America

I wrote this personal essay on America on September 8, 2020. It was my last evening in the US before moving back to Bangalore, India. I spent 7 years there. I went to a brewery, listened to some music, and had this scattered stream of thoughts. It is largely unedited, based on my personal experience, and involves many generalizations.

I have a fondness for America and Americans. I’m writing this as I’m listening to Yankee Doodle

If I had to explain American culture in one line, it would be “a pursuit of one’s wants”. A relentless pursuit at any cost. This can be expressed in ambition – wanting to go to Mars. In relationships – wanting the perfect person for you. In consumerism – wanting the next Apple watch.

There’s something special about the freedom in America. It’s a particular type of freedom – a culture that encourages you to have clarity on what you specifically want and offers a path to fulfill those wants. You feel like you can think of and do whatever you want. You want to go to Mars? You can. You want to bench press 400 pounds? Do it. Kids in America are asked what they want. They develop taste. Kids give specific instructions at restaurants – “a sandwich with white bread lightly toasted, roasted turkey, olives, jalapenos, onions, and Chipotle mayo”. I’ve never thought so attentively to what I want until I came to the US.

American consumerism is patriotic. The Great Recession, 9/11, coronavirus can’t stop American consumerism. To say fuck you to the terrorists, George Bush said to Americans, “shop”. Shop at malls, eat at restaurants, buy houses to show that terrorists can’t mess with American wants.

Americans want big things. Big cars. Big roads. Large coke. Large fries. They own big pickup trucks that make little practical sense. It’s big and they like big things.

A pickup truck at the brewery I was sitting at

America doesn’t have some freedoms that exist in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa. You don’t feel free to roam around American streets and shout out things, sing aloud, or drink beer. You’re afraid of the scorn of other people. It’s the look of disapproval that enforces the American etiquette. American scorn is powerful and restrictive. You are aware of this scorn while you’re driving, ordering food, crossing the street, or moving through the airport.

Americans are lonely and free. At some level, it’s hard to be extremely free if you’re not lonely. Maybe loneliness is a strong word. But Americans are treated as independent beings from a young age. Independent beings capable of reason and decision-making ability. Who can choose what type of sandwich they want to eat for dinner, even at the age of five. But that also means that Americans aren’t pampered with an excessive, emotional clinging-on type love. Some Americans don’t know what unconditional love looks like. Americans are slightly lonely, slightly sad, very free, and relentlessly pursue their wants. I’ve heard a few Americans say they would like to live in a commune. But these people would never want to actually live with a group of friends or live with their parents. They want their space. They don’t actually want to live in a commune. They just want to be a little less lonely. A boyfriend will suffice.

I feel very free in the US. I can do whatever I want. Think whatever I want. I have my own little bubble to work on my things. And do some world building.

In the US, politicians without families are seen as unempathetic. No family implies you don’t care about others. American politicians want to be seen with their kids and spouses, gardening, and cooking. They’re trying to show that they’re human, so you should give them power.

Liberal Americans don’t like saying “America”. Because “America” represents the Bible-thumping right. Often, when Americans criticize “America”, they are criticizing a specific group of people they disagree with.

Americans are an extremely accepting bunch – both liberal and conservative Americans. They constantly ask for my opinion on American issues. I often find myself defending America while they are critical. Most people outside America get quite defensive about their country. Americans generally don’t. Some of that possibly is because they know America is a rich, powerful country so they can be critical of it – just like Obama is secure enough to make self-deprecating jokes.

Americans don’t appreciate beauty as much as Europeans do. Outside of major cities, America is architected around the car – the wide roads, big parking lots, drive thrus. The highway – gas station – McDonalds vibe looks ugly. It is efficient. But sometimes efficient things are rather dull.

The American highway – gas station – fast food vibe

The most beautiful parts of America are its national parks and universities. I see American universities as historical monuments or pilgrimage sites. America doesn’t have the temples of Cambodia or the pyramids of Egypt. But it has universities, which are expansive and beautiful. They’ve been important landmarks through wars, movements, and important discoveries.

University of Virginia campus

Americans document everything. America has a relatively short history compared to Asia or Europe, but it documents and packages that history into compelling stories. An ordinary American site with a 10-year history will have a written documentation of the founder, story of its founding, mission, key milestones, etc.

Americans have a cheerfulness about them when you first meet them. “Hi!! How are you?” This is slightly exaggerated and fake. But it makes a huge positive difference to an immigrant. When you come to a new country, the American friendliness feels warm, open, and accepting.

Some people in America love sunbathing. This is weird to me.

America sells. American soft power is one of its biggest strengths. People watch American movies, American shows, American politics, American TikToks. America even exports art forms like stand-up comedy. I’ve noticed that when a particular phrase gets used a lot in America (e.g. “privilege”, “happy holidays”, “cap”, etc.), it will take a year or so to become prevalent in other parts of the world. America exports movements. American activism matters because the me-too movement or Black Lives Matter movement actually affects the rest of the world.

Americans get entertainment. They don’t get pleasure. American friends get together to watch a football game. They don’t get together to do nothing. Indians and Europeans do this – where they meet without any agenda, to simply hang out. Americans always have an activity when they hang out. A plan. Watch basketball together, hike, play FIFA.

Americans are specific about their naming and categorization. Americans distinguish a paper towel vs. tissue vs. napkin vs. toilet paper. They distinguish a jacket vs. sweater vs. pullover vs. hoodie vs. quarter zip vs. cardigan vs. coat vs. fleece vs. puffer.

People in the US generally do their jobs sincerely. The average person produces reasonably high quality work. People are fairly detail oriented and take limited shortcuts. Restaurants, roads, and houses are kept clean.

Americans are either overweight or extremely fit. Many Americans care about their looks and fitness a lot. Even people in their 50s are trying to impress their wives and husbands. They’re working out. Running. Going to the gym. They could run a 10k today if you told them to.

Leaving America makes me sad. I’ve spent 7 years here. I came here when I was 18. I was bright eyed and full of energy; I still sort of am. I’ve worked here for three years. Work has humbled me. I’m not that important. I had to serve someone. Make sure that I make their lives easier. It was something that I got used to.

I’ve been in two relationships in the US. The relationships were happy, intense, and had a big impact on me. A relationship is an effective way to figure out all your problems and insecurities. And it’s natural to build some emotional muscle memory from break-ups.

I knew from my first internship that I didn’t want to work in a corporate job. It felt forced. I was imprisoned from 9 to 5 at one place. I had to wear formal clothes. I couldn’t stretch or put my feet on the table. I didn’t want to put my feet on the table but it was annoying that I couldn’t. I couldn’t leave the office for a few hours. I was expected to behave in certain ways. Stare at the screen even when I had no work to do. While I’m sad to leave America, I’m glad to leave a corporate job and work on something myself. I should’ve done it a long time back. But I’m more mature now. That helps in some ways. Hopefully that doesn’t mean I don’t lose all my naivety. I still want to attempt things that seem silly, irrelevant, and risky.

America is where I discovered crypto and dove deep into it. Crypto felt like playful economics. I’m glad I went down the rabbit hole of this technology. So many possibilities. So much joy.

I’m listening to Monta Re right now. I think I’m ready to leave America. With wings as fragile as paper, I’m flying.

कागज़ के दो पंख लेके, उड़ा चला जाए रे

With wings as fragile as paper, it’s flying.

जहाँ नहीं जाना था ये, वहीँ चला हाय रे

Where it shouldn’t go, it goes there only.

उमर का ये ताना-बाना समझ ना पाए रे

It doesn’t understand those complicated rules of ages.

जुबां पे जो मोह-माया, नमक लगाये रे

Those worthless attractions, luring it.

के देखे ना, भाले ना, जाने ना दाये रे

It doesn’t look back or front, it doesn’t know its limits.

दिशा हारा कैमोन बोका, मोन्टा रे! 

This silly, mad heart of mine, is directionless.

…….

Thanks to Aiyappa Byrajanda, Michael Bateman, Merrymaker Critter, Sarah Friday, Pruthvi Haral, and Daniel Schlabach for reading drafts of this.