I had planned to do some more canvassing in Pennsylvania for Obama on Monday, but Sunday was such a drain. I was emotionally spent. So, I couch-potatoed half the day away. I didn’t want to see anyone. The phone was ringing, my friends were reaching out, but I wasn’t in the mood to be reached.
Every evening before my trip home had been spent devouring every thing available on the net about this election, and blogging. But, since my arrival in NY I had been trying not to think about it. I didn’t want to ponder the most pressing of questions: “what does it mean if he wins?”
Well, it was time to ponder.
An Obama win was the unthinkable not a year ago. Not unthinkable in “he’ll never raise enough money,” or “his position on abortion is too controversial,” kind of way. Unthinkable in the I WAS NOT BORN IN A COUNTRY THAT IS CAPABLE OF ELECTING A BLACK MAN AS ITS LEADER kind of way. I mean, it went against everything I thought I knew about the US. It seemed almost un-American to toy with the idea. Extraordinarily cruel and fiendishly wicked to dangle the impossibility as they have, I thought.
Visions of a handful of old white power brokers smoking cigars and drinking pricey liquor deciding the next president dominated my thinking, not unlike these guys from one of my favorite movies, Being There:
And I never believed in a million years that any of these guys would say, “How about this Hawaiian mutt with the Islamic name and exotic background? He seems pretty, I don’t know, electable. Let’s give him a shot.”
But, everything that had happened during the campaign pointed towards a Barack landslide. McCain’s only chance of victory was if a whole lot of white people decided to stay home and sit this one out or suddenly got behind that curtain, looked at that ballot and said, “Oh, Hellll no! What the fuck was I thinking?” And if those were the only two ways McCain could win, then this thing was over. Because if the people I’d canvassed in Pennsylvania were any indication of the people across America pledging their support for Obama, no way would this so-called Bradley Effect occur. I think the predominant vibe I got from the Pennsylvanians was that they were of the mind “If Barack loses it won’t be because of us.”
So, what would it mean?
To me, an Obama victory would mean everything, EVERYTHING, I ever thought I knew about my country was mostly bullshit. That the country I thought I understood I really didn’t understand at all. I liked to think of New York as the ideal America, and I knew NY would support Obama. When I say America, I always mean those people who supported Bush the second time. These people I couldn’t believe really existed. I could understand them putting him in office in 2000 what with all the nonsense generated by the Clinton administration (and if you set aside the whole Florida thing) but the 2004 election established these people as beyond…well, beyond my understanding.
But, even before then I thought I knew America. I had experienced America vicariously through my parents and teachers and their experiences were mostly horrible. Even the evidence before my eyes couldn’t invalidate the impression they instilled in me. As an adult, I could look around me and see that America wasn’t necessary black and white, but green. Clearly America was about the money. Money and ability and belief in one’s self…and a little bit of luck doesn’t hurt, either. It was about those who have these and those who do not, and aside from a few ignorant people here and there, trapped behind the color line, these were the deciding factors in how one progressed in America. And, I actually lived my life according to what I experienced more so that what my parents and teachers had. Of course, white privilege was and still is a reality. But, I could attribute that to just bad cultural habits more than some organized agenda by the man to keep the people in their place.
But, from time to time, especially when a crisis would arrive, I’d feel that lowest common denominator pulling me down. This damn race thing. Rodney King, James Byrd Jr., just to name a couple. These types of incidents reminded me of just how how close we were as a country to our dark past. But, on the other hand, I could look at Vernon Jordan, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice. And I knew that progress was being made.
And, that’s exactly what an Obama victory would mean, I decided. That America had truly progressed…no more, no less…ok, perhaps a bit more. (-:
In my apartment in Yokohama I have an American flag. It’s about the size you might find on a front porch or in a flowerpot. I keep it on my desk. I don’t know why. At least I didn’t until today.
I didn’t realize that although I did not feel that America was all that she had claimed to be or had the potential to be, that I had been harboring all along a secret desire to be proud of my country; a secret I even kept from myself. And, I have the Japanese to thank, partially, for revealing this secret longing to me. Though they’d never admit it, the Japanese are nationalist. They’d deny it on a stack of whatever texts are sacred to them, but I watch them. i watch them at the bars during a World Cup soccer match or an Olympic event with a Japanese contestant. They’d say it’s niwaka aikokusya (にわか愛国者) or instant nationalism, but it shines through and it’s extreme. I see it when there’s a sumo tournament and they must yet again watch a Mongolian Rikishi walk away with the Emperor’s Cup. I hear it in how often they use the word Japanese as an adjective to distinguish their country’s products and ideas from others…from rice to dogs to plastic bags. The equivalent would be like an American saying, “do you like American rice?” or “Do you know how to use American can openers?” Yes, they might be a few generations removed from the loyalty the Imperialism of earlier times mandated but Japan and all things Japanese hold a prominent place in the hearts and minds of most the people here. And, they ain’t ashamed to show it. And, living among them and among this nationalistic energy tampered with my harbored desires.
For example, in Japan I often find myself in the awkward position of defending American products and ideas that I honestly never really thought twice about or felt any particular allegiance to, like Coca-Cola or Disney.
“I’ve never been to Tokyo Disneyland…” I responded to a one of the teachers in the office one day who asked did I like it. Shock swept across all their faces. “Uso!” stop lying! some gasped.
“Nande???” Why not? one asked.
“Well, I don’t really like Mickey Mouse. When I was a kid there were 3 famous cartoon mice. Mighty, Jerry and Mickey, and of the three, Mickey was the corniest. ”
(By the way I was a HUGE Tom and Jerry fan! Not to mention Itchy and Scratchy!)
“How can you not like Disney??? You’re American, right?” It was like they were offended. To them, it was almost the equivalent of a Japanese person not speaking Japanese or bashing the emperor. Which, I suspect, brought them to the ridiculous conclusion that I was not an “average” American, and since I represent all African Americans in their eyes, it meant that African Americans were not “average” Americans, something to add to their Yappari arsenal. They actually questioned my nationalism based on whether or not I held affection for an outdated icon and an amusement park.
“I like Coca-cola, though” I said in my defense, taking a sip from mine and giving them an “ahh, now that’s American refreshment” face. But, the damage was done.
“Cola is poison,” the vice-principal blurted out. “It melts bones! Japanese Green tea is healthy. That’s why Japanese are healthy people and live long lives.”
“It’s what???” I responded, a little shocked myself. “Poison?”
Of course I knew Coke wasn’t exactly a health tonic, but I took it personally the way he’d called it poison. It seemed to me like an indirect way of saying America is poisoning the world and by virtue of being American I was a representative of a nation dead set on melting the bones of Japanese and any other race I could get to suck on my poison…
“Deshou?” he said, like everyone knows what you guys over there are up to.
“Well,” I said, “Green tea is high in caffeine!” I wanted to add: no wonder you guys can work 12 hours a day 6 days a week, but I didn’t.
They all looked around as if they were seeking confirmation of my claim in the one another’s faces.
“Deshou?” I added. “And caffeine is a drug. An addictive drug!” I wanted to say: all of you guys are junkies, but again I didn’t. Though I’m sure they could hear it in my tone. Japanese drink green tea like the rest of the world drinks coffee.
I’m terribly defensive sometimes. The things I do for America. Scenes like the one above occur quite frequently here in the land of products that start with the word, “Japanese.” And, after five years, I now have an arsenal of brain-stumping and/or sarcastic comebacks for most of their nationalistic assaults. Especially the ones that attack America.
Yes, it’s a strange feeling defending a country you abandoned.
That night I went to the next place on my list of must eats: Juniors, in downtown Brooklyn. Junior’s is actually located across the street from the University I attended, LIU Brooklyn campus. It brought back a lot of memories being there. Junior’s is famous for Cheesecake. Once you’ve had a slice of their cheese cake it’s pretty difficult to ever call another cheese cake cheese cake. You’d sooner call it imitation cheese cake. I stood in the line…there’s almost always a line for cheesecake…and through the window I could see my alma mater. It had grown in the years since I graduated. Two new buildings had been erected and a great deal of renovation had been done.
Originally, my school had been a movie palace and theater. Really. It was called the Brooklyn Paramount, and hosted many famous performers from Duke Ellington to The Beatles.
I wonder what the people who lived at that time in Brooklyn, would think of Brooklyn now. Maybe the same way I was starting to feel about Brooklyn: like it was ever-changing and will never be or feel the same again. I guess there are worst things a theater could be turned into, though. There was another famous Movie Palace in downtown Brooklyn: The Albee. It should have been a landmark but they tore it down when I was a kid and built a shopping mall. I guess Joni Mitchell said it best: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
But, Junior’s cheese cake is still the same: delicious. I ate it while I watched an old Peter Sellers movie…I didn’t know it then but the next day my country who I’ve defended to the Japanese so vigilantly would reward my unsung efforts by electing the first African American president.
You’re probably thinking I could have experienced this all from Japan being that I was just laying on my landlord’s couch eating cheesecake and watching old movies…but tomorrow I would learn there’s nothing quite like being there.
Here’s the hilarious final scene from the film, Being There
PS: I’ve written, and am in the process of revising, a novel. It’s unrelated to my experiences in Japan. If you enjoy my writing and have a little free time please check out: Real Gods require Blood. I’ll be posting it chapter by chapter.
Thanks in advance