America, I hoped, is where everything is all right. The homes are impressive, large, and clean. People are friendly, and progressive in their thinking. Everybody drives, but traffic is orderly and efficient. Social justice abounds, and even those who abuse it — because there must be a few — have reasonable limits.
While waiting for our refugee entry visas in Athens, my wife and I often went to the American Cultural Center, located in a large, modern building, where the front door opened and closed with a reliable thud, the tiled floor was shiny, and the bookshelves, tables, and chairs were sturdy and color coordinated. That’s how America is, I said to myself: modern, abundant, and sturdy.
That was in the spring of 1977. The world was different then. The Soviet Union was our enemy, and Romania, where I grew up, was a communist country. In school, we had learned about capitalist greed, aggression, and racial discrimination in the United States. We dismissed it as propaganda.
While in Athens, we already knew that health care could be a problem in America, but we were young and willing to look at it as a challenge for the future. We had seen A Clockwork Orange, and while the movie gave us chills, we dismissed it as a Hollywood fantasy. In America, violence couldn’t be all that bad.
In June of 1977, we boarded an Olympic Airlines jet bound for New York City. As we started our descent over New England, America, from the air, looked the way I always imagined it: busy highways, homes surrounded by healthy green gardens, swimming pools, unending stretches of woods, shiny bodies of water, speedboats, bridges, and church steeples. Kennedy Airport overwhelmed us with its bustling activity. We passed through Immigration, retrieved our four suitcases, walked unimpeded through Customs, found our meeting point, identified our sponsors, and proceeded to our new temporary destination. We were going to a hotel in Manhattan, and my pulse was at hundred and twenty beats per minute or higher. Our future had begun.
It was mid-afternoon, and I spent the drive into the city glued to the car window. There wasn’t much to see on Van Wyck Expressway, but as soon as we veered onto Queens Boulevard, I felt let down. The street was wide, but the buildings, the sidewalks, and the store windows looked shabby and unappealing. Provincial. Anemic trees grew in front of small red brick buildings. Billboards and supersized sale signs abounded. Small flags strung on wires traversed gas stations and car dealerships. Debris rolled with the wind. There was no architectural unity — only an accumulation of stuff, and an air of intense commercialism. I, of course, withheld judgement.
As we crossed Queensboro Bridge, the sun was reflected in the thousands of windows of the Manhattan skyscrapers. The canyons of the city met us with a stony and impressive indifference. We had entered a different world — a new world — no longer disappointing. I felt insignificant — maybe.
While waiting for our visas in Greece, I had received a letter from a Romanian friend of ours who lived in New York City (he was our age, and had immigrated with his family years earlier). ‘America is not perfect,’ he wrote, ‘but it’s the best there is.’ At the time, I noted his comment, and dismissed it as trite: ‘Of course, America’s not perfect. I don’t expect it to be.’ Now, in the middle of Manhattan, with tomorrow on the line, the imperfections we were sensing were no longer theoretical. They became immediate and real. They were ours.
That evening, and the many mornings and evenings that followed, I set out to discover what was best in America, and I found a lot of good things. All in all, America had accommodated us. It helped that we spoke English, were educated, and our skin was white (I learned this last detail is not to be mentioned). In less than six weeks we were both employed, rented a one bedroom apartment in Riverdale, had furniture, and owned a brand-new American car.
During my first year in New York I read a book I loved, Ragtime by Doctorow. There is a scene in which Sigismund Freud, after leaving New York for Vienna, concludes that ‘America is a gigantic mistake.’
In 1984, after becoming American citizens, I had an opportunity to work for two years in Denmark. We had two children then, but we eagerly moved. I was still wondering if Freud had been right. At the end of my overseas assignment, based on everything I had seen and experienced in Denmark and Western Europe, I concluded that if one has to be an immigrant, then America is the best place to be.
This blog is not about the details of my adjustment to life in America. And it is not meant to describe the way America looks to its newcomers — its cities, buildings, mountains, and shores. We learned quickly there are many Americas that blend into one.
The blog is about what I hoped America would be in terms of people and society, and what I am still discovering every day. I think that healthcare policy is a serious problem, and as a society, we are more aware of it today than at any time in the past. I think the huge income inequality needs to be addressed, before it leads to social unrest. Access to a solid, world level education has to be improved. People need to read more and learn more. I now know that racism is real, and I am ashamed of it. Capitalism, while driving the economy forward, follows the rules of the jungle, and needs limited and intelligent human intervention. American militarism is often excessive — the world is not our own backyard. I think climate change requires our immediate attention, gun control is a good thing, and of course women are equal to men.
This list can go on, and it reflects my personal views, my hope for the present, and for the future. Yes, that’s what I thought I would find in America, the shining, flexible, open minded, kind, and progressive city on the hill; and even though I found it tarnished and messy in ways I did not expect, now I know it’s OK. Because if I learned anything in the last forty years, it is not that America is the best there is, but that we have the freedom and duty to make it the best it should be.
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