A few years ago, when I was flying home after being in Vietnam for more than a year, I took the opportunity to binge-watch the in-flight movies like everyone else does. Eventually I touched my screen to choose “La La Land,” which I had not yet seen.
I distinctly remember the feeling I got from watching the opening sequence where a whole Los Angeles stretch of motorists stuck in gridlocked traffic suddenly jump out and dance on the roofs of their vehicles while joyfully singing “Another Day of Sun.”
Having grown accustomed to how Vietnamese society operates, it sent a warm jolt of realization through me that also acted as a poignant sense of homecoming.
“This is what it means to be an American,” I thought. “This bold and relentless optimism.”
It’s hard to tell how much this inherent optimism still shines today. After such a contentious election, it’s clear as day that this country is starkly divided. Everyone sees that the American Dream is not as accessible as it used to be, but we can’t agree on how it got this way. We all of a sudden perceive corruption, manipulation and behind-the-scenes trickery everywhere; this has most recently manifested in those who continue to believe our president’s continued claims—still shown to lack proof at multiple levels—that the recent election was stolen from him by way of widespread fraud initiated by the “deep state.”
If this is your conviction, then what I’m about to say probably won’t ring with any meaning for your ears.
Things might not look very optimistic right now, but they could be worse. And they could be worse in a way much more visible than the grand allegations that are buzzing around social media at the moment.
I don’t want to knock any of the countries that I’ve visited overseas. They hold some of the richest cultures around and some of the nicest people you will ever meet. But plenty of them have serious issues that made me look at my own country in a whole different light.
Take Vietnam, for instance. Living there for a few years made me privy to how deeply rooted corruption can be, especially in a once-war-torn, one-party state where going against the status quo can come with serious consequences.
Before then, I had never heard of prospective professionals needing to “apply” for seemingly average jobs by bribing employers with as much as a year’s worth of salary. I also experienced firsthand a police body that is widely known for making its living off of arbitrary traffic stops, inflated fees for all sorts of permits, and other shady activity. There is no clear path toward fixing messy problems like these, which affect the opportunities available for ordinary Vietnamese citizens.
Or gaze a bit at India, where ancient religious and social divisions—combined with a burgeoning population— have created its own severe stresses on the system. Floods of candidates compete for even low-paying positions that you or I would simply overlook. Insufficient government budgets and endemic corruption have left infrastructure barely functioning in some places, nonexistent in others. The well-supported Hindu nationalist party in power has passed legislation that, according to many, blatantly disenfranchises much of the country’s Muslim minority.
India also introduced me to extreme poverty. It imparted something of a pessimistic outlook on me, one that figured that not everyone in the world can afford to even simply dream of substantially improving their lives, as the towering harsh realities they strive within would just crush such hopes.
So what is it about America? Are we just damn lucky?
These are challenging times for the nation, sure, but we don’t really have problems as bad as those mentioned above, and it’s hard for me to see them arising here under almost any circumstances. Rampant corruption and other related issues flourish when economies are still developing, and chronically low salaries create an environment where money has an even greater degree of power and self-interests trump social responsibility. This and many other factors remain in our favor. Beyond an apocalyptic resetting of the world as we know it, we’re due to remain “developed” well into the future, no matter what (fingers crossed).
As many daunting issues as we face, I believe that, for most of us, our habit of looking forward to the future has not altogether descended to abject hopelessness. We like to look back into the past and point to milestones that show how, despite this country’s deep flaws, we have slowly become better.
Maybe this optimism stems from the days when this nation advertised itself as “the Promised Land” for all those immigrants who came to find a better life here and, in turn, helped build the country up. Who knows why it has remained imprinted in our ethos.
I just hope I’m right in that it is still alive, somewhere.
Contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.