From Sea to Shining Sea

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The "Lost Generation" isn't a rebuke, it's an invitation. Who wouldn't want to get lost with Stein, Hemingway and Miller in the winding streets of Montmartre? Waltz the poverty line with George Orwell? Sleep on the floor when the sofa won't do, let the sloping lines of an attic apartment be your horizon when the rain beats down above. Wake up every day in a country that is no longer foreign, but certainly not your own. The invitation beckons.

Of course, the power of departure has faded with time. What is an expat these days, but a holiday-maker seduced by better medical benefits and sunnier beaches? Compared to the traffic that zooms overhead, the Silk Road was little more than a winding country lane.

The departures and arrivals board at Singapore's Changi International Airport is a nomad's book of revelations and would make Ibn Battuta throw up his hands in despair.

Yet, for "global citizens," Americans remain fairly isolated. Only 30 percent of all Americans have passports. One might argue that this is because of our geographic isolation, but that argument falls short when confronted with the fact that 60 percent of all Canadians (Canadians!) own passports. I believe that our seclusion lies in the sheer expanse of the United States, not only geographically, but culturally.

As Americans, we are generally not confronted with cultural "otherness." We turn on the TV to watch American television and go to movie theatres to watch American films. The music we listen to is in English and most encounters with different cultures come in hyphenated form: Chinese-American, French-American, Mexican-American, etc.

Last week, my roommate and I watched the 1995 movie "Before Sunrise." When Jesse, the American, is surprised by the fact that Celine, a French girl, speaks English, Celine jokes, "I knew you were American. And of course, you don't speak any other language, right?"

That made me squirm.

I am hopelessly monolingual - though, like Jesse, I have been attempting to learn French for over six years, but I would not trust myself to order a cup of coffee in Paris. I have nightmares about being asked to roll my R's in public, only to be publicly denounced for my Californian drawl.

In many ways, though, it is easier to learn English than any other language, simply because of its ubiquitous nature. My Dutch roommate and I both shared a love of "The West Wing" and "Grey's Anatomy," but needless to say, I had never heard of the hit Dutch TV show, "Boer Zoekt Vrouw" ("Farmer Seeks Wife").

However, relying on others to understand our culture is dangerous. Though modern cities have identical facades of concrete and glass, we should not assume that their inhabitants believe the same things we do. My own naivety was brought home to me during a discussion with a friend on France's ban on the hijab in public schools. For me, such an action was indefensible - it violated all basic rights of personal liberty and freedom of expression.

My French friend listened to me and then quietly pointed out: France is not the United States.

What he meant, was that I had made an error in assuming that the emphasis on personal freedoms we hold in the United States is universal. In other cultures, society, family or national identity is often held above individual freedoms - a radically different way of thinking than ours.

That is the true difference between here and there - not the way people dress, the spices they add to their food or the way they use their cutlery. The difference is in the details, in what others hold to be true and self-evident. That makes it all the more dangerous because values are not things we can learn about in a guidebook.

We need to be able to understand those differences in the 21st century. Since before I can remember, the media has been prophesying the end of the American age. This is, I think, a somewhat fatalistic and inaccurate way to describe the shifting of political power.

What people are really heralding is an end to American hegemony, what Fareed Zakaria calls "the rise of the rest". The key to solving climate change does not lie with curbing excess in the United States or the European Union, but on the type of lifestyle the Chinese population is going to claim in the years to come. As a child of immigrants, I can tell you that we cannot rely on Silicon Valley to concentrate wealth and talent in this region in the way we once did.

This is scary, but it does not have to be. Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian and political thinker, said this about the United States: "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults." There is a whole world out there to explore, a world too large and spectacular to fit into any Disneyland ride.

I think we need to leave our shores, not to lose ourselves, but to discover who we, as Americans, will be in the 21st century.

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