This week I had the opportunity meet a young man by the name of Naif in Saudi Arabia; wearing his traditional dishdash (white turban) with Arab garb; we had something in common; about 15 years ago, he came to school in the US; he has fond memories of the 2 years he spent in the US and how he fell in love with Americana. We talked about his long drive from Indiana to Florida one winter, and the changing weather and landscape of this truly memorable journey.
During summer, I met a successful Swiss businessman, Benny, in Zurich, who has two American vintage convertibles in his garage, a Harley Davidson and a wall in his living room, that is decorated with license plates from all the US states where he has traveled. He spent a year as an exchange student in Kansas and calls the host family his own family. Even his patio furniture has an American flair and there is absolutely nothing you can take away from his love for the American lifestyle.
Almost 45 years ago, both my parents came to the US and returned back to their homeland in 1963; in our Bangladesh household, everything American was considered sacred. We ate home-made onion rings, ice-cream floats and pizza, none of which were common faire in Bangladesh at that time. I heard that my father cried the day President Kennedy was assassinated and my mother, to this day, reads every Kennedy book she can get hold of. It was this visible love for America in their eyes, that inspired me to aspire to reach out and try and experience this concept called America.
There is a common thread to these three inter-generational stories; when you are young (and often impressionable) and introduced to America and the ability to create your version of Americana, this taste of unfettered freedom, typically, creates an unforgettable and undeniable bond.
In 1985, when I arrived at the University of Missouri- Columbia, there were some 1700 International students from over 115 countries who studied in every possible field of science, arts and commerce. My Nigerian friend Shade was going to be an Agro Economist and Adnan, from Turkey was going to be an Astrologist.These folks, when/if they returned to their home countries, like the protagonists in the stories above, would take back a piece of America that will create a soft corner for this country, that is simply unshakable.
Recently, I sat through a lecture by author, Salman Rushdie in Boca Raton; he asked us to examine why the world fears America so much; Is it because we are the only nation (ever) to have used nuclear force? Or is it because we have declared unjust wars on people in far-flung places, based on unsubscribed principles?
I realize that the American people have never had a vote on foreign policy on whether we should support apartheid regimes in South Africa or tyrannical rulers in Saudi Arabia, Iran (the Shah), the Philippines (Marcos) or Pakistan (a series of military juntas).
However, as an American, I know that in the heartlands of America, doors have always been open for all those who knocked and wanted a glass of water, on a hot day. I personally experienced this in the 4000 people town of Fredericktown, Missouri some 23 years ago. This is the true sense of America. Irrespective of the controversial policies pursued by our government, I believe America has some of these best Goodwill Ambassadors in the world.
There are hundreds of thousands of men and women, who one day experienced the ultimate freedom of America, and could never really let that Americana go. Today, these Goodwill Ambassadors are around the world in influential public and private sector roles making major policy decisions on business and legislation. Felipe Calderon, the President of Mexico is an American graduate and two members of the current Chinese Government are also products of the US higher education system.
America needs to keep these doors open towards international students; We need to help shape these young minds as it did for my father some 50 years ago. This is our best investment in creating an environment where America is not feared, for the poor decisions that our government occassionally makes, and we as citizens have to pay the price when we travel overseas and find ourselves in vulnerable security conditions. I know that Canadias, Swedes or the Swiss don’t have to be as cautious, as I am, when travelling overseas.
The America I know, in the heartlands of Ohio, Missouri, Michigan or Pennsylvania, is neither malevolent nor a war-monger. We don’t deserve this reputation of fear. Let’s keep opening our educational institutions and our homes to young people from around the world, so they experience the best of America, in America.
When these young men and women go back, I assure you, they will not fear America. They will stand up in their own treacherous nations, for our values. These are the best Ambassadors we can have.