Ezy Reading: One Year Inside The Land of The Free

Evan Kanarakis

This last month I passed my first full year of living in the United States.

Australia is a blessed place, there’s little doubt, and though I’m far away now from the familiar faces and scenery of my rural hometown of Bathurst and the inescapable hum and spirit of Sydney, with so many family members and friends deeply rooted there, at risk of sounding a little too much like a Peter Allen song, I’ll always call Australia home. Still, after nearly thirty years in the one place, and especially in the interests of expanding my sphere of experiences as a writer, I felt it was time I set forth overseas again, and so it was that in July of last year, after a long (and, admittedly, somewhat random) selection process, I came to settle in Bangor, Maine.

To be fair, the cultural and other differences between Australia and America aren’t so significant that I was going to have a truly difficult time adapting to life in a new country. It wasn’t as if I was moving into a village in far northern Pakistan without so much as a Berlitz phrase guide to help me out (“Um, excuse me sir, but how does one say, ‘I need some fucking Imodium?”). Coming from the generally warm year-round temperatures of home, winter was easily one of the bigger adjustments I had to make, but perhaps because it was still something of a new adventure (when did I ever need a plank of wood to pry open my frozen car door every morning, for instance?) and also, as the locals kept reminding me, that much milder a season than usual, I actually quite enjoyed the chills and the snow.

America is a land of total choice, wherein the consumer rules above all else, and though Australia isn’t far behind in this respect, it is still an eye opener, and at times an exciting one at that. In a restaurant, you have it your way, no matter how complicated the request… In the supermarket, if we don’t have your preference, we’ll sure as shit get it in ASAP… In the car yard, every colour and size of vehicle you could ever have imagined… On the television, you want a channel just featuring shows about how to make quilts? You’ve got it, damn it, along with 3,000 other channels you’ll never watch. It’s spectacular. Everything is bigger, and everything that just came out is bigger and better than what came before. I’d never even known there were so many types of bread that existed until I ventured into my local grocery store searching for a simple, plain loaf of white bread, and so believe me, unless you know exactly what you want, be prepared to spend plenty of time looking for it (and you still haven’t even entered the condiments aisle yet when all you want is a regular jar of mayonnaise -what the hell is a Dijon-Texas Rub-onnaise, anyway??).

Does it get obscene? Sure it does, but it makes for an interesting experience.

But there are other aspects of America that don’t lend themselves so easily to adaptability. I’m regularly befuddled by the politics of this country, and with two and a half years still left on the current administration’s watch and several heated matters the world over only appearing to further fester, it’s all cause for serious concern. I suppose the last twelve months in Australia haven’t necessarily fared that much better, from race riots to matters involving the Australian Wheat Board and ongoing tensions with Indonesia, but there’s a worrying defensiveness that seems to be growing among the average American citizen, prickly with the rest of the world, at times loathe to accept even constructive criticism, and instead knee-jerk starting to urge for renewed isolation, not just from places like the Middle East, but right down to building a big bloody wall along the Mexican border to keep the aliens out.

I tend to agree with the assessment recently offered by such commentators as the New Republic’s Peter Beinart. I don’t think most critics of the United States necessarily want her to disappear completely from the world view, but rather they are looking for that America of old –that nation which used to inspire us, that spearheaded movements in matters of civil rights, intellectual innovation, and promoted social justice- to emerge once again. I’ve spoken enough in this space before of the dramatic change in the political landscape and rhetoric that has taken place here in America of late, but it begs repeating that it has to be one of the most spectacular political missteps in history for a nation with as much global goodwill and support in hand as America had immediately after 9-11, to in such little time have now found itself almost universally the target of major criticism and reassessment of its policies and practices in the world.

But the kind of lucky ignorance that some in America seem to currently be clinging to can’t last, and indeed the chinks in the armour have already appeared- it’s in the rising number of troop deaths, the rising costs of petrol, the widening poverty gap, and a louder and louder chorus of dissent from abroad and within that is gradually starting to be heard even within America’s quietest and most remote corners. Presidential change might be two and a half years away, but it will still be interesting to see how much change exactly will take place on the November 7 mid-term elections of this year as there are growing voices within the United States from citizens that are recognizing their leadership has wandered astray for far too long.

And yet for all this talk of politics let me not leave the overall impression that I’m living in a country I find wholly troublesome- indeed far from it. There is much to love about America, and, misguided at times or not, there really is an overall spirit and industriousness among the people here that is quite infectious and admirable, even if the more cynical among us can find it easy to scoff as the Stars & Stripes are being thrown up yet another neighbourhood flagpole amid talk of freedom and liberty. But even as rhetoric, all that flag waving, freedom and liberty counts for something so long as it is matched with a little wisdom. Americans are, on the whole, incredibly positive people, and though we may arguably be in the midst of a ‘rough patch’ in this nation’s history (to put it lightly), that positive nature leaves me hopeful for the future.

And so, in the words of the Fox News Channel (ahem…), with a ‘fair and balanced’ approach and open eyes, to stay a while longer and learn; to gain more of an experience and open view of this nation and recognize all that colours and enriches it as well as understand what darkens and drains it- well, that’s why I plan to linger here just a little longer.