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As America is celebrating her 238th birthday today, our nation is faced with serious challenges both internationally and domestically. Just a few months ago, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Today, Iraq is falling apart and exposing America to much bigger terrorist risks than before the Iraq War began.
Domestically, our economic recovery is slow. We also have serious issues with education, the national debt, personal finance, obesity and crime. Though America is still the strongest nation in the world, we are not advancing as fast as many other nations.
Where is our American exceptionalism? What national traits once made America the greatest in the world? A few years ago, I watched a History Channel documentary called “America: The History of Us.” It depicted many moving accounts drawn from American history: How George Washington led the Continental Army, overcoming almost insurmountable difficulties — lack of military supplies, contagious diseases and a brutal winter — to prevail against the British; how pioneers conquered rugged mountains and harsh weather to finally settle the West.
What these stories demonstrate is the courage and endurance of our ancestors, who were up to whatever challenges life offered.
American exceptionalism was also demonstrated in our Founding Fathers’ willingness to learn the best practices from the world in order to build the best country in the world. We borrowed the idea of separation of powers in the executive, judicial and legislative branches from Baron de Montesquieu, a Frenchman. We championed the free-market system from Adam Smith, a Brit. We also learned from a German to put research centers in universities, which helped incubate numerous American innovations.
That was an era of American openness and pragmatism. We did not allow ideology and political correctness to disguise the truth. As William James famously put it: “Ideas become true just so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience.”
In the past few decades, unfortunately, some people have misinterpreted what American exceptionalism means — that everything we do is the best. We fruitlessly exported our democracy to the Middle East without sufficiently considering local complexities. Though South Korea and Taiwan had a proven model toward democracy, we discounted them because they started with a benign dictatorship instead of free elections, as our ideology prescribed.
When our children indulge in video gaming, instead of discussing how it negatively impacts their study, our researchers justified it: Video gaming will enhance children’s multitasking ability. We are unwilling to challenge them to study hard, and to have the right disciplines and courage to succeed in whatever challenges the world has in store for them.
Worse, this symptom has spread to our media. Domestically, we cover too much entertainment, and not enough about the challenges we face. Our international reporting always conveys a “big brother” message: how great America is and how we help other nations. We rarely report: How Germany builds its unparalleled engineering capacity and keeps its economy strong, even during the financial crises. How South Korea developed the best-educated work force, which rapidly advances the country’s industries and corporations. What China has done right in rapidly growing its economy.
We do have Tom Friedman and Fareed Zakaria, who frequently tell Americans that we can learn from others. However, we have too few of them. If you travel internationally, it is easy to find TV channels in Europe that convey more serious content and broader perspectives.
America is still the greatest nation in the world. However, self-centered, myopic news reporting only creates arrogance in our politicians and complacency in our citizens. Americans have many great characteristics and should not be treated as vulnerable “indoor flowers.” If we let our citizens know the true picture of the changing world, and great things other nations are doing, they will be motivated to compete, to better prepare their children to meet challenges.
In my view, openness, pragmatism and the courage to meet challenges are the true ingredients of American exceptionalism because they will enable America to continuously improve herself. If we rejuvenate these qualities, I am confident that America will, as President Obama put it recently, lead the world for another century.
This Oped was first published on July 4th, 2014 by Orlando Sentinel with the title “Learn from others to revive American exceptionalism”
In the last 20 years since I immigrated to the U.S., people often asked me: Why did you come to America? Like many other immigrants, I came to America for a better life. However, it is easy for us to appreciate what a better life means, but not easy for many others who take it for granted.
A better life means children have enough food and nutrition, and are not limited by just one pound of meat per month as I was rationed during my childhood. It means people will not be politically persecuted, unlike what my father suffered during China’s Cultural Revolution.
Worse, the persecution also extended to my whole family. Twenty years after being persecuted by the corrupted Kuomintang officials, in 1969 my grandparents were forced by Maoist revolutionaries to relocate from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, to a remote and extremely poor village. Without adequate medical treatment, a few months later my grandma died of a heart attack.
To become self-reliant, I started to learn cooking and other living skills when I was six, including taking care of my grandma in the hospital. After surviving many more devastations to my family, I made it to one of China’s top universities after Deng Xiaoping implemented reform and open policy, and offered my generation an opportunity to attend colleges and pursue our dreams.
Coming to America was the grand dream of my generation. However, it took an extraordinary endeavor for a poor foreign student to become an American. That included obtaining admission and financial assistance from an American university, getting a job and finally receiving American citizenship.
It took me about two years of intensive English training before I was able to score higher than most American students on the Graduate Record Exam. Based on that and my work accomplishments, Virginia Tech granted me admission, a tuition waiver and a $600 per month stipend.
I finally made it to America in 1992. To bring my wife here, I had to save out of the monthly $600 by living in a basement and buying low-priced groceries. We had to overcome many more cultural and language barriers in our path to become Americans. After graduation, it took me five more months to find a job in the U.S. because the American government stipulated restrictive regulations for companies to hire foreign students and most companies did not even try.
In October 1996, I got my dream offer from Westinghouse, where I met many executives and colleagues with professional integrity. With their support, my career development had a good start. I worked hard and smart.
Like many other first-generation immigrants, now my family is able to live with a better life as we dreamed: Our children have enough to eat, a beautiful house to live in, the chance to pursue their dreams without any financial, language and cultural barriers, and no worries of political turmoil and persecution.
In July 2009, more than 10 years after my company started the sponsorship, my wife and I finally received our American citizenship. It was a great joy for us, but in a difficult time for our new home country: America was in the middle of the financial crisis.
Like other Americans, we are proud of what makes America great: the rule of law, democracy and free-market system. We are also concerned about her many challenges: our declining education and poor money-management practice by many families. I began to think: What can we do to help?
Why do so many immigrants prosper in America? Because we have suffered many life challenges from where we started to become Americans, we have valuable experiences we can share with struggling families, our spirit to overcome challenges, and our great cultural heritage on education and money management.
America has attracted the brightest and most hard-working people from all over the world. If we, as new immigrants, all participate in shaping the culture and the future of America, instead of just being dissolved in this melting pot, we can make America better. In this way, we will become true American citizens.
This Oped was first published on May 16th, 2014 by OrlandoSentinel with the title “Immigrants can add valuable ingredients to melting pot”