A love letter to America: Te Aitanga a Pōkai Whenua 8

Dear America,

Right out of the blocks, thanks for the last two and half weeks. To be exact, we spent 16 days together, I traveled about 2,000 miles to four major cities in four states (That’s if we’re including Hawai’i). So I feel confident in saying I have all the expertise on America that someone who flies exclusively to Invercargill and spends two weeks there has about Aotearoa New Zealand.

I was apprehensive about meeting you. I know you don’t like to use the term, but you and I both know that you are our latest iteration of a world empire. Whilst I was here, the media were all in a flap about the Al-Qaeda inspired insurgency in Iraq and Syria, and whether Obama would do anything. No-one that I saw on television or read in the newspaper even thought to ask whether you have a right to do anything; that’s just assumed. When that is your mindset, the term empire really shouldn’t surprise you.

What did surprise me, though, is that the imperial America I have seen from a distance and read about particularly in Chomsky books was not the America I met when I arrived. Your people that I talked to don’t even talk about other countries or what happens overseas. Now I thought that was ignorance; I’ve laughed along with everyone else about the mythologised low uptake of passports amongst American citizens (I don’t if it is actually true). What I know now is that it is not about ignorance at all. It’s about immensity.

It’s pithy when I write it, but I am overwhelmed by your immensity and diversity. We were in three states on the mainland. One small corner of you and the diversity of landscape, of lifestyle, of values, of accents was pronounced. Your people in Las Vegas are joyfully hedonistic; in Flagstaff and the reservations, they are connected to the land, its maintenance and are relationship oriented. In Los Angeles, it seemed to be all about speed and money; and in San Francisco it’s about the sea and hospitality.

You could teach us a few things about diversity. When I did get to meet your people, I invariably found them a lot more polite and careful with each other. I suppose in communities with so many different ethnicities that you have to be careful to not offend, to get to know people first. I didn’t meet anyone who struck me as racist or redneck. I’m sure there are people like that,but for the most part people were just trying to get along. Here at home, I now think we presume too much that others will fit in. When I was with you, I saw that people got to live their lives the way that suits them and their culture.

One thing we could teach you here at home is that when you’re walking down the street, people still nod and smile at each other. When they say hello, we say hello back. I think that’s something you could learn from us as most of your people seem quite disconnected from each other. Are they afraid of each other? I’m not sure that’s the case, but certainly distant. Friendliness goes a long way, though I think that friendliness is slowly dying here too.

I want to say this as someone who cares; I think you have a problem with over-consumption. Everything is super-sized: the cities; the stores; the cars; the roads; the food. It’s like there’s never enough, but really, I think you’d agree, you’ve more than enough. I saw quite a bit of commentary about climate change whilst I was there with you, and like our people at home, your people are genuinely concerned. Yet like us, not a lot is really happening that’s getting to the core of the problem. For every solar farm, electric car, and 10c for a bag, there are millions of big cars on the road and stores stocked with so much unnecessary stuff. Also your desire to have so much means you can’t maintain what you’ve got. Your roads and infrstructure are creaking if not actively crumbling. This is our problem too, but it was super-sized on your side of the Pacific.

I struggled with your love of patriotism. Your people are really into the flag and the oath of allegiance and the military. The military-industrial complex was subtly present everywhere we went. At home, particularly being Māori, we don’t do patriotism very much. Perhaps Anzac Day, but I’m suspicious about that too. Maybe patriotism is the glue to your communities? It’s like a collective innocence, a starry eyed optimism. It seems to me that your flag is a projection of everyone’s hopes; it’s a prism, where a different angle gives you a different perspective but everyone thinks they are talking about the same thing.

I’m not even sure if you share my feelings, but I can see that you have formed an important part of who I am. All those movies, those songs, those books you sent me have made me the person I am today. I’m not sure they’re what I would’ve picked myself, but I can see your intent was generally a good one. Having spent some time with you, can I say you are very complicated: you’re generous and miserly, beautiful and hideous, comforting and frightening. America, I think I might love you, and I’d like to come back to spend more time with you some day.

Probably, the most honest thing I can say is that I understand Allen Ginsberg’s Howl now; and for that I am grateful.

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2 thoughts on “A love letter to America: Te Aitanga a Pōkai Whenua 8

  1. Kia ora, Graham. I have enjoyed reading about your travels here. I live in a village of 54,000 across the city border of Chicago called Oak Park. Tourists know it as the home of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and writer Ernest Hemingway, Betty White, Ludacris, Dan Castaneda etc. It is also famous for its diversity i.e it was one of the first communities to be racially integrated, and today it has a planned approach to attract a diverse range of people – ethically, economically, sexuality-wise. It is low-rise with great facilities, low crime( there have been three murders in the 13 years I have lived here. ) Home owners pay high property taxes to ensure this. Generally people live here because they value diversity – and it takes planning and work to achieve it. Nevertheless we still have an achievement gap at our high school which serves Oak Park and neighboring River Forest. It’s a large school – just under 40000. Today I am meeting with a teacher who will be visiting Aotearoa as a Fulbright scholar. I want to point her in the direction of people connected to Maori education – she will be based in Wellington.

    My family has experienced a community like none I have experienced at home -except when I was a kid in the 60s. My kids played on the block (we don’t have front fences) and swum in the local pools, done summer camps through the local park district. We went back to our house in Auckland for a few months and missed the neighborhood feeling and friendliness.

    Chicago itself is very segregated – in fact, on our borders are primarily African-American (Austin) and Hispanic (Berwyn) communities. Austin was subject to white flight years ago and has become impoverished as manufacturing businesses in the area moved production elsewhere. It, and other communities on the west side, has high crime and a high rate of gang shootings – like parts of south Chicago.

    My husband had travelled widely in the US and has visited most states, but my view was one largely built by media and very negative. I’d also lived in the UK – which has a complicated relationship with the U.S. The reality has been very different, but I know that if I moved a few blocks east, or a state away, or into a small rural town, or to another coast, or south, my experience would be vastly different.

    I wish more NZers would travel here and get off the main tourist routes also. There are many wonderful things – and awful things that are worth learning from in order to avoid.

    Re Americans travelling: the low rate of passport is influenced by the lack of need. Until recently, citizens didn’t need one to travel to territories and bordering countries. Vast numbers travelled to Canada, Puerto Rico, Mexico – and Hawaii is seen as both domestic and foreign. Even so, go to any international airport and you will see the numbers of Americans travelling is huge. But it depends on work and social class. The cost and time required to visit Europe, Africa, Australasia is prohibitive for most workers who get short holidays. If you have a job, your health insurance is tied to it, so it’s unusual to leave a job just to travel. Unemployment has been high since the recession and students have enormous loans with high interest.

    1. Kia ora Toni, this is wonderfully rich response. Thanks for the clarification on passports! I also appreciate your view on community in the USA. Of course it is always more complicated than one person’s experience, which is why I am thankful for yours.

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