(I’m biased towards everything American, so despite a relatively US-critical tone, you may be offended by this post if you’re too European.)
I remember watching “The Cosby Show” with my parents in the nineties. It was a crazy time of massive political change in Poland, and my parents were always pointing at the fictional Huxtables as role models. Me and my father were even replicating Cliff Huxtable’s way of making chili, and we’d make tons of inside jokes that we’d always gladly explain to any guests we’d be having. We didn’t realize at that point how controversial The Cosby Show was in the 80s in the US. What was lost on Polish viewers was that the show’s depiction of black people was atypical to say the least. The Huxtable family wasn’t poor, hell, it wasn’t even middle class. A lawyer (a black woman!) and a senior obstetrician, raising a family of 5 in a fantastic brownstone in Brooklyn Heights—that’s how all well-educated Americans lived, right? We didn’t see the controversy, and missed out on some of the social commentary, but we still enjoyed Bill Cosby’s jokes, his colorful sweaters, his fictional family’s great parenting advice, etc. Of course not only the Huxtables were our role models, but the US was depicted as the promised land, which in the 90s it clearly was. They won the cold war, they became the sole superpower, Fukuyama announced “the end of history”—no one had any doubts.
Then at the break of the century, a new world begun. 9.11 happened, W. & co. took power,1 the 2008 banking crisis hit the world hard, the US middle class shrinked, Wall Street was occupied, and, as a proverbial nail to the coffin, they now tell me that Bill Cosby, my beloved Dr. Huxtable, is (allegedly) a sex offender. America of my childhood is gone for good, along with the post-cold-war Reagan-Thatcher world order formerly known as “new.”
Yet besides all that, there has never been a country I felt so emotionally strong about as the United States.
I think the thing that I always found most attractive in the US is its inclusiveness. Yes, there’s Donald and the Tea Party, and yes, my view as a white male is definitely biased, but I can’t think of any other country in the world where you’d be able to blend in like you can in the US.2
I landed on JFK and took a cab to Manhattan from there, and my driver was Tariq, a Pakistani American. “Immediately after 9.11 it was really hard for us here,” he said while we were stuck in traffic on Grand Central Parkway, “but now things have changed and in New York I don’t really feel anyone would ever doubt I’m as American as gooseberry pie.” Tariq spoke very fondly of Europe, too, where some of his relatives live, and was very curious about how we’re handling the migrant crisis. He was very happy to hear it’s my first time in America, and wished me a great vacation, and in the end offered me his phone so that I could call my friends in East Village from a US number (sadly, there’s no T-Mobile store on JFK and all the sim-cards available at the airport aren’t exactly good value).
It’s a cliché to write it, but the cultural and ethnic “melting pot” you witness in New York is, again, incomparable to anything I’ve ever seen, and I did quite some traveling. From African American Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn to Asian (mostly Korean and Chinese, I presume) neighborhoods of Flushing, Queens, New York city has it all. All races, all languages, all cuisines. And yes, America definitely has a problem with racism and class society, but from my perspective it seems they are better at acknowledging the problem and trying to do something about it. Can’t really say that about, e.g., France or Sweden, or many other European countries.
I’ve been living in different European countries for about 7 years now, and I felt welcome everywhere. People generally speak good English, and there are little to no bureaucratic or administrative issues moving around thanks to the miracle of the European Union and the Schengen agreement. But somewhere in the back of my head I know I will never be able to become German. Or Norwegian, or Dutch, or French. Probably not even British. Europe’s tormented history and still largely national-centric politics take its toll, and it’s just much harder, if not impossible, to “fully integrate” (which can mean different things to different people). US is much simpler in this regard. If you speak at least some basic English, respect American values, wave the flag on 4th of July and eat turkey on Thanksgiving, you’re one of them. So much easier in a country built on immigration I guess, where around 80% of population identifies with foreign ancestry, and where millions of immigrant visas are issued and hundreds of thousands of immigrants are naturalized every year. It’s funny that, it would seem to me, Americans are one of the very few nations that is able to reconcile this inclusiveness and multi-culturalism with national pride. In Europe, you’re either a nationalist or left-wing, there seem to be less and less room for middle ground.
But no matter how much in love with the US I am, I must admit that after the initial elation at seeing the NBC studios building and traveling every day on the N line across Queensboro Bridge faded, disillusion kicked in.
Greyhound express bus from Boston to New York goes through rural Massachusetts and Connecticut, which are relatively boring, but then enters the state of New York in Bronx county, and the first sight of glorious New York City are housing project high-rises. Plenty of these in Europe, too (though nobody calls them “housing projects”), but not like this, not like in South Bronx. You can really see the poverty there, although it’s difficult to put a finger on how you’re able to see it. It doesn’t feel safe there, either.
Crime in New York city and most of the US has been in decline for many years now, and nothing seems to indicate this trend would change. But income differences get bigger every year, especially in New York. The issue of America’s shrinking middle class is nuanced, but from a European visitor’s perspective the income differences are vivid. And if you have friends in New York, you know the dinner conversation will be mostly about the insane living cost in the city. The NY Times article I linked to above said that “about 45 percent of New York City households said they spent 35 percent or more of their income on housing.” Seeing how the new 432 Park Avenue (with One57 not far behind) rises like a middle finger towards all the poor in the center of Manhattan, I can see why so many New York residents opposed to its construction.
But it’s not only that the US Economy has been going through hoops since 2008 that the US became less attractive to us Europeans. It’s also because Europe became so good that we take it for granted. That we have clean, cheap and reliable public transportation, that there’s universal free (or very affordable) health care, that 25 days of paid leave per year is nothing special and that decent education is for everyone—we expect all that. From an Eastern European perspective the fascination with the United States is of course easier to explain. For decades, we were very angry with Western Europe, and we felt it’s been looking down upon us, whereas the US was the land of opportunity. It still very much seems that way, because reactions to people hearing “I’m Polish” are very different on both sides of the Atlantic. But it’s us, Eastern Europeans, that especially forget how great Europe has become, and how vastly Poland itself improved compared to the country
our parents we grew up in.3 So the disillusionment stems from a comparison between how “sooper-freaking-awesome” we expected the US to be, and how “awesome” it actually is.
Because it still, undoubtedly, is.
This was a very personal trip to me for sentimental reasons (where sentiment comes from watching television and movies, of course), and it couldn’t have been as great as it was if it wasn’t for the many friends that made it such. Huge thank you from me and Karolina to Yvonne, Martijn, David, Karen, Friederike, McCoy Tyner, an anonymous fireman from Cambridge, MA (whom we exchanged opinions about firetrucks with), and the whole Cloudreach NY team.
- As Polish neo-conservatists, my whole family was initially a strong supporter of both wars. I am ashamed of it now. We all are, right? ↩
- Except, perhaps, London. ↩
- Let me give some extra context for the non-Polish readers. Poland, these days a strongly anti-socialist country, has always been very close to the US in terms of political cooperation and general admiration. Polish political class has always been looking up to the US, the US has also been historically our strongest ally (or at least it is very often depicted as such). Polish political scene itself is very bizarre by European standards, because it lacks any sort of left-wing party (except for post-communists that don’t have any credibility after numerous corruption scandals and young, new parties that haven’t gotten much traction yet). So while Poles generally acknowledge higher living standards and better economic conditions in Western Europe, when it comes to socio-political issues they are much closer to the program of the Democratic party in the US (and much more on its conservative than the socialist end of the spectrum; no one would vote for Bernie there). After 50 years of communism the general distrust towards welfare programs and state-owned enterprises is pretty easy to understand, and as a side effect I’d say most Poles esteem the US much higher than Western Europe, considering it a more “noble” emigration destination. ↩