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Watching America, Observing America, and Letting Perspective Fly Free

April 18, 2012
          Ghosh shook his head. “You’re still young, free,” he said, spreading his hands apart for emphasis. “Do yourself a favor. Before it’s too late, without thinking too much about it first, pack a pillow and a blanket and see as much of the world as you can. You will not regret it. One day it will be too late.”
        “My grandfather always says thats what books are for,” Ashoke said, using the opportunity to open the volume in his hands. “To travel without wearing an inch.” (p. 16)
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake details an Indian family planting roots in America after a young couple moves to Cambridge in the 1960s. Ashoke receives the above life-changing piece of advice right before a life-changing experience: the train he’s riding in crashes, Ghosh dies and Ashoke spends the year recovering. He eventually takes on Ghosh’s advice, and leaves to study in America before marrying and bringing his new wife over.
The book is a well-written ‘modern’ novel, with twists and little stories straight out of a movie. It’s interesting to read Ashoke and his wife’s take on America, even if they’re only characters in a novel; certainly Lahiri based them on people she knew. Normally, we challenge our own perspectives and broaden our horizons by traveling. We go out into the world, whether only 50 miles or 5000 miles, and compare and critique that which we see. Our perspectives are always pigenholed due to our personal lives, and the similarity of the place we’re visiting to our own homes. We critique everywhere we go, but how often do we get a honest, based-on-real-experience critique of our own country through a foreigner’s eyes? How often are our perspectives of our own country challenged?
Novels like Jhumpa Lahiri’s provide some insight into the world’s perspective of America, as they are often based on real events., a superb ‘watchdog’ sort of website in which volunteer translators (including yours truly, for the French department!) translate articles from around the world, also provides perspective in a more straightforward, factual way than a novel. Each article selected for translation gives an analysis on American politics, economics and life.
Associating with immigrants is certainly the best way to get firsthand opinions on America through an outsider’s eyes. The immigrant is not a tourist who’s happy to be on vacation and therefore everything is fine, fine, fine and beautiful, beautiful, beautiful; unlike a tourist, they hold a job, make friends (hopefully with different people) and deal with “real” Americans other than just those handing over their check in a restaurant.
Of course, the immigrant perspective on America varies upon person, place and experience: certainly a woman moving to America from France to study is going to experience less of a culture shock than, say, a woman moving from Senegal. Likewise, an Indian woman who moves to Wisconsin will have a different experience than the Indian woman who moves to Jackson Heights, Queens, where there is a sizable Indian population. But among the variations, one will find similiar critiques, which not only point out the differences between two cultures but also genuine flaws in American society.
Listening to someone critique your homeland can sometimes be more shocking than traveling halfway around the globe. Being born into a culture, country or town often means that we overlook it’s flaws, whether by resigned acceptance, conditioning or pure habit. But when forced to listen to someone’s fresh perspective, unhampered by loyalty or pride or conditioning, we’re forced to entertain our home or culture in a whole new light. Just like we spot the flaws in the places we visit–for example, Egypt’s lack of all-around freedom or Costa Rica’s unpaved roads–and sometimes sigh in relief that we live where we live, so immigrants will spot the flaws in the great American facade.
I have become acquainted over the past few years with many people who were not born in this country but nevertheless live here now, whether they came as illegal immigrants with their families as children, as students on study visas or simply as young people deciding to move to the Great America. Some of them play the comparaison game more than others, constantly referring to their home countries, but overall they’re not as critical, I feel, as an American is when they move to another country (yes, I was even cast my always-critical eye on my fabulous France). Some are filled with nostalgia, starting sentences with “In D.R., we would do this when I was little…” Some are filled with relief, some with disdain, some with appreciation.
It is not until Damby arrived two Sundays ago from Egypt that I have met someone with a wondrous perspective on America. His reactions to this country have been nostalgic, grateful, disdainful and critical (especially concerning fashion!) but also amazement. Having come from a radically different culture with only minimal, Middle East-oriented travel experience, he might have well landed on Mars. His rants and raves are interesting, mostly because they make me look at my country and my new hometown of New York City in a whole new light. I feel like I’ve been on vacation for the past week and a half, even though I’ve not gone anywhere new, because I’ve been forced to consider logistics in a city completely foreign to someone, and because I’ve been forced to confront things that I have either overlooked or tried desperately to gloss over because I have no choice.
In the next several posts to come, I hope to share some of Damby’s perspective with you, my readers, to give a highly personal take on ‘Watching America’ sans the restrictions of writing for a newspaper and deadline. Even if you initially disagree with what he says, you may find that there is at least some kernel of truth in everyone’s perspectives.
Myself, I believe we should never stop in our quest to challenge our perspectives, nor in our journey to broaden our horizons. I will be forever traveling with my pillow.
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