America As The World Sees Us
Wednesday - November 25, 2009
Some of the best writing ever done about America came from the pens of foreigners. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835, 1840), James Bryce’s The American Commonwealth (1888) and Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944) lead any list of perceptive readings of the United States.
The Frenchman Tocqueville traveled throughout the 19th century’s most democratic nation and wrote two extraordinary volumes on the nature of the world’s most egalitarian society. Lord Bryce offered an English constitutional scholar’s description of American institutions that in many respects remain unmatched. And Swedish sociologist Myrdal examined the great contradiction of egalitarian America in the mid-20th century: The failure of the United States to fulfill the promises of its founding documents and the Civil War.
Foreigners bring fresh eyes to what many of us, immersed in the assumptions of our American lives, simply can’t see. I’ve never met a Tocqueville, a Bryce or a Myrdal. I undoubtedly never will. Nonetheless, I always find myself fascinated by their responses to what is my everyday environment.
During a recent weekend on the Big Island, I met a German couple who were spending their vacation in Hawaii. They both worked for the government of a city in central Germany: the husband in security, the wife in social work.
Their employer gave them six weeks of vacation a year - an eternity by the standards of most American workers - and each year they devoted half of it to a lengthy trip. This fall they devoted three of them to Hawaii: a week on Hawaii Island, a second week on Kauai and the third on Oahu.
I spent an undergraduate year in Germany, loved the place and its people, and so offered them my 25-cent tour of Honolulu. I warned them that it would include a professor’s extended disquisitions on history and politics, but they took me up on it anyway.
I met them following their tour of the Arizona Memorial. I drove them into town, my jaws flapping all the way about Kalihi’s historic role as an entry community for immigrants to Hawaii and the Bishop Museum’s preeminent place as a repository of things Hawaiian.
We went first to Chinatown, ate lunch at Little Village and walked the open markets.
I apologized for the city’s all-to-evident homeless population. “We have a homeless problem too,” said the social worker wife, “but we also have a great deal of public housing. So we can usually get them apartments.” We don’t, of course, have a great deal of public housing.
I showed them the Capitol District. They oohed and aahhed over Iolani Palace (and returned later to take the tour); took pictures of the statues of Queen Liluokalani, Father Damien and King Kamehameha; and went into the Capitol itself and the fifth floor to look at gubernatorial portraits of the nation’s first Japanese, Hawaiian and Filipino governors.
We stopped at Aloha Tower’s Gordon Biersch - as Germans and a fan of Germany must - to drink beer. They asked about the American debate over the healthcare bill. I told them it was about cost and our country’s fear of socialized medicine. “Healthcare (socialized) in Germany is expensive,” the husband admitted, “and the cost is going up. But no one would ever consider abandoning it.”
They asked about the shrill criticism from some quarters of President Barack Obama. “We don’t understand it,” said the husband. “Europe loves him. In Germany, hundreds of thousands turned out to hear him speak. Our German politicians these days are not very exciting. If you don’t want Obama, send him to Germany. We would make him chancellor immediately.” Sadly, some of my countrymen would be happy to do just that.
So I took them on an Obama tour: a drive through the UH-Manoa campus where the president’s parents met, a pass by his alma mater Punahou School, and then makai a block to see the apartment building where Obama as a teenager had lived with his grandparents. We finished at the King Street Baskin Robbins, where the future president scooped ice cream.
My German guests seemed pleased. When I dropped them at their rental car, they each gave me a quarter.
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