Sunday, March 13, 2016

Has America lost its greatness?

It has been a week since I returned after a two week visit in the US. While being there, most of my free time was indulged in watching the entertaining Republican primary process to elect the next nominee to the Presidential elections. It brought back memories of 1991: my first time in America coinciding with the preparation of the primaries for the 1992 Presidential election. Soon after the Governor of Arkansas attended a conference on education in the university where I was studying, we learnt that he was going to run for the Presidency. He did run and win. A cold and grey morning in early 1992, his wife came calling the town where we lived. Along with a bunch of fellow graduate students from India I had the honor of pressing her hand. Other than that singular moment of physical contact with an American politician, my touch with American politics has largely been through television and newspaper and magazines. The house that I had rented was connected to cable through which streamed CNN and countless other channels and I watched with fascination the politics of America. I was mesmerized by Joe Biden’s command of the confirmation process of Clarence Thomas as the Supreme Court judge. I watched in awe as Bill Clinton decimated George Bush in debates first and in the polls eventually.

On the day of the 2016 Republican primary debate in Houston I was having lunch with friends in Austin: one always voting Democrat and the other three, Republican. The Democrat was mocking Trump and tearing into Cruz and Rubio while the Republicans were mostly focused on their taco salads and tortilla soups or trying unsuccessfully to change the topic. I watched the Houston debate that night. Trump, unlike the previous and later debates, was a little less obnoxious during the Houston debate. Perhaps that’s the reason why his repeated assertions that he will make America great again caught my attention. For the rest of my visit I kept asking myself many times “Has America truly lost its greatness and does it have any chance of regaining the greatness if it has lost it?”

Few days later I landed in Tulsa, Oklahoma with a colleague to drive to Joplin, Missouri. My first time in the Tulsa airport and I liked it. Small but designed well, modern, nice, cozy and brimming with passenger amenities. It was undergoing an expansion which created some hassles but expansion was the sign that the airport was growing which meant that the surrounding areas were growing. Trump says that Asia and the Middle East have some airports that make American airports look like they are in the third world. Come on Trump. As someone who has as the home airport the world’s best, Changi, and complains bitterly about Suvarnabumi, KLIA and Dubai, let me tell you that America’s airports are mostly fine.  Twenty five years ago when I arrived in America, I was amazed by the airports in the country. Ten years ago they were showing signs of age and decline but many of them like Chicago O’Hare, Atlanta and Dallas have been updated and are quite good. In Asia and the Middle East, there are fabulous airports like the Changi, Hong Kong, Seoul, Narita, and Dubai (my own country’s Delhi, supposedly the largest airport in the world, can be good except for the lousy security checking arrangements they provide there).  But, each country has a single good airport (Chinese and Japanese airports other than Beijing and Narita are only so so) whereas America has several good airports.

Our 70 mile ride to Joplin was all on highways that were pleasurable to drive. Though having lived in the state of Missouri for six years, I have never visited Joplin in the past and had assumed it to be among the countless small towns of America that have stagnated. But, no sir, I found Joplin to be a thriving small town having its share of Holiday Inn, Starbucks, and Chick-fil-A (an up and coming fast food chain that is bright, charming and energetic amid the tiring bunch of McDonalds, Taco Bells, Dominos and Subways). But, most importantly Joplin has rebuilt itself from a tornado devastation three years ago. The tornado took down the town's hospital and high school along the gory path it took through the town. The new high school is large and wears an ultramodern exterior. Except for some trees that are yet to grow their lost limbs, the signs of devastation are hard to see. We stopped for dinner at Crabby’s, the seafood restaurant that is the pride of the locals. Midwestern America and seafood did not get along much in the years I used to live there. Seafood mostly meant catfish fillets dipped in heavy batter and deep fried in this part of the world. But, Crabby’s offered sesame crusted Ahi tuna on a bed of greens with some sort of a dip containing traces of wasabi. I can vouch that I was witnessing a culinary revolution in the Midwest. Earlier in the day, my friend and I had stopped for lunch in a little town called Claymore, Oklahoma. We were looking for a Chili’s, the tired but trusted restaurant chain for Tex-Mex food. But, there was no sign of the restaurant anywhere and my friend was growing hungrier by the minute and took the gamble of stopping at a tiny shack that proclaimed Mexican Food. A few cars parked outside at the relatively late lunch hour of 2 pm gave us some hope. The waitress/cashier who seated us in one of the six tables at the restaurant looked and spoke like a farm girl, was excessively exuberant and explained the menu which was just page. As we were trying to decide between tacos and chimichangos, the Latino friend of mine heard two people inside the kitchen speaking in Spanish. Turns out they were the new owners of the restaurant – a Mexican couple previously working in TGIF putting their lifetime savings to start a new business of their own. We were thoroughly impressed when we received our food. My friend said that it was authentic Mexican food “Victor, this is how food is in Mexico” were the words.

The purpose of our Joplin visit was to see a distribution business in the area. The billion dollar business was located in another small town near Joplin and had an office, CEO and staff that betrayed the billion dollars. The only time they displayed a trace of vanity was when we were given a tour of their newly-built tornado-proof bunker. Otherwise, it was all a bunch of warehouses spread through acres of land and a fleet of trucks that carry stuff throughout the heartland of America.

As I drove back to Tulsa airport the next day to catch my return flight, I had to stop somewhere close to the airport to fill up the gasoline tank before returning the rental car. I had assumed that the exit to the airport would have a gas station and in typical fashion there was none so I had to ask the GPS to find me the nearest pump. The GPS led me to a road that was crumbling and an area that was desolate. The gas station looked like it was out of business. Walking into the store, I found that it was indeed out of business. “Sorry the pump don’t work no more” said the Latino-looking man who followed up with the question “You from India.”  “Yes, and you?” “Bangladesh” “Good, may I use your restroom?” There was no urinal and an entire roll of toilet paper had fallen into the toilet bowl so I could not use it. I came out and told the man that I could not use it. “Dirty?” “No, just a roll of paper inside the closet” “Okay, please use the restroom in my office.” After the relief, I thanked him profusely for the gesture and he asked me to drive down the road to find another gas station within a mile. I drove on. The road improved and I filled up and found my way back to the Tulsa airport.

So, has America lost its greatness? A simpleton like me don’t see the signs yet. I think America is still too young to become too old, still vigorously reinventing itself to thrive and immigrants providing part of the energy to keep the country great. So Mr Trump, I think you are wrong. You look like a smart man, so you probably know the truth and are just misleading people to get their votes. I am hoping that what keeps America great will stop you from doing what you are doing and continues to keep America in its path of greatness.


SAALARAM said...

My comment jumped to the other post!!!
This post has a nice style! It is like a travelogue spiced with fish cuisine though focussed on politics! Your eye is on fish wherever it swims...I mean '6174'post too!!!

Victor Suresh said...

Pagu, Thank you for your comments. Ontogeny repeats phylogeny. Don't we all start our lives as fish? ☺

Victor Suresh said...

Pagu, Thank you for your comments. Ontogeny repeats phylogeny. Don't we all start our lives as fish? ☺

T_Ram said...

Suresh! Nice blog. I am not regular with Social media. Today I just stumbled on this - I can say you have not lost your Journalistic fire in you! Nice article. The same time you were in Southern Illinois, we were in Oklahoma. Had several visits to Tulsa. Cannot forget Joplin - near that town is where I got my first speeding ticket back in 1992 ;-). The town was ravaged by a Tornado in the recent past, but got up dusted itself and rebuilt.

You said it nicely in your last sentence - America has not lost its greatness. Selfish bigots like Trump has to blabber something short and stupid to get votes.