Back in the day, I used to be obsessed with spinning my mom’s Neil Young records. There was a particular album, “Time Fades Away”, that I religiously put on in the mornings as I got ready to face another daunting day of high school. I remember crooning along to my favorite song as I did- “L.A. Uptight. City in the smog, city in the Smog”. He repeated the line many times in that song, so all these years later I knew of at least one thing to expect when I got to Los Angeles: that’s right, air pollution. And that it did deliver, but ironically, the City in the Smog turned out to be a much-needed breath of fresh air for me in a time when the atmosphere of our nation is feeling so heavy with hate.
While, unfortunately, the air quality of Los Angeles has not improved in the last half-century or so since the song was written, I’d like to think that we’ve come a long way as far as civil rights and equality are concerned over the years. Yet sadly, this belief of mine came under fire when the week before my trip, our country was rattled by the events of Charlottesville, Virginia, after a sickening outcry of hate ended in tragedy.
Like so many Americans, I was disturbed to learn that what I thought were our basic, American values have become so unraveled in these tense times our country is facing that a public display of racism and hate of this magnitude could actually occur here in the present day. We saw that backwards, nationalistic ideas that should be long dead are being kept alive and well by groups of people who, under the current administration, have felt even more emboldened in their evil and outdated beliefs. So emboldened that now they are crawling out of the woodwork and showing their faces. Past leaders of this country fought hard to eradicate such inhumane ways of thinking and build a nation where all men are created equal, but the current one has managed to give supremacists a voice again. In my lifetime, I haven’t seen the United States so sharply divided as it is now. I shuddered watching the news that week, troubled and wondering, “what is happening in my country?”
It was with these thoughts circulating in my mind and my heart heavy for my country and the world that I took off to see my best friend Melissa in L.A., knowing that seeing her was sure to make my spirits soar as it always does. And that it did, but this time for reasons other than just how much fun we have when we are together.
The purpose of this trip was strictly for spending some quality time with my best friend, but because my best friend is so awesome, she took it upon herself to make sure I got the real, L.A. experience. For her, that isn’t Hollywood. She wanted to give me a glimpse of the Los Angeles that she grew up in- the glimpse that became the “breath of fresh air” which inspired this post.
My friend grew up in an immigrant family in Pasadena. She was born in China but moved to the U.S. when she was four. She is in every way as American as me- in fact, we met each other as fellow American English teachers in Spain and immediately bonded in that way that fellow expats tend to do while abroad. That bond has gone above and beyond your average expat camaraderie: we have remained best friends since the years we taught in Spain, making sure to speak regularly and not let more than a year go by without seeing each other. This year, that visit happened in LA.
I think because of her background and our shared interest in travel and diversity, Meli wanted to give me an alternative L.A. experience. That included things like taking me to a free concert in MacArthur park on a Sunday afternoon, where families from many different backgrounds and walks of life were just hanging out, enjoying the day.
“Everyone wants to do Hollywood when they come here” she explained, “but this is the real LA.” Sitting there people watching and observing what was going on in the park, I knew that she was right. It felt as if we could be looking back on a scene from a quarter century ago. “Los Angeles, 1990” we joked. It is and always has been, a city of immigrants. Sure, it may also be the dwelling place of the rich and famous that our society holds up so high, but looking beyond the limelight you can see the true magic of L.A. It wasn’t Hollywood that built this city: it was them.
I was seeing it that day front of me, the United States of America that I know and love- that I am. How can we face such brutal intolerance in a place that is and always has been the world’s greatest melting pot?
Of this, there is nothing more telling than the conversation that happened one afternoon around the lunch table at Meli’s house, while I was happily devouring a feast of home-cooked Chinese dumplings, a tradition that required lengthy preparation and a ritual which goes back generations, with the entire family in the kitchen taking part. Her father asked me about my heritage and where my ancestors came from. I automatically rattled off, as all “Americans” can do, the four of five different countries that form my collective ancestry: Greece, Austria, Norway, Ireland. I heard there is even a little Native American in there somewhere. How crazy- a family of Chinese immigrants asking me about my background, over a bowl of dumplings made with all the TLC that goes into tradition. Across the street there was a small market with a line out the door and a man selling street tacos and tamales outside. The Armenian men who run it attempted to communicate with their Latino clientele in broken English. Around the corner there was a Korean church; around the other corner, an Orthodox church. Everyone has a different story about how they got here, because everyone came from somewhere else. It doesn’t matter if it was this generation or two generations before it.
That is my kind of America.
The thing that I have always loved and appreciated about the United States whenever I have come home from abroad is the great array and breadth of colors, accents, and outward appearances that can be observed here and yet, despite obvious physical differences and unique origins, they can all call themselves American. People in other countries don’t have the concept of heritage quite like we do here, as evident in my friend’s family questioning my roots over lunch. They have been here long enough to know that everyone is from somewhere else somewhere down the line, that’s one of the great hallmarks we can boast of being American- along with, well, ya know…. freedom and equality (duh!) -those human liberties that our country was founded on, and that all of us who were created equal are supposed to get to enjoy.
I have spent most of the last ten years an expat, and now more than ever it’s hard for me to feel a strong attachment to this country, seeing what is happening here and how the rest of the world regards us. But that visit to L.A. reconnected me with some old feelings of pride for my country at a time when it’s been difficult to conjure them up, reminding me that this is the real America: the melting pot. Some puny politicians and puny people might try to make us fear for that, but at the end of the day, they are just that: Puny. Small. Pathetic. Fortunately, I live in a country where the so-called “minorities” make up the majority. That is truth, and that isn’t going to change. Hate will not win here.