Saturday, November 29, 2008

America the Beautiful

Culture is a funny thing. The movement of people and their ways of life is bewildering to examine.  How people structure their existence within a community and how geography and history shape that process is a subject you could study forever.

My job incorporates some of those elements. As an international business reporter for a local publication, I learn about new cultures and to examine how they interact with the modern American city in which I live, how they place their firm and distinct imprint on it, and how this swirling mass of humanity survives through this great global bartering system we call economy.

For all my pursuits in other countries, America has never lost its intrigue. Our country is a tapestry woven with threads of freedom and opportunity, pride and expansionism, brashness and humility, infamy and never-ending compassion. We have a lot of faces as a country. For some, we're imperialists. For our enemies, we're the terrorists. For the hungry, we're often the savior; for the oppressed, the lifeline.

To some, we're an enigma, the third-largest country by population but soaring above all others when it comes to wealth. We're a paradox, at once xenophobic and incredibly open. We have a history of suppressing the freedom of our own people, but because our founders recognized our evil, self-serving nature, we've managed to become the freest country on earth.

When immigrants come to this country, I imagine they sift through a flood of perceptions, their images of "America the Beautiful" influenced by the media, the people they've met, their country's relationship with ours and even their own expectations, which color perceptions as much as anything that's not actual experience.

They're probably drawn to the opportunity that the stars and stripes represent, but they probably fear that they'll be lost in the shuffle, trampled under the great English-speaking machine of society.

To balance the ambition and fear, they create communities within communities, little pockets of home miles away from where they were born.

Georgia is an interesting place to see these forces at work. I went to the mall on Black Friday, the most American of days, the day after the most American of holidays. Only in this country can we have a day to take stock of our overflowing abundance, only to rush out and buy more before the sun rises on Friday.

But I saw no backlash to this ethos among the hundreds, probably thousands, of foreigners I saw at Northlake Mall in Tucker. I must've heard 10 or more languages as I slalomed through the throngs of shoppers eager for that after-Thanksgiving bargain.

A Chinese lady told her daughter she looked great in that jacket she was trying on. The daughter agreed before commenting that the Old Navy store had "hao duo ren," a heck of a lot of people. A Mexican woman spoke of the "pavo grande" (large turkey) they cooked the day before. An Indian man from my apartment complex waited as the checkout line at Kohl's stretched halfway across the store.

An white guy remarked in a awestruck tone that the leather jackets were only a few more dollars than a leather belt. "Yeah, it's kinda crazy," I said, giving his indignance the indulgence it seemed to be seeking. "Naw, they're not crazy. They're smart as hell, but we're smarter."

Outside the store, Muslim women with dark skin and headscarves corraled their children, laughing as two families reunited. I walked further, and Mediterranean women tried to sell me skin products. A Hispanic woman gave me a sample at the Chinese restaurant, and I sat down to eat, dumbfounded by the diversity.

We live in an amazing time. The movement of cultures has never been so pronounced and widespread. Our country still offers opportunity for the persistent and refuge for the downtrodden. Many new faces are taking us up on the offer, and we're even more beautiful because of this.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Terracotta Army Video Report

I'm still working on becoming a full-fledged media man. I've got the basics of writing down (notice, I said the basics), and now I'm delving more into the nitty gritty of new media and how to use the Web's capabilities to make the news come alive.

At GlobalAtlanta, we're incorporating more video and audio, which adds a different dimension to our reports. It's one thing to quote somebody like former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, a historical figure who's admirable and at times controversial. It's another thing to let viewers see him say what he thinks.

Almost two weeks ago I got a chance to visit the "The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army," a group of 2,200-year-old artifacts from Xi'an, China. The life-size terracotta figures and other related artifacts are now on display at the High Museum of Art here in Atlanta.

More than 1,000 of these figures have been excavated since 1974, when farmers digging a well uncovered a corner of the vast tomb complex of the man historians believe to have first unified the heartland of what we now know as China. Archaeologists estimate that 6,000 more are buried, waiting to reveal more of the emperor's secrets.

This exhibition is really cool, as was the fact that President Jimmy Carter, the Chinese ambassador and other officials were on hand to kick things off. I put together the following video report to breathe life into my article about the exhibition. Check it out and let me know how I did:

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Modern America

I was talking with someone the other day about how amazing it must be for old people to see the changes that sweep through our world. Even in my 24 years, the times have become irrevocably different. The world has integrated beyond what anyone could have imagined, and with the Internet we've had a front-row seat to it all.

My generation, the computer-savvy, globally connected generation, has grown up in a post-WWII era where prosperity has been the operating paradigm, spoon-fed to us since we were born. As a result, the virtue of thriftiness is rarely found in our country, a dire symptom of our materialism shown even more clearly by recent turmoil in the financial markets.

The root of all these problems, the insidious foundation we build our culture of consumerism upon, is a lie. At its core, it's the idea that like winning the lottery, we can get something for nothing.

America tells my generation that it can build a house with no money down and "own" a car with a list of bad credit that runs longer than the buyer's morning commute. America tells my generation that health care is a right, that Uncle Sam will look after us because we can't take care of ourselves. America tell us that inefficiency will be rewarded with government support, while success will be indirectly and unfairly punished and discouraged.

America used to be the nation of innovation, where hard work and know-how came together to solve problems and to create the most competitive workforce in the world. We're still good at a lot of things, but unfortunately we've become too proficient at living the lie discussed above.

It must be hard for those who hoarded potatoes and scrounged to survive during the Depression to imagine this generation as destitute as they once were. We're nowhere near that point. Neither are we - even with these money crises - even remotely approaching heartfelt appreciation for the ease with which many of us have waltzed through life.

In our world, everything's in a can. Food gets tossed into our car from windows as we roll by the restaurant. We are the fast food nation, and that culture attaches itself to every segment of our society. It's a leech that sucks out our ability to recognize what's truly valuable - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Freedom does not mean government-subsidized ease. It means freedom, and that is enough.

Traveler Update

Not too long ago I wrote this post about my first encounter with the Irish travelers, a mysterious and misunderstood people group that lives in a big village of mansions and trailers North Augusta, S.C.

Since that time, I've gotten an enormous response (at least by this blog's standards) from casual readers and actual travelers - some of them even from Belfast, Northern Ireland - who have stumbled upon the blog. They've been kind enough to offer their opinions about some of the ways they're perceived in their communities and clarify some of my misconceptions I've gained since reading about the travelers.

If I can get to Augusta again, I hope to interview some of them, but until then, check out the comments on the original post to see some firsthand accounts.

Now, if I could only get as many comments as I did on my Aga Khan piece...

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Those Who've Gone Before

I'm glad I didn't lug a book with me. I wouldn't have had time to read a page.

Despite predictions that voting could take more than three hours, I exercised my democratic right and duty today in only about 5 minutes. My polling place had absolutely no lines, and I quickly marked the box with an X to send McCain one step closer to victory in Georgia.

Our state is in the first round of poll closings (7 p.m.) and McCain will need a win here to defy the doomsday, landslide predictions and make this historic election closer than the experts think.

The fact that the lines were so short leads me to a few possible conclusions. One is that not as many folks turned out as expected. Generally, new voters tend to favor Obama, the change-monger, so if this could boost McCain's prospects. The more likely scenario is that the 40 percent of Dekalb County voters who cast their ballots early helped the rest of us avoid the tragic fate that befell some of them - lines of three to five hours.

What propelled so many to the polls early? I think it was a simple herd mentality, the fear that election day crowds would be too great. Funny that by succumbing to this sentiment, they actually created the scenario they wanted to avoid in the first place. I think the state government did a bad thing by pushing early voting and only opening select precincts that couldn't accommodate the crowds. This created the quagmires that suckered people in for such long waits. We should never have to wait two hours to vote. It's interesting that we have mismanagement of these processes and wonder why our turnout rates are so low.

If you were one of those who stood in line, I applaud your patriotism and I feel sorry for you, but I thank you for going before, preparing the way for my easy waltz to the ballot booth. Maybe next time you'll take the advice of my wife, who says, "None of this early voting, absentee stuff. Just go to the polling place on Nov. 4 and get your historic election day experience!"

Caption: Georgia flag outside the Governor's Mansion. Copyright Trevor Williams 2008.