I've been on the road for over the past two weeks, exploring the cultural maelstrom that is America. Growing up in Canada, America has always been familiar to me...yet it takes more than just scratching the surface to understand this place. Stretching from coast to coast are dozens of different cultures and sub-cultures, all with their own customs and dialects. They are all wrapped up in competing perspectives and political agendas, stewed together in the melting pot that is America. You could spend a lifetime here and never quite understand everything about the country, precisely because it is brimming with SO many communities. That, in part, is what made America great: it was a land where (at least on paper) everyone could make a go of it — whatever that it may be.
But it has become painfully clear during my visit that the American Dream hasn't quite translated into real life.
Coming to the southern states was quite a shock. Arriving in Charlotte, the city seemed both quiet and calm. More than that, though, it was clean. Skyscrapers shone, newly built, and the sidewalks were free of all the clutter one expects in an urban center. I was impressed.
But then I started to notice the details.
I saw armed security guards outside of banks. I saw police cars patrolling the streets on a suspiciously-regular schedule. Under bridges were the sheltered remains of the impoverished, their few possessions stashed away from the elements. Bus stops were makeshift homeless shelters, crowded with blankets and bags and the homeless people they belong to — all of whom were people of colour. The economic divide here falls hard and fast along racial lines, a divide that followed me into Atlanta, Alabama, and Louisiana.
I have never seen more gated communities in once place than I have in the south. On more than one occasion I was the only white person riding the public transportation. When I brought this up with a local afterward he couldn't help but shrug.
“Here, white people drive. It's just the way it is.”
I've seen handfuls of black kids on the street, drumming on plastic bins as they hassle tourists for change. The parents stand nearby, watching,, relying on that income to keep the family fed. The last time I saw something similar was in poverty-stricken Cambodia.
What I find interestingly juxtaposed to this economic inequality is that the people here are consistently friendly. I've been included in more conversations in public, on busses, and at stores here than anywhere else in the world. People say good morning. They smile. Even the homeless guy who slept on my porch in New Orleans greeted with with a warm good morning. While I'm a stranger here, I get the impression that the communities here have stronger ties. I suppose they have to, in defence against the depressing onslaught of growing economic and social inequality.
As a white kid from Canada I'll never fully understand what it means to be black in America. Hell, I'll never even grasp what it means to be white in America. What I do grasp, what is blatantly obvious as I criss-cross my way around the country, is that the American Dream needs fixing.
Because where I come from, we'd consider this a nightmare.