And then, when I was a senior in college, this happened:
That's the stock market crashing in 2008. It happened in October, and after that, there were no jobs... anywhere. I was supposed to be graduating in a few months and I couldn't get a job working at Starbucks. I couldn't get a job at a gift store. I couldn't get a job at a hot dog stand (I tried, actually). I couldn't get a job at a magazine or newspaper working for free. I couldn't find a company-- literary or otherwise-- willing to let me come into their building and do their own work for them for free.
So when I graduated in May, I said "screw you" to the United States and went to India to teach English. I'd studied abroad in India, liked it, and wanted to go back. I got placed in a very tiny village in Gujarat, near the Pakistan border, and was put in charge of classes with about 50-60 children. The village was very traditional; we wore saris to work, slept in a room connected to the school grounds which had an eight o' lock curfew, and ate only vegetarian food that was prepared for us by cooks employed by the school. Like most women, we were expected not to drink, smoke, wear pants, show our shoulders, or be loud. Arranged marriages in the village were, and are, the norm. Here are some pictures from me at that time:
I loved the kids I taught in my class, and I became close with several of the other Indian teachers at my school. I did and do still love India, but within a few months of starting my job, I began noticing a reoccurring fantasy I had of being back in San Francisco, walking down the street, wearing whatever clothes I wanted. In the fantasy, I always had dyed hair and lots of piercings. That was the thing I missed and wanted the most-- not particular food or even family, but just the ability to walk down the street expressing whatever idea I had about who I am through my physical appearance. It seems small, but it's something I had always taken for granted.
The more I live abroad-- it's been more than five years now-- the more I realize how very, very American I am. I value honesty and openness more than good manners. I think individual expression and autonomy is important-- that people's individual stories and experiences matter, and possibly matter more than tradition or maintaining the status quo. I think individual stories and experiences matter because if they don't matter, then human rights very quickly go out the window.
The flip side to all these good things is arrogance. Feeling entitled to express yourself at all times can very easily shift into egotism and disregard for others. In Japan, at least, the main point of Zen practice is to go beyond whatever small self is wanting to express itself with dyed hair and piercings. My teachers tell me over and over again that the main point of Zen practice is to "forget the self." In many ways, I've found this style of Zen practice incompatible with the American value of individuality.
Many people are surprised to hear that Japan has a caste system, much like the one in India. The caste system in Japan is not based on racial differences and was arbitrarily created, placing poor villagers, butchers, undertakers, etc. at the bottom. This lowest caste group is called, "Burakumin," and for centuries they lived in slums and rural communities. In the last half of the 20th century there was a lot of social progress, but there is still an issue of marriage discrimination. To this day, older parents will sometimes look up the backgrounds of their children's fiance to check that they are not Buraku. For centuries, Buddhist priests played a large role in the codification and maintenance of the caste system. Since Buddhist temples were in charge of keeping birth and death records for the community, they were the authoritative source on who was and was not lower caste. Priests would often change the names of Buraku people on gravestones and in record books so that the names became things like "beast," or "animal." Because Buraku people couldn't read, this was a way for the priests to be able to identify which families were Buraku, without the Buraku people themselves knowing they were being segregated. Since the 1980's, the Soto School in Japan has made a concerted effort to stop what's known as "sabetsu kaimyo" or discrimination mortuary tablets. I've sat through many a mandatory lecture on Buraku discrimination and the history Buddhist priests's maintenance of the caste system. For the most part, though, these lectures only begin to scratch the surface of what I see as a much larger societal problem of disregard for human rights.
|The entrance to the Buraku Liberation Research Center, bearing the graphite "Die, eta." Eta is a slur for Buraku people.|
America is far from perfect about human rights, but we have made significant progress and at least we have the language and theory to articulate issues of racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of oppression. We have language, precedents, and bureaucratic avenues to address injustice, which is saying a lot. Many of the same issues that made me leave America in the first place are still there. There's still a huge wage gap; we still spend more money on weapons than on education, health care, and transportation combined; we have lots of people murdering each other, and of course, a whole lot of white people murdering black people. I could go on, but I don't want to, because I'm trying to write about the good things and why they matter.
As Rebecca Solnit wrote recently in the Guardian about social change, " There are bad things and they are bad. There are good things and they are good, even though the bad things are bad." There are some really good things about America. Most people can chose, for the most part, what they wear and how they present themselves. We're encouraged from a young age to think independently and critically. We just legalized gay marriage. Women can chose who they marry, and whether or not to have children. I would like to repeat that one for emphasis: woman can choose who they marry, and whether or not to have children. We don't experience war or displacement from our homes in mass numbers. Very few people die from things like malnutrition and dehydration. And at least in metropolitan areas, everyone looks different. Not everyone is the same ethnicity. These are big things.
I don't think America is the greatest country in the world, and I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm "proud to be an American," but I also know that I am an, undeniably, and American, and I always will be. I have American values, and I can't shake them. I'm okay with that, because there are some beautiful things about America. Even though the bad things are bad, the good things can still be good.
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