollow rights in severely injured democracies or totalitarian autocracies, take for granted the assumption of good and justice as being more than just a possibility. It is an expectation.
Certainly there are wrong-doings, machinations, and miscarriages - there always will be in a government run by people, forever limited to our frailty and humanity. But for the most part, justice is more within reach than not. The striving to better realize the ideal being so much a part of the American mind that it's constant and driven, however much faltering may occur in the course of it.
In other parts of the world, the defaulting belief can be the reverse. The law but a theory and justice certainly not a right. There is almost at times a sweet naivete to the protests and uproars we launch on behalf of the less fortunate. Today, most of us can picket without being shot, petition without imprisonment and find ways to channel our dissent into eventually being expressed in our laws. It's impossible to visit the nation's capital without encountering any number of rallies, the ever-changing yet always present mobs further justifying history's sacrifices.
I spent an entire cab ride in DC being fully apprised of the impending transportation strikes by the Ethiopian taxi driver who gave me a run down on the commissioners running for office as well as handy suggestions to the best African cuisine on U Street. There was no gap haunted by the specter of "whatever" in his understanding of the issues dear to him, his rights were a fact and his presence to stand united with those like him, counted. He knew it did.
However, imperfect and tattered. I think it's that which prompts most Americans to go hand over heart as they stand in ceremony to the anthem, to the humored dismay of most visiting Europeans.
It's also what gives American culture it's social sway, it's X factor. I've been on both sides of the border and have little illusions about either, but just for today, I have to say Happy Birthday America.
And thanks for letting me call you home.