June 6, 2009
Joining the Peace Corps and moving to Cameroon wasn’t the first time I left the United States. I’ve been to Canada and a few places in Europe, but it’s the first time I’ve lived abroad. For this and maybe some other reasons, it’s the first time I’ve really identified myself as an American. Before, it was just where I happened to be born. I didn’t think it really changed the person I had come to be. I knew that it changed the circumstances and opportunities I had grown up around but I never realized how American I had become.
One thing I’ve learned about myself since joining the Peace Corps is how culturally American I actually am and how proud of that fact I have become. I have heard some people say that America doesn’t have a culture – that all of our traditions come from elsewhere, that compared to Europe or the rest of the world we don’t really have our own set of customs. I couldn’t disagree more. Look at the fourth of July, Halloween, Easter, and Christmas – Americans have very specific traditions for these and every other holiday. Then there are some countries who complain of their culture disappearing. What’s replacing it? McDonalds, Pizza Hut, the NBA, and R&B – American culture. But our culture goes deeper than what we do and eat and listen to. It goes to the core, our way of seeing life and the way we think life should be. Americans have a strong desire for hard work, efficiency (sometimes too much), freedom, and democracy. While we don’t live in this utopia, we still strive for these ideals. We have a need to give equal treatment and opportunities to all. I like that. If a CEO of a Fortune 500 company wants to buy a copy of the Economist in an airport press shop, he’ll still wait for the 5 year old kid in front of him wanting a candy bar. He might think in his mind that he is more important and know that he’s in a bigger hurry than the kid, but he will wait nevertheless. This is something I took for granted before joining the Peace Corps. It’s easy to think that concepts like ‘unalienable rights’, ‘a more perfect union’, and freedom of speech are just things that we learn in school, only important for judges or politicians. But these concepts seep into our very being. We come to respect them without even knowing how important they are to us. We are very lucky to have the principles of our nation created by the founding fathers. They were very enlightened men. And those principles do not exist only on old parchments on display in museums. They exist in the hearts and minds of Americans.
One very concrete event and advance toward that ‘more perfect union’ was the election of Barack Obama. I have no need to hide the fact that I am a big supporter of Obama, but even those who don’t like his policies must admit that his election was a very important step in moving reality closer to our ideals. It brought us closer to our ideals of racial equality. The actual election of Barack Obama didn’t change the reality of the US or its people but there was a shift of paradigm, or our way of interpreting that reality. There are many who believed there was a glass ceiling for blacks or other minorities. There are still plenty of hardships to overcome but no more ceiling. And that paradigm shift was not only for Americans or of America. I think I am safe in sayting that the majority of Cameroonians see themselves, or at least think they are seen by the West, as second-class citizens of the world. The election of one of their own, an African American with a Kenyan father, into the highest political office in the world brought with it respect and pride for those outside of America too.
But Obama’s campaign was about more than race. It talked about our ideals and hopes in just about every domain – about not settling for what we have but always striving for what we want and know to be right even if it seems unattainable. A simple example of this is gaining the necessary intelligence to win a war on terrorism without torturing detainees. Agree or disagree, it’s your right. Before boarding that plane for Africa, one could have rightly labeled me as an idealist. After two years a lot of realism has seeped in about the possibility (or lack thereof) of changing the world but I still appreciate the importance of ideals. We will never make it to that perfect utopian society, but if we don’t try to move towards it we’ll stay in the same place forever.
Barack Obama is just a man, but he represents a lot to a lot of people. I’m proud he’s my president. I’m proud that he stands for my ideals. And I’m proud to be an American.