The funniest experience I ever had on July 4th (US Independence Day) was July 4th 1999. That was the year I spent July 4th in Tokyo, where I was living for 6 months.
I had been living in Europe since the start of 1995, most recently in London. I have always had a strong affinity for Japanese culture, perhaps because I grew up in Northern California. So one of my bucket list items was to live in Japan. If you want to know how I made this a reality you can read this story and if you have extra time you might enjoy this prelude.
Anyhow, I was working on July 4th since we didn’t have a vacation day in Tokyo and we were on a tight schedule. The office assistant realized it was US Independence Day. She must have been struggling with what the right thing to say to somebody on such an occasion. Whe came by my cubicle for an attempt at recognizing the importance of the day.
I knew she was coming from about 30 seconds out as I heard her shuffling her feet as she walked, a telltale sign of a Japanese woman approaching. I love these little cultural idiosyncrasies. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.
“Congratulations” she said to me in her best English accent. You could tell it was a long word for her and she had probably practiced it as Japanese are very sensitive to not offending others. She smiled and walked away.
I chuckled. It hadn’t occurred to me that one might wish somebody congratulations for marking the day you became independent as a nation but I guess when you think about it, if you didn’t have a cultural reference it was a pretty appropriate guess at what to say. Congratulations, indeed!
She then went back to her cubicle and somebody pointed out to her that I was from England. I’m actually not, but that is where I had been living and working and they suddenly realized that maybe I was British. (I only later became a dual citizen having lived there for 10+ years.) In her mind, she had just congratulated me on the day in which my nation was unceremoniously thrown out of a foreign colony and my king was declared unwanted.
Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. Slowly. Stop. Shuffle, shuffle. I knew she was coming back but wasn’t aware of what had transpired.
“I am so sorry. I have misspoken. Please. I did not mean that mistake.” Mortified, she walked off.
Huh? Only an hour later did I realize what had happened.
Ah, the charms of international relations. And cultural gaffes. I have many of my own.
July 4th is a special date in America. Like Thanksgiving it’s a guilt-free holiday filled with family, fun, sports, beer, hot dogs, apple pie, water sports, beer and this year a bit of billiards, foosball and little kids running around.
America is a place that has always welcomed the best from around the world. We have become a great nation through embracing those that seek religious freedom, tolerance, acceptance and economic opportunities for anybody who is hard working, industrious and who hustles.
I know things around perfect. But I’ve lived around the world and it’s a pretty wonderful place we have here.
We don’t have total equality for women, but I’d stand it up against most nations in the world in this regard. I think women who haven’t worked abroad would be shocked in certain countries if they worked there. Still, we have work to do.
We have religious freedom: Separation of church and state. This right is very important to me and at times it feels that it’s not respected enough. Still: when I lived in England the forms for my son’s preschool asked our religion. I refused to fill it out. I’m proudly Jewish but that’s none of their freakin’ business. How is it relevant to my application?
We have economic opportunities for all. I wish we had better policies to help those that weren’t born with the same educational backgrounds as I was since education seems to be the great divider in terms of future opportunities.
I invested in a company whose goal is to bring low-cost computing to inner-city schools in America. Some people have said to me, “That’s dumb. Why bother? We’ll all just have iPads in a few years.” Um, get out of your comfort zone, mate. And get a feeling for the rest of the country. It’s clear to me that our economic divide is also a technological divide and unless we solve this economic disparity will persist.
We have much to do. Which is why I’m grateful there are people like Charles Best in this country. He founded Donor’s Choose, an organization whose goal is to help low-income schools get more supplies by aligning donors with actual projects of interest based on geography, interest or whatever.
If you’re feeling lucky this July 4th, how about donating a small amount to somebody who is less fortunate. Click on the link above. Warning: they have a minimum donation size of $1. As Charles would tell you, even small donations help make young kids dreams come true. They now give away $32 million per year. Or if you’re a developer perhaps you could donate time by dedicated to their hack-a-thon?
In American we have people like Charles Best.
Still, we are cutting back on public education. I know we have a budget deficit and as an economic conservative I believe in smaller government. But not at the expense of educating our next generation and creating economic opportunities for all.
But in America nobody ever asked me where my dad came from. At least not in California. Nobody cared. They wanted to know what I had achieved. What I had to say for myself. Not true in Europe. At least not in my experience. Every government form in England seemed to ask questions about my parents.
In India in order to fill out paperwork to import IT equipment for when I opened our offices there in Pune, the form asked where my grandfather was from. I’m told in older societies stuff like this mattered historically because if you could bind families to commitments you were less likely culturally to have cheating and fraud. I understand that.
Still, I’m proud to live in America.
My dad’s from South America if you’re interested. I grew up in Medellin in the days where the grew a different kind of sugar. He left in his early twenties to come to America for his med-school residency. He started out in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, where I was born. A patriotic place – fitting for the 4th of July.
My dad’s father was from Romania. He escaped Jewish oppression in the pogroms. He traveled throughout South America on a donkey selling tools and cutlery until he met my grand mother in Columbia. She, too, was from the old world.
A few years ago on Passover we were at my cousin Marlene’s house in Sacramento – a child tradition. My dad asked to speak for a moment out of turn. My dad is somewhat introverted so I found this curious.
Passover is a time where we celebrate Jewish freedom and we’re reminded that not everybody in the world is as free as we are today. Ironically our oppressors in that era, the Egyptians, are at the birth of their fledging freedom.
My dad wanted to talk about immigration. At the time he had been living with his long-time girlfriend from Honduras. Her whole extended family still lived there and weren’t able to visit the US. She hadn’t seen many family members for years.
My dad talked about coming to this country. He talked about it as the land of opportunity for those around the world who sought to make a better life. While we couldn’t have totally open border there had to be some way to bring in more talented people to this country to help grow our base of the world’s smart people.
Tears filled his eyes as he thought about those that couldn’t come to America. He spoke about the things that we still take for granted in our cozy living rooms. He thought about the plight of his long-time partner and her desire to spend time with her family.
Freedom. It’s such an easy thing to take for granted when you have it. When you grew up with it. I know that I’m spoiled because I grew up taking it for granted. I walked on the shoulders of my grandfather’s hard work and accomplishments. I walk on the shoulders of my dad and his hard work in school and his desire to build a better life for us.
In America we still need to realize that this dream exists in the eyes of many smart, enterprising and hard-working individuals around the world. They want to come to our academic institutions and learn from us.
I know that it’s hard to find the right balance on issues like immigration but there is one thing of which I’m certain: The future competitiveness in the world will depend on who has the brightest, most hard working & industrious people.
If we’re lucky enough to continue to invest in our academic institutions and attract the brightest from around the world then we must do everything possible to make it easy for them to stay in our country upon graduation.
As Thomas Friedman has spoken about (although I’m told Paul Kedrosky originally had the idea!) we should staple a green card on the certificate of every science graduate who comes to America. Let them stay and create more jobs in our country rather than abroad.
It’s a non-partisan issue. The hard left is wrong on this issue because they say, “you can’t let them stay unless we have protection of today’s unemployed.” Believe me I’m sensitive to this. Let them stay and help create jobs.
How about a policy that they could be guaranteed to stay if they moved to high unemployment zones and created startups there? We need more high-caliber people in Ohio, Michigan and other mid-Western states.
The far right is also wrong on this issue. They espouse issues such as the high-rate of illegal immigrants already in this country, the need to screen people harder for terrorism, etc.
Most of us are in the smart center on this one but I guess there’s not a strong enough lobby to bring us all together to turn politicians our way. All of the people behind Startup America and the Startup Visa sure are pushing us on the right direction.
In America we have people like Steve Case, Brad Feld, Dave McClure, Shervin Pishevar. We have people who spend personal time advocated for the advancement of our country and for the people in it to have better opportunities.
So that’s what’s on my mind this Independence Day 2011. I feel lucky for the freedoms that I have to spend with my extended family in peace and prosperity. I watch my kids grow up and start riding on the back of a boat on intertubes and thinking that they’re growing up so quickly. They will inherit this country sooner than I can imagine.
I’m optimistic about the future of our industrious nation. I lived abroad long enough (11 years) and travelled far enough (lived in 9 countries) to appreciate the uniqueness of our union.
Still, there is much work to be done.
Happy Fourth of July, all. And … congratulations!
Image courtesy, as always, of Fotolia.
Oh, and yes, I’m sure there are tpyos in this post. No need to email me. I want to get back to a mean game of horse-shoes. Fixing all of my typos would defeat the purpose of today.
(Cross-posted @ Both Sides of the Table)