When I arrived in the US in 1967 as a graduate student, I was full of excitement, enthusiasm and hope. I had one clear objective in mind. However, with time, my ideas and aspirations evolved, and so did my understanding of the American society, politics and culture. In the 55+ years in this country, I have ridden a roller coaster of understanding of and attitudes towards America. You might imagine that after so many years in this country, I would be comfortably settled in my views and attitudes towards my adopted homeland. You might also guess that I am unambiguously in love with America and everything American. Unfortunately, your guesses would be partially correct. Let me take you through the different phases of my feelings about America and the American society, politics and culture.
My Initial Game Plan
I had come to the US to earn a PhD in my field and then return to India. My hope was that I would find a position in India as a professor or a researcher at a highly reputed university, research institute or company. Professionals trained in Europe or the US generally received higher salaries and better positions than those trained solely in India. I had come to America because scholarships and fellowships were more plentiful here than in Europe – because America spent a lot more on R&D than all the European countries combined (excluding Russia).
When I arrived in the US, I had a clear game plan. I wanted to finish my PhD program, find an employment at a university or a research establishment for 18 months as a “trainee”, and then return to India. To go back, I would need to save at least the airfare. Moreover, I wanted to have enough savings to help me tide over a period of unemployment that was likely to face me upon my return. The “18-month traineeship” was the maximum period of “gainful employment” allowed by the US government for foreign students holding F-1 visas (like I did). I had estimated that for this plan to be successful, I needed to save about $5000. I would spend $1000 for airfare and leave $4000 for me to live on during my initial period of unemployment in India. Many other Indian graduate students came to America with similar plans during the 1960s and 1970.
Love at First Sight
For the first several months, I loved America and all things American. Beautiful buildings in big cities, charming homes in small towns, large and shiny cars everywhere, superfast multilane highways, smoothly flowing traffic, well-stocked supermarkets, impressive university campuses, friendly professors and classmates, informal and welcoming attitude of Americans to foreign students, never-ending push for improvement and innovation, and so on and so forth. To borrow Ronald Reagan’s famous words (which he uttered many years after my entry into the country), America was indeed “the shining city on a hill.” What was there not to like, especially for a young student from a developing country who had never seen such plentitude before?
China Politics, India-Pakistan War & The Watergate Scandal
I was deeply saddened to see Hubert Humphrey (Democrat) lose the 1968 presidential election to Richard Nixon (Republican). But when Nixon announced in 1971 that he would visit People’s Republic of China (PRC) the following year, I thought it was high time for America to establish direct political relationship with the largest country in the world and stop pretending that Taiwan was the real China.
However, thanks to brilliant investigative journalism by Jack Anderson, the world soon came to know of the secret dealings of Nixon (and Henry Kissinger) with Pakistan to pave the way for Nixon’s visit to China. Worse still, the “Anderson Papers” revealed that Nixon had intentionally “tilted towards Pakistan” when millions of people from East Pakistan took refuge in India to escape the brutalities inflicted on them by the ruthless West Pakistani army. As we all know, when Nixon rejected pleas from Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister of India, to intervene, India fought a decisive war with Pakistan, liberated East Pakistan – and the country of Bangladesh was born in December 1971. For a Bengali from India, this whole cynical game of geopolitics played by Nixon and Kissinger (and the Republican Party) with the lives of millions of Bengalis in East Pakistan, while preaching “humanitarian values” to the world, was a shameless act of hypocrisy. Not surprisingly, this episode turned my love for America into impotent anger and hatred. How could America preach one set of values while practicing the exact opposite for selfish gains in geopolitical powerplay?
Then came the Watergate scandal and the investigations that followed. I had finished my PhD by then and was working at the General Electric Research & Development Center in Schenectady, NY, as a scientist. The realization that the president of the US had knowingly and actively engaged in planning and condoning illegal acts and was deeply involved in cover-up activities was the last straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. As a result, I clearly turned into an America-hater.
Go Back to India or Stay in the US?
As these big events were playing out on the national scene, I (and many other graduate students and post-doctoral research scholars) constantly struggled with one soul-searching question: should I go back to India after finishing my graduate program (and 18-month traineeship, if available) as originally planned, or should I make America my permanent home?
On one hand, I liked the many opportunities America offered such as the high standard of living, merit-based professional career, access to world-class research facilities and association with top-notch peers, and the potential for significant savings that would allow me to send more money to my family back home on a monthly basis.
On the other hand, I felt deep inside that only the greedy ones among us would betray their country of birth and become citizens of a foreign land for “a better life.” I was raised and educated in India, at virtually no cost to my family. I even got a loan from my state government to pay for my airfare to the US. So, did I not owe it to my country of birth to return -- and serve it in some capacity?
Additionally, I was truly conflicted over the differences in the societal values and norms of the two countries. In America, I liked the informality of the people, the constant drive for mechanization, efficiency and innovation, the heavy emphasis on self-reliance and independence, and the no-job-is-too-small mentality and the can-do spirit at all levels of the society. But I was at a loss to accept the “commercial” relationships between parents and their kids. A 9-year-old kid was expected to go on a “paper route” on his bike very early every morning to earn pocket money? An 18-year-old was expected to borrow money from his parents so that he could buy a car or go to college? When parents were really old, the adult children had no obligation to look after their old folks? Did I really like the American values of innovation and independence more than the time-honored, familial interdependencies of the Indian society and the all-pervasive respect for the elderly?
At the end of a period of intense introspection (with thoughtful support of my wife), I decided to embrace the American values and stay in the US on a permanent basis. Together, we decided to stay and pursue a professional career here, and yet try our best to practice and preserve some of the Indian values in our private lives.
The one aspect of the American society that was a very big plus in these considerations was the ability of America to change and adjust rapidly. Simply speaking, I liked the dynamism of the American people and their institutions. I saw how the country put the horrors of the Vietnam War behind and moved on. I thought the Watergate scandal would rip the country apart, but it did not. After a period of debate and acrimony, the country moved on to other pressing issues. President Johnson’s brave, progressive laws survived the 8 years of Republican Party rule and Richard Nixon’s cynical leadership, and America stayed on a positive course, to my great satisfaction.
Oil Crisis, Japanese Competition and American Response
The seventies, eighties and nineties gave plenty more evidence of American resilience and dynamism. The Oil Crisis of 1973 shook the economies of the Western world in general, and United States in particular. I have vivid memories of searching for gas stations that had gas available and the long lines of cars that snaked several blocks, waiting to get a few gallons. The Oil Crisis caused huge inflation and high unemployment that lasted quite a while. But the country withstood that shock and the economy bounced back after a couple of years.
Then came the near-death experience for the American auto manufacturers and the semiconductor chip-makers (and much of the American manufacturing sector) in the hands of the Japanese imports that were better and cheaper than our homemade counterparts. Many pundits started predicting imminent death for many American companies. But, lo and behold, America fought back with great vigor, and many companies became “lean and mean” to regain their competitive positions in their respective sectors. They learned from the Japanese many new concepts and implemented them swiftly – with their own innovations thrown in.
During President Clinton’s last four fiscal years in office, the American government enjoyed budget surplus every year, and the ratio of public debt to GDP dropped from 47.8% in 1993 to 33.6% in 2000. The Federal government had not enjoyed this level of financial well-being since 1970 – and the Clinton era records have not been matched by any administration since 2000.
America entered the new century with high hopes and abundant confidence. And I found myself once again in love with this country.
9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq – The Dismal Years
But that love soon turned into a deep sense of loss and foreboding when Osama bin Laden unleashed his small army of Islamic terrorists on America on September 11, 2001. The country unified behind President Bush as he launched a war on October 7 against the Taliban government of Afghanistan that had sheltered and supported Osama bin Laden. Like most Americans, I wanted the Taliban to be punished for killing roughly 3000 innocent American civilians. Little did we know that this war would continue for 20 long years with tremendous prices to be paid on both sides.
Unfortunately, President Bush was not satisfied with just the war against Afghanistan. He decided to invade Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein under the pretext that Saddam was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and America needed to destroy terrorist strongholds before they could cause massive damage. There is no need to go into the many twists and turns of the Iraqi war and the subsequent creation of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), a devastatingly destabilizing force in the Middle East that caused huge damages to Iraq and Syria for many years.
The Bush era was a truly dismal period in modern American history. President Bush suffered a huge decline in popularity, and the losses in terms of human lives, armaments and money were simply staggering. When Bush left office in 2008, America was standing on the world stage as a wounded and non-trustworthy power. And one was left to wonder if terrorism by religious fanatics around the world was reduced at all by any of Bush’s actions.
Election of Obama, the First African American President
Not surprisingly, the party of Bush was convincingly defeated by the Democratic Party in the 2008 elections, and the country elected Barack Obama as the president, the first black person to hold that high office in American history. It was hard to believe that the country that had espoused slavery for centuries and had fought a civil war to protect the rights of slave owners to buy and sell black people like animals had finally reached this historic moment. Every corner of the world rejoiced at this development, with the fervent hope that racism was finally on its last leg in America. My cousin called me from Kolkata at midnight when the news about Obama’s victory broke on the airwaves. He simply said, “I cannot believe that America has done it – has elected a black person as president! This is just beyond belief!”
In my love-hate relationship with America, this was the moment for me to loudly renew my vow of love for the country
Arrival of Trump and the Darkest Chapter in Memory
Sadly, Donald Trump became the President after Obama by defeating Hillary Clinton in the electoral college votes (although Hillary Clinton soundly defeated Trump in popular vote count). During the campaign, the nation had learned so much about Trump as a deeply flawed and loathsome human being that many of us were stunned by the improbable victory of Trump. But he was the victor, and he ruled the country with a three-part agenda: (1) Stop, deny or eliminate every good act by Obama; (2) Create a “Trump Cult” that would be blindly followed by his followers even when he spread complete lies; (3) Re-ignite the worst human instincts like racism and xenophobia that had gone dormant for a number of decades. Trump started building a wall across the states bordering Mexico to stop immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries. And he issued executive orders to stop Muslims from coming to America, even for family visits. He also created the worst political polarization between Democrats and Republicans that I have seen in America in my 55+ years.
When he was soundly defeated in 2020 by Joe Biden (Democrat) in the elections, he tried to hang on to power by inciting a huge mob to attack the senators and congressmen on January 6, 2021, and stop the “election certification” process in progress on the senate floor. His battle cry was “Stop the Steal”, meaning that he was the actual winner, and the Democrats were “stealing” the election from him! Even today, nearly 30 months after that day of insurrection, Trump keeps repeating his big lie to stir up his cultish followers.
History will remember Trump for what he is: a failed president who was impeached by the house twice; a one-term president who could not admit to himself that the people had lost faith in him; and a coward who tried to hang on to power by an insurrection. Trump is undoubtedly the worst American president in my lifetime in the US.
My respect and love for America took a huge nosedive during the Trump years. I sincerely don’t know how the damage done to America by Trump will be repaired or how long it will take for the country to return to its earlier path of greater tolerance, integration and civility. I do not like the America I see now but I hope and pray that soon we will put the “Trump experience” behind us – and the United States will once again be the “shining city on a hill.”
(Posted July 1, 2023)
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A Love Story … With Many Ups and Downs
Vietnam War, Race Riots & Moon Landing
After my first six months in the country, I began to slowly but steadily become aware of the many darker sides of American society and politics. In turn, my love of America began to get eroded – and replaced with an increasing sense of disappointment and bitterness.
When I arrived, the Vietnam War was raging on with full force, and protests against the American involvement were getting stronger and stronger, especially in college campuses like ours. Students drafted into the military were dying untimely deaths in some far away country in southeast Asia. The War had started before I arrived in the US but it was no longer just an item of news in the daily newspapers or on evening TV broadcasts. It was a very real part of the American daily life, and we, as students, felt its impact up close and personal. When President Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for reelection, riots erupted in front of the Democratic Party’s National Convention in Chicago (1968), and we all saw on TV the horrible overuse of police force to quell the demonstrations. One of the direct consequences of the ill-fated Vietnam War was the electoral defeat of Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee, and the victory of Richard Nixon, who went on to become infamous in his own unique way. The Vietnam War left America wounded, demoralized and dramatically divided. And I came to realize that the American governmental policies are not always in line with the interests and demands of the majority of its citizens.
The evil of racial discrimination had a strong presence in America for many, many decades before my arrival. And I would come to know much later that it was especially strong in the state of Indiana where I was attending graduate school (John Birch Society was established in 1958 in Indianapolis). However, living in a small town in a semi-rural setting with close to 25,000 students on campus, I did not face any overt acts of racial discrimination during my time in West Lafayette, Indiana (from 1967 to 1971) or the roughly two years I spent in Dayton, Ohio (from 1971 to 1973) where I worked as a post-doctoral research fellow. But there was always a lingering sense of discomfort and unease in my mind about the presence of racial prejudice and discrimination in American society. I just did not know how to react to it publicly or privately.
When Martin Luther King, Jr, was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, the day after delivering his prophetic “I have been to the mountaintop” speech, riots spread like wildfires across more than 100 cities across the country. On TV we saw houses and cars burning, mobs looting stores, and police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at unruly crowds. A deep sense of loss, bitterness and dread filled hearts of many students, including foreign students like myself, although we had much less exposure to or knowledge of “Jim Crow” rules and the pervasive nature of racial discrimination in many American states.
While the Vietnam War and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, spread dark shadows over the nation, all the divisions, disappointments and discords were forgotten for at least one golden day of victory and jubilation when on July 20, 1969, two American astronauts set foot on the moon. Our campus was especially proud and festive because Neil Armstrong -- the astronaut who famously said, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, as he became the first person to set foot on the lunar soil -- was a graduate from Purdue’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
I came to realize much later that, during my college days, I was unknowingly embracing the ideology of the Democratic Party, even though much of the blame for the Vietnam fiasco could be placed at the doorstep of that party. I sensed that Democrats cared more for the poor and the disadvantaged, the need for unionization, and were against racial discrimination in all its forms. Their “liberalism” found resonance in me because it was similar to the ideology I was exposed to as a young man growing up in India.
Waves of Progressive Policies & Laws Enacted by President Johnson
President Johnson’s years in office are usually remembered for the tragedies of the Vietnam War. However, he successfully passed some monumental laws that have left huge marks on the American society. Most notable among his achievements were Medicare and Medicaid programs for the elderly and poor Americans (1965), Civil Rights Acts (1964, 1968) that outlawed segregation, and the Immigration & Naturalization Act (1965) that eliminated the systemic discrimination against immigration from Asian, African and other non-European countries. While the Vietnam War and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, made me bitter and angry about America, the progressive policies and laws pushed by Johnson and the Democratic Party made me hopeful and excited about America’s future.