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.

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