Seeing America Through New Eyes

This post originally appeared in PBS Next Avenue

In 2011, at 50, I took early retirement from my job as an air traffic controller, left Texas and began traveling the world. Since then, with the exception of a few short visits back to see family, I’ve been hopping from bases as diverse as the Chiapas Highlands of Central Mexico to my current home on the banks of the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. Last summer, I returned to the U.S. for a month-long road trip from Maine to Texas and it made me see America with new eyes. That’s a nod to Marcel Proust, who famously said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.” With those words in mind, I wanted to see how my perspective had changed about the land I still call home.

Wandering the World’s Greatest Cities

During the last five years, I have learned the meaning of hospitality by living with some of the world’s poorest people in indigenous villages on the Laotian border of Southern China. I have seen first-hand how fragile once great civilizations can be while hiking the ruins of Palenque, Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat. I have wandered many of the world’s greatest cities, from perspectives as different as top-floor penthouses and crowded slums.

Ironically, even with all my traveling, it was returning to explore America again that made me a bit wary. I was excited to be able to show my British partner, Sarah, the part of the world where I grew up, but was also a bit concerned about how seeing things through a new lens would affect my view.

First Stop, Crossing the U.S. Border

Just Across the Border in Fort Kent, Maine, USA

Just Across the Border in Fort Kent, Maine, USA

After a stop in Canada, we decided to start our U.S. journey at sleepy Fort Kent, Maine because it’s the northernmost point on iconic Highway 1. What would normally have been a simple two-minute border crossing for me was complicated because I was traveling with an “alien.”

I couldn’t tell if it was because the United States has recently grown more wary of foreigners or if the agents manning the border that day were bored, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) folks decided to do a thorough inspection. This involved innumerable questions, but most were like, “Why does your passport have so many stamps?” “Do you have Ebola?” “Why are you traveling together?” And “You are British and you are American; how did you two meet?” It was all very polite and professional, but I got the feeling they were trying to trip us up or perhaps catch us in a lie.

They left us inside the INS building while they inspected our car. Though thick plate glass windows, I could see the INS agents thumbing through the paperwork in the glovebox, lifting the hood, looking under the car with little mirrors, lifting the rear hatch and then opening each piece of our luggage. It took the better part of an hour, but we must have passed all the tests because eventually, we were on our way.

I had never been chosen for “secondary inspection” while crossing a border anywhere in the world before and to be honest, it weirded me out a little. I wasn’t expecting a parade on my arrival to the U.S. and I know the INS has a ridiculously tough job, but as a first impression, I can see how new arrivals can get put off.

On this side of the border, the first thing that struck me (besides the breathtaking scenery) was the proliferation of flags. They were everywhere. It seemed that there wasn’t a peopled place anywhere out of sight of Old Glory waving on a pole, stuck to a car or painted on some surface.

A Love of Flags Hasn’t Flagged

I have always known we Americans are a patriotic lot, but I hadn’t really noticed before the extent to which it is in such open display. Was perhaps all this flag-waving intended to set us apart from the rest of the world, or perhaps a way to mask a fear of terrorism? All I know for sure is that as the trip went on, from far north to far south, flags were almost as much a part of the landscape as the clouds and sunshine.

Ironically, it seemed that in many of the less-well-kept or more impoverished areas there were, even more, flags than other places. It was as if they felt doubling down on their patriotism could somehow raise them out of poverty.

I have always known we Americans are a patriotic lot, but I hadn’t really noticed before the extent to which it is in such open display.

From the backwoods of Northern Maine to the tangle of freeways in Houston, it was, however, a pleasure to be driving on good roads. In third world countries, you can learn to get used to always being on defense while driving on bad roads, but after a while, it takes a toll on you. With some variability from state to state, the U.S. roads were well marked, wide shouldered and smooth. Also, it was a surprise to see people actually driving politely, defensively and following the rules.

Before I started my global travels, good public roads and trained drivers were something I’d always taken for granted. On this trip, being able to travel at reasonable speeds without being subjected to bone-jarring bumps and potholes every few yards, was a luxury.

American Style Portions (and yes, there were of course fries)

American Style Portions (and yes, there were of course fries)

What I Became Thankful For

I cannot begin to say how many times I noticed, and was thankful for, the regulations here that make life so much smoother. When you spend most of your time in places where drinking the wrong water can mean a trip to the doctor or a moment’s inattention could result in falling into an open sewer, you learn how great it is not to have those worries.

Drinking water from the tap, restaurant and meat inspections, building regulations, and safety rails are all things I promise not to take for granted again. America is often accused of being a “nanny state” and I suppose some of that reputation is deserved. You can’t legislate the risk out of life, but as a person who is constantly bashing his head on low doorways and occasionally tripping down unlit stairways, I can tell you that having some minimum safety standards enforced is a wonderful luxury.

You would think so much choice as a visiting consumer would be a luxury as well, but I am not so sure.

During much of my time away from America, I have been living in, and visiting, places where people don’t have nearly as many options as here — or as much opportunity for consumption. At one point during this trip, I sadly realized that some of the poorest people I know have never been “shopping” (that is, searching for a purpose to unload spare money); at best, they’re only able to purchase a few necessities.

Too Many Choices?

Having too much choice is definitely a first-world problem, but I have to say it was disorienting to have 30 different kinds of breakfast cereal at the supermarket or 50 cell phone models and service plans to choose from at the electronics shop. Trying to constantly pick among the supposedly “best” products, options, add-ons, insurance and warranties can get overwhelming.

Sarah actually felt this a bit, too. One time, when we were at one of those huge outlet malls, she found me and said, “Let’s leave, I can’t stand it, there are just too many things to choose from.” It was the same in restaurants with menus three inches thick and dozens of beverages to pick from. Sometimes, I’ve discovered, there is luxury in not being overwhelmed by too many choices.

It was disillusioning to discover that eating healthy in America can be budget-busting expensive.

Although “fast food” and “fast casual” were easy to find, healthy options seemed virtually non-existent. We shopped a little in grocery stores and were distressed to find how expensive unprocessed fruits, nuts, and vegetables were.

Intuition would tell you that the less preparation, packaging, and processing that goes into food, the less it should cost, but apparently, that’s not the case. Living in Laos, we can walk five minutes to our local market and get straight-from-the-farm eggs, meats and vegetables for just a dollar or two a meal. To get unprocessed food in America, it seems you have to go either to an expensive, upscale grocery chain or a hipster weekend market.

Catching Up With Friends I Met in Mexico in North Carolina

Catching Up With Friends I Met in Mexico in North Carolina

A Consistency Among Americans

The road trip was a great opportunity to make new friends, renew old relationships and catch up with family. It was incredible reuniting with Americans we’d met while they were traveling overseas and staying in their homes, getting the latest news in person from old friends and even striking up conversations with strangers in grocery store lines.

There was something almost universally consistent among them — an almost nervous energy, and in many, a kind of perverse pride in how incredibly busy they were. It was as if they thought they might be judged negatively for taking time during the day to simply enjoy themselves.

People also seemed to be a bit more on edge and fearful than I remembered, almost as if they were afraid that some force was going to do them harm, take away what they were striving for or somehow unalterably change their daily routine. You could see it reflected in, or perhaps caused by, the constant stream of news and information that they were exposed to. There were even commercial messages disguised as news emanating from tiny TV screens embedded in the fuel pumps at gas stations. Almost all the news I saw was sensational, but very little of it had significance to daily life.

Maybe it is just the places I have lived, but the rest of the world seems less obsessed or threatened by faraway events they have no control over. They are more focused on life with their family or neighbors than the latest hypothetical threat from faraway places.

Everyone had opinions, but some I couldn’t comprehend.

I remember one conversation with a great friend about the worldwide refugee problems and especially how he feared the Central Americans coming to the United States. I pointed out that they were, for the most part, desperate people seeking to escape poverty and violence in their home country and that he had little to fear from them. I also pointed out that under similar circumstances he would probably cross borders to seek a better life for himself and his family, too. I will never forget his reply: “You know Jon, you have been away in Southeast Asia too long. You have no idea how bad things can get.” I wanted to laugh, but decided not to press it.

The Ugly American Stereotype Is Wrong

If you follow the news about the United States from overseas, it’s possible to get the impression that Americans are among the most self-centered, bigoted and least hospitable people on the planet. But when you visit the United States and actually interact with people on a personal basis, I found, the truth is just the opposite.

I just wish the more of my countrymen and women would make more of an effort to get their kind voices out. Everyday, Americans are quietly doing wonderful things to make someone’s life, their neighborhood or even the world a better place; they need to do a better job getting their stories told. Patience, thoughtfulness, and empathy are things to be proud of, not weaknesses. I think it is time the world saw more of what I know are real Americans.

Sarah's First Time in Texas

Sarah’s First Time in Texas

What I’m Confident About Now

While writing this piece, I became aware that maybe I haven’t changed as much as I think I have. I am still the untidy mix of contradictory opinions and values that most Americans are. I can’t be sure if, after having been away for a while, I now see America more clearly or if I’ve just developed a different set of prejudices and opinions. One thing I do feel confident about: hidden behind all of America’s confidence and bravado lurks a remarkable, but somewhat normal country, that is still struggling to find its identity.

Although I am not ready to return “home” on a permanent basis, knowing that hidden vulnerability makes me love America more than ever.

Author: Jonathan Look

In 2011 Jonathan Look decided to change his life and pursue adventures instead of comfort and possessions. His goal is to travel the world solo; one country at a time, one year at a time. To accomplish this he got rid of most of his possessions, packed up what little he saw as necessities and headed out. His goal is to spend ten years discovering new places, meeting new people and taking the time to learn about them, their values and their place on this tiny planet. He embraces the philosophy that says a person is the sum of their experiences and rejects the fraud of modern consumerism that makes people into slaves of their consumption. He doesn't intend to be modern day ascetic, just more mindful of his place in the world and to make decisions according to that new standard.

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  1. Oh my goodness, where do I start? I guess first I should tell you how much I like your writing skills. You were able to make me (a writer) feel as if I was about to learn about something that’s a mystery to me. I couldn’t stop and HAD to keep going.

    My thoughts:

    The border: I’m sorry you had to endure the experience, but I am so very thankful for their due diligence. I prefer over cautious to “just go on through”. There are just way too many evils out there that want to hurt us. (But I do struggle with this because I’m one of those people known as “fixers”. You know the ones that think there’s good in everyone, or they can do anything, or if I could just help them see what they’re doing… yada yada.)

    Flags: I absolutely loved reading flags were everywhere. For me, it shows patriotism like you said, but it also shows they believe in and still have hope for their future, for Americans, and for America. This makes my heart happy for them.

    Burger: That’s a big burger. Did you eat the whole thing with the fries? 😉

    Choices: Yes I get overwhelmed with too many choices at times. It takes me sometimes up to days to decide on the right “one” to buy. And, since I’m a food blogger in Atlanta, some menus drive me nuts with all the choices. With this said, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’d rather have them to choose from than to be forced to choose from a few. 🙂

    Opinions: You’re a better person than I am. I would have laughed and told him how narrow-minded he was and to shut the front door. Here’s that struggle I mentioned up top. One minute I’m on the “don’t let them cross the border!” and the next “they just want to escape their torturous lives and have peace of mind, food to eat, medical care, etc. and be able to sleep without fear.” I know I can’t have it both ways, but like the old saying goes, “one bad apple makes it hard for us all.” I hate the conflict the conflict my heart and brain battle with. It’s really a shame we don’t have a “doohickey” to sound off when it’s not a healthy minded person with kind intents wanting to cross over into our bubble we call the USA. And we Americans, we do live in a bubble, but I feel blessed to be in my bubble.

    Ugly Americans: We think the same, Jonathan. I’ve often said, “if you only knew us” you wouldn’t hate us. I guess we are self-centered but we’re just as not self-centered. I agree with everything you said.

    My opinion – Those who hate us for being “spoiled” Americans and feel we should be punished for it; who are they to tell us we can’t aspire to be great, make great things, make our system better, always be looking to the future and how we can make it better. I’m so very sorry for their daily lives and I wish I could help change them. Why can’t the world just get along? (I know there is so much more behind the “Ugly American Stereotype” and my intention is not to make light of it. There’s just not enough time to type it all out.)

    In closing, I want you to know that I’m happy you found me on Twitter and I’ll be following you closely. I can’t wait to read all your stories.

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    • Thanks, Linda. As I am sure you are aware, travel opens your eyes to so many things. Whether it be discovering new places, or giving you insight into old ones, traveling and experiences are things you can spend money on that makes you richer. (Yes, I ate the whole thing!)

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    • Super writing, the best style ever, I saw your piece on Marketwatch today. I am from a small town in SC, farm town, and moved away, I went back but it was dead, nothing had happened. Some times you find the town a cemetery, sometimes you find everything you knew is gone(as you say missing). I dont know which I prefer, maybe the cemetery, vs the cementary. Because I can ‘still’ walk among the trees that are still there and the paths and dirt roads that haven’t been displaced. I too lived in East Tx for a time, went to college there, and have been gone 25 years now and so much has changed there(but I want to go back). I want to now set out to record the the places I lived, and loved and go back tell the story before time marches past and leaves me behind. Because it will. Its kind of diary only in reverse. Our parents didnt have cameras on their phones to record their past and show their children, its a first in human history, I think its important to show our children, and the next children the perspective we had, how it changed and what it made us to be.

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  2. This is an excellent thought provoking piece. As a visitor to America, I have found arriving at an airport and going through border control to be the most stressful of any country I have visited. My American family though, cannot relate to this as with dual nationality, they always travel with their American passports. This contrasts to when actually inside the country, I’ve found Americans to be some of the friendliest and most helpful people anywhere, something my fellow British citizens should aspire to. I’d agree with you that they are some of the best and most courteous drivers in the world too (except Vermont- a state I love in every other way!).
    I appreciate border guards have a job to do, but they should remember that they are the first impression visitors get of their country, many of whom have come as tourists to spend money and sustain jobs.
    I think some people can be a little intimidated by all the flag waving, as America is the world’s most powerful country and maybe doesn’t need to assert itself. They maybe far more tolerant and have a more positive attitude to such patriotism in a small country. Funnily enough, I have recently visited Northern Ireland and noticed a similar phenomenon in as far as the poorer the district, the more flags there are for which ever state they hold allegiance to. Perhaps the most marginalised people feel the greatest need to assert their identity?

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