Ion Grumeza

Author, historian, educator, and philosopher

Not Perfect, But the Best

Vanity Fair Essay Submission

Not Perfect, But the Best
By Ion Grumeza

It was 1973, and I was twenty-nine when I defected from my native Communist country and came to the United States to partake in the dream of freedom and opportunity. Like many others, I believed all Americans were rich and that soon I would have a better life. I arrived in New York City, where I pictured myself mingling with happy people and expecting to see cowboys and movie actors.

Instead I witnessed anti-Vietnam war demonstrations during which American flags were burned. I saw police charging protesters in the streets. I marveled at the giant graffiti that covered building walls, subways, and even monuments, reflecting the rebelliousness of the time. One bumper sticker, “Question Authority,” caught my attention, and the newspaper headlines on Nixon’s impeachment convinced me that in the American nation, all must be equal in front of the law. I felt good knowing that when I became a citizen, my vote would really count. Freedom was on display all over, and it was the obvious character of my adopted country.

Meanwhile, the streets were not paved with gold, but littered with homeless and hippies and gemmed with robot-like people rushing all day like busy ants. I thought I had landed in the wrong country and tried hard to identify who was a “real” American. Because endless freedom creates independent thinkers, each person seemed to be in charge of his or her destiny. It was so much to learn from everyone.

I sensed something extremely strong emanating from people walking in and out of the huge buildings: their determination to make it, an unbending will to beat the odds, a
proud attitude and optimism. I noticed they displayed large smiles and greeted even strangers of all races, colors—and even me—with a polite, “How are you!” Encouraged, I felt like I belonged and that a good future was waiting for me. There was no doubt in my mind: the American character included hospitality.

The limitless devotion to their pets, who were considered part of the families, convinced me that no other people treated animals better than Americans. The efforts made by many of them to help me sealed my belief that compassion was another essential of the American character.

To me, Americans had a high tolerance for things that would cause other people much concern. Americans patiently waited in still traffic, ignored the rain while walking calmly in it, and braved freezing temperatures with their coats wide open and their hair just washed. No one was bothered by drafty open windows or squeaky doors, and electric lights were on day and night. My broken English never made anyone nervous. However, they would become very aggressive about small nuisances, like drivers not signaling when they turned left or right. The wrong music in an elevator, a person trying to cut into a line, or a waiter forgetting to bring water with ice would instantly infuriate many otherwise relaxed Americans.

I entered a young nation that generated an adolescent society with people ready to act on enthusiastic impulse of “I’ll do it! Why not?” The idea was to take a risk and hope
for the best. That kind of unleashed optimism could be easily interpreted as naivety, but that experimental character produced most of the technical marvels we know. It was no wonder that so many went broke, only to learn a lesson and start all over again. To make it in such a mercantile society, a competitive character was a must. Here, heroes did not wear shiny medals; they wore power watches and expensive clothes. They did not march in formation to beating drums in order to intimidate the world, but were driven in limousines to office towers where they worked to change the world.

Here individuals were not judged by their culture, sophistication, manners, and elevated spirit, but by their wealth. Money commanded instant respect. The thinking was simple and to the point: if you are so smart, make money! Without money, nothing mattered. In fact, the entire country would be better named the United States of Dollar. “In God We Trust” on the dollar bills could be easily replaced by “In Money We Trust.”

Hard work and the desire to make money can be perceived as the desire for instant gratification and greed. Because money was made from selling, individuals were encouraged to buy more, better and cheaper. This trace of national character created spoiled people with an “I want everything” attitude, regardless of whether or not they could afford it. In no time, credit cards created a “plastic society” of “enjoy now, pay tomorrow” thinking.

Everything in America moved quickly. Fashion, jobs, residences, even spouses, were temporary. Yet, something magical held this highly mobile society together. It was
amazing to see that a Good Humor ice cream truck brought children, families, and neighbors together, more than schools or churches. The fact that one could have the same food or hotel room in fifty states because of licensed or franchised businesses allowed
Americans to unite without any effort. It also contributed to the consistently demanding dimension of the American character: they knew what to expect for their money, they insisted on it, and they enjoyed services that no other country could provide.

After I became a U.S. citizen, I rushed to travel abroad where I felt enormously proud of my American passport. It made me feel important, strong, protected, and I expected the entire world to admire me. But the way Americans perceive themselves is not always the way we are perceived by the rest of the world. Abroad, American tourists, who expect everyone to speak English, are considered arrogant, rude, and ignorant of others. “We know better” seems to be written on most Americans’ faces as they rush to tourist sites and take rolls of photos to bring back home. Their limited understanding of the local traditions and their self-focus are also written on their faces.

Historically naïve and hardly aware of other cultures, Americans relate better to the heroes of comic books than the ancient heroes of past civilizations.Talking louder and dressing casually, with clothes hanging haphazardly and baseball caps turned around,
American tourists stand out in any crowd, whether lounging on a cathedral step or
sleeping in the corridor of a train. This informal part of their character translates as, “I
don’t give a damn about what you think of me!” The world interprets it as a sign of faulty education or a disrespect for other people.

Yet, the “ugly Americans” who show a lack of manners by flashing their dollars and demanding instant service are the same ones who carefully toss their garbage into
proper containers, patiently stand in line and say “excuse me” and “thank you” in any circumstances. Their inviting smiles and approachable attitude is irresistible to local youth who make efforts to Americanize themselves by wearing blue jeans and t-shirts with numbers on the back, chewing gum, and saying “OK!” To overlook the impact of Hollywood movies, or jazz, rock-and-roll and rap music on the rest of the world is an unfair denial of the American artistic character.

At home or abroad, America is well known for its generosity. From the Marshall Plan that saved Europe after World War II to massive food and medical aid to African countries, that generosity has sustained life on earth for countless numbers of people. But this aspect of the American character is often perceived as a desire to control the world.

When Americans are too eager to export freedom, democracy and prosperity, it often backfires against them. Their actions appear as imperialistic order disguised as benevolence. Perhaps that is why America has won so many wars and lost much peace.
Former allies who could perish without the help of the United States are now enemies or
reluctant partners. As always, givers are tarnished by takers, yet Americans never learn
from the lessons of history. And that is another part of the American character: always look forward and find a way to do better.

Since its birth, the United States has proven to be the most stable and prosperous nation on earth. This rare achievement was labeled as “arrogant” by the rest of the world, which rests on the American strength and cowboy attitude to do right in wrong circumstances. If America goes down in flames, the entire world will follow it.

With all its virtues and faults the American society still fulfills dreams and aspirations. I have no doubt that if allowed, at least half of the world would come here in a second to benefit from the American character. I am certainly happy that I did!

© 2004 Ion Grumeza