Sunday, January 22, 2017

Woman's March Orange County, Downtown Santa Ana, California January 21st, 2017

The Peace Corps was founded by executive order under President Kennedy in March of 1961, three months before I was born. It's mission is to provide assistance to people outside of the United States. There are several goals of the Peace Corps, but for me the main initiative is to spread peace through friendship and cultural understanding. In essence, I see the Peace Corps is an avenue for citizen diplomacy. I have always considered myself as a citizen diplomat for my state of California as well as my nation of birth, The United States of America. When I travel abroad, I am keenly aware that I am representing America, how I act, how I treat people, all are a one-on-one diplomatic mission for the USA.

I began my travels as a young teen when my parents took me abroad for my first trip to Europe. Since that time, I continued to have the opportunity to travel to my ancestral lands in Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece, as well as extensively through other parts of the world. I have lived and studied in Bulgaria and Germany. The one thing that people often say to me when I travel, which actually hurts my feelings, is that I am not a typical American, I am too nice, too flexible, too understanding. It hurts because I also witness how unpleasant Americans can be when they are abroad. As a Californian, I also get a lot of odd reflections from people who live in other states, particularly from the North East. In one instance during a week long workshop, after I would make a comment about something, a person from New York would always remark, "Oh but you are a Californian." After several days of these statements, I finally asked the gentleman what exactly he meant by that sentence. He sniffed and quipped, "Oh you are always so cheerful and positive," in a tone that showed it was not meant as a compliment. I thought to myself, well, I am not willing to work on that sir, so you will have to get used to it.

Yesterday was one of the more remarkable and unique aspects of living and being in America. Millions of people both here and abroad took to the streets peacefully to make a statement against the onslaught of negativity being ushered in through the recent US elections. On November 9th, 2016, I actually contacted my recruiter from the Peace Corps to ask if the program would continue under the incoming administration. I was assured that it would, so I will trust that the funds will not be cut during my tenure for the next few years. My deeper questions remain though, how does one represent the ideals of America when I do not really see them in this new administration. In many ways I feel like I am in a reality sci-fi novel, where things I had only seen in television shows and movies are now coming to pass. 

Since my family and many friends live in areas around the world that were treated as enemies at one time, I have been exposed to some uncomfortable truths about the behavior of my nation. When I attended UCLA in the early 80's, it had one of the top Slavic Language departments in the world. I took Bulgarian since it was the closest thing to Macedonian language I could study in school. There were professor exchanges with major universities during this time, and my Bulgarian professor was a kind woman from Sophia. Before her, there was a family with two children my age. I will never forget one of the conversations I had with the daughter. It was during the height of the cold war, and Regan was the president at the time. She told me how scared her people were with the specter of nuclear war between the US and USSR. One day in a shopping mall in Los Angeles, she remarked to me, "you know, when you get shot it makes you bleed if you are communist or and American." I obviously never forgot this conversation, it affected me deeply, and actually I have always carried this exchange with me even in my medical practice, that all people regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs, bleed when they are hurt.

So, how do I represent America in an era of extremism in my own nation's politics? It is any ones guess what will happen in the next few years. When I have attended international meetings before, the most common question I am asked is why Americans have such low turnouts in their elections? When I attended Terra Madre 2008, everyone, I mean EVERYONE I met who was not an American asked me who I was voting for, many expressing concern I would not get back to the USA in time to vote. They were fascinated with the concept of absentee voting, which I have done most of my adult voting life, and breathed a sign of relief when I told them I voted for Obama. But what do I say now, in this age of social media, internet and 24/7 news cycles, especially when the current president is so unique in his approach to facts, science and the existence of people outside of his family?

Yesterday, I got my answer. I joined millions of people across the globe and specifically here in every state of the nation in marching for justice, inclusiveness and compassion. Protest was not invented by the United States of America, but it founded our nation. Educated protest with action to form a grand experiment in civilized civilization is the essence of America. I marched in my hometown of Santa Ana with 21,000 other concerned citizens in reaction to the draconian and hurtful policies of our new administration. There is something quite electrifying being in a large crowd of well meaning people. We often fear mobs, but there can be a positive mob mentality. 

In the aftermath of 9/11 and the subsequent build up to war, I was searching for the values of America. What is it that makes us unique in the world? What does it mean to be American?

As a nerd, I went to the Libraries, listened to courses and books on tapes, attended lectures, asked questions. My journey of discovery led me to really come to value what my nation represents. Our core values (obviously not just our own) are ; Freedom, equality and community. We are to create a culture that promotes individual freedom and justice within a community. The part that does not really get discussed much because it sounds a bit ethereal is how we actually manifest community with free and equal members. 

It is through compassion and love we manifest a community of free and equal members. In order to have freedom and equality we must be compassionate and responsible towards one another. We seem to focus on our own freedom, but not others, or the consequences of expressing our freedoms on others. Sure you have the freedom to be rude, cruel and selfish, but how does that affect your neighbor? In my opinion it is the betrayal of these core values that allowed the current president his rise to power, not only his own selfishness, but the selfishness of those who voted him into his position. Yesterday's marches, specifically the one in which I participated, countered my perception, that my fellow American citizen is actually deeply concerned with the welfare of others to the point that they were willing to risk their personal safety to show solidarity with all people regardless of religion, ethnicity, gender and class. While social media allows us connections, it really is not a substitute for deep community and democracy. In person conversation, shaking hands, exchanging stories, this is what connects us as human beings, this is real democracy and community.

I attended a prayer service during the time of the Inauguration with a local Islamic Society. Throughout Southern California, Progressive Christians United sponsored numerous joint prayer services as a sign of solidarity with the Muslim community. I took my 85 year old dad, recently injured and in a wheel chair to come along with me. I wheeled him in to the Mosque during a rain storm, and took my place in the Women's prayer room. I could not find him afterwords, but I later realized someone had taken him inside the Men's area of the Mosque, he had been wheeled in the midst of a great crowd. In his grand fashion, he was talking with anyone who would meet with him, shaking hands and handing out my brothers dental practice cards. I had lovely connections with men and women from all over the globe as well as those who were born here, all citizens, all longing for connections, for those of us in the dominant culture to understand they love our shared nation, they too work hard, they too love their children, they too are upset by terrorism. I told one man originally from Iran who has been here for 20 years, went to the local university, is now a successful engineer and has American born children, how sorry I was that he and his community feel threatened by the incoming administration. Both of our eyes teared up as we felt the pain of being ostracized, of being blamed for things we had no control. As the gale force winds of the rain storm whipped outdoor canopies covering delicious Arabic dishes being sold as a fund raiser for the Mosque, I struggled to get my money out of my wallet. A young man offered to pay for my falafel sandwich and would only take my money when I insisted it be donated to the Mosque. He bought me additional pastries. His wife introduced herself, they were both from the Ukraine. We parted, promising to connect soon at future gatherings. Earlier that day I attended Mass with Vietnamese and Mexican Americans and immigrants. I served with a Honduran refugee, the priest was from Peru and the other servers from the Philippines. This is America, this is the highest form of a civilized culture to coexist in our differences in peace and respect.

Through the march, mass and the prayer service I reconnected with the America I know and love, bustling with diversity, a tapestry of different cultures woven into one of hope and striving for a civilization of free and equal beings living in respectful and compassionate community. It is the America that the media often does not portray, focusing instead on conflict and strife, scaring us from one another. I am glad for those connections I had on January 21st, 2017, especially as I struggle to figure out how I am to represent an isolationist bully who thinks laws are for stupid people. When I was able to observe the marches happening all over North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Antarctica, I was reminded in a deep way that goodness is truly the essence of being human. While we obviously have a side that can easily slip into conflict, there is a deeper desire we have for connection with one another. 

Americans like to think they are exceptional, but that often gets translated into unearned privilege and stolen power. I do however think Americans are exceptional in their responsibility to model the highest form of civilization. Freedom, equality and community, that is what makes us exceptional. While the ugliness of the election, where (in my view) one side extremely violated the values of America, distanced me from recognizing freedom, equality and community in my fellow citizens. My main sorrow over the election was the disappointment I felt towards my fellow citizen that voted to harm so many of us, that voted to scare our fellow Americans with registries and violence, all for the false promise of jobs and economic prosperity. I felt let down by my fellow Americans by this election that put a very divisive, cheating, lying and hateful person in charge of our shared nation. I felt that I did not know my fellow American that approved of taking away the freedom, equality and community of the vulnerable for the sake of getting more money. Those with whom I marched reminded me of the deeper truth of my culture, that the majority of Americans do value community, justice and freedom. 

I hope to live up to the exceptional ideals of the United States of America as I represent her in Albania. My experience in the Balkans has shown me that the diverse cultures in this beautiful land understand and practice the deep values of community, faithfulness and commitment to friends and family. I hope to learn the best of what they have to offer and bring these threads back to my nation when I return, and weave them into the tapestry of what it means to be an American.

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