In its recent survey of attitudes of government performance, the Pew Research Center posed a question to a wide swath of Americans: What is the secret of America's success as a nation? The survey listed a range of possibilities -- patriotism, innovation, work ethic, courage, immigration, ability to change and accept change, competition, taking personal responsibility for actions, and so on. Not surprisingly, Americans are divided in their assessment. I have been discussing this question with my son for several years, and our conclusion was not part of the survey: the generosity and empathy of the American people.
For every racist bully, there are tens of thousands of decent, compassionate, creative, brave, open-hearted Samaritans in America providing a critical mass of kindness and understanding to the character of each and every day. These American values will be critical in this time of global unrest for our economic progress and national security. No other country has it woven into its fiber the way that we do. This is true America.
It could have happened anywhere in the United States. But it happened in Louisville, Kentucky, on the Ohio River, America's first frontier, where the Midwest now meets the South. The city of Muhammad Ali and Mitch McConnell and Jennifer Lawrence and other Americans, black and white, gay and straight, right and left and center. An immigrant-friendly city of 90 languages that is home to the Kentucky Derby, the most homegrown tradition in America.
So what was the "it" that happened?
A small epiphany. One that is a great reminder of who we are as a nation as we celebrate Independence Day in 2016
In 2005, I attended a small business open house in Louisville, organized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Like most people, I often despair at how challenging the most mundane task seems to have become, in defiance of all the potential convenience promised by our technological advancements. But on the day I flew out to Louisville, I experienced a series of small but meaningful Samaritan gestures from complete strangers that reminded me again why the United States is a land of opportunity for everyone.
There was the man from the conference who called me to give me his cell number, as plans had changed and he did not want me to be inconvenienced. There was the passenger next to me on the flight, who asked if her carry-on bag was crowding my feet. Then there was the hotel attendant, who brought me a shaving kit as I forgot to carry my own.
And so it went, throughout the day and evening. Finally to top it all off, there was the security guard at the Army Corps office building who saw me waiting in vain for a taxi. Seeing that I was about to miss my flight home, he offered to drive me to the airport.
What do small courtesies amount to, in the bigger picture of a society?
A lot, I think.
Certainly enough to convince me that the basic decency connecting all humanity is alive and thriving in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Having traveled a lot across the U.S., and having traveled overseas in very diverse cultures, I have made it a point of speaking with a variety of people -- dairy farmers in Kenya, schoolchildren in Bolivia, entrepreneurs in Ghana, restaurant owner in South Sudan, a tabla player in Rajasthan, and many others. And I see and experience common threads between these members of the human family and ordinary Americans who go about the business of their daily lives everywhere, from Kentucky and the Carolinas to California and Connecticut.
I am not naive. As an immigrant, I know that racism exists. I have experienced it in the U.S., being pelted with eggs as I drove through a street in Louisiana, simply because I am Indian. But I also know that the voters of that same state elected a governor who was born in India. Twice.
The "only in America" juxtapositions resonate among immigrants like me. Our status makes us more attuned to what it means to live in America as compared to other places in the world. For example, Immigration is a political issue in America, in a way that is not and cannot be in other countries, with the possible exceptions of Australia and Canada. For in the U.S., more so than elsewhere, immigration is not merely about one's bureaucratic status. It is about access to opportunity, more broadly defined.
To be an immigrant in most western countries means that you may be safe from a dangerous situation in your nation of origin, and that your destiny is, to some extent, in the hands of your new host nation. You may have access to health care and the restricted employment market. In general terms, you are unlikely to fail -- yet neither are you likely to soar. As the growth of nationalist parties in the wake of the migrant crisis suggests, you are not likely to feel included and will probably be vulnerable to extreme xenophobes, despite the best efforts of enlightened governments to protect you. In fact, you may also be preyed upon by those of your own background who have been isolated for too long, and whose frustration has turned to sectarian violence.
In the U.S., the situation is entirely different. There are no guarantees of state support, for one thing. The potential for absolute failure is real, and the reality of failure is common. But so is the possibility that dreams will come true. And dreams do come true, by virtue of your own desire and hard work, aided by others who want to see you succeed. Look at the executive suites of Google, Yahoo, and AT&T, Dupont and many others. These are the brands keeping the U.S. at the forefront of innovation. They were all started by immigrants. Today, there are over 40 million foreign-born Americans, making up nearly 13 percent of the population, dreaming the American dream.
Immigrants played a huge role in the birth and defense of America -- fighting in the Revolutionary War and making up some 25 percent of Union forces during the Civil War (currently 65,000 foreign-born immigrants serve in the U.S. Armed Forces). And we will continue to play a role in the future success of America on the global economic and political stages.
Has America achieved the perfect union envisioned by the founding fathers? Of course not. But what I see is that we Americans are generally the first to draw attention to our own shortcomings, usually in an effort to make the dream of "a more perfect union" come true. Whether established or newcomers, we Americans are acutely aware of the gap between our own founding documents and the realities spawned by bigotry and inequality. We draw fierce battle lines in the political sphere, but on the daily drive to work, in the line at the market, at the high school basketball game, in church, we are all Americans.
Beyond the vision of America as the land of opportunity, what I see is a country where there is as much opportunity to give as to gain. The stereotypical greedy Yankee does exist, as we realized during the banking follies of the past decade. But so too does the generous Yankee. Whenever disaster strikes, there is no hesitation on the part of the U.S. government or individual citizens to lend a hand. This is in addition to the massive international assistance, partnership and stimulus programs that have been a feature of U.S. policy for nearly a century. Individually, American citizens consistently top the Charities Aid Foundation's World Giving Index in the three categories of monetary donations, helping strangers and volunteering time.
As America becomes more complex, and the economy undergoes structural shifts, immigrants are dispersing into new areas, no longer confined to a few metropolitan areas. So the tapestry of life is changing. As Audrey Singer wrote in her 2013 Brookings Institution study, Contemporary Immigrant Gateways in Historical Perspective, it is a mix that defies generalization and is redefining what and who is "American."
In the absence of simple generalities, I am comforted by the aggregation of small courtesies and acts of human decency in my America.
It didn't start at Louisville or end in Louisville. I simply became more attuned to it. Last winter, after a snowstorm, I received a text from one of my neighbors, urging me to be careful on the treacherous roads, while outside, my other neighbor, was clearing my driveway along with his own.
This is my America.
This is true America.