Narrating a nation

Between America and Me

jayesh-kaushik_online

I learnt curiosity from my father.

To this day, my dad doesn’t quit until he’s read every page of every section of the four different newspapers we get delivered to our house every morning. As a child, I’d stare in amazement as he read every paper, even its classifieds, with a meticulous eye. He’d often say, “you can’t form opinions without gathering stories, and you always need more opinions.” I took that advice to heart.

So when I arrived on this campus, I searched for opinions. I learnt about and internalized just about every ideology that didn’t feel foolishly oversimplified or self-contradictory. I was especially intrigued by the increasing political divides in Berkeley and America at large. As I began to explore the uniqueness of this country’s current political situation — both in its own history and the world’s at large — I heard stories I had never heard before. This country was going through a political age that I hadn’t seen it build up to. It was going through a shift that I remained largely unaffected by. I wasn’t an American citizen — why did I care?

Because it was new.

The divide between Democrats and Republicans resembled that between good and evil. Sith and Jedi. Yin and Yang. And which is which depended on whom you asked — there seemed to be a plethora of historical, demographical and cultural reasons for this deep split. It was unlike anything I’d seen before.

The deeper I dived into this gulf between the ideological wings, the more I learnt about the motivations, habits and mannerisms of Americans. Hearing conservatives, I learnt about the traditions this country had been shaped by, while progressives fought for future aspirations. Some of these traditions and aspirations I was familiar with, but most were unique to the United States. And as I wasn’t American, my place wasn’t to comment on their American-ness. So I listened. I developed a nose for farcical arguments versus authentic ones — was your political opinion grounded in some value or practicality? Why did you even choose to have one? What did it mean for the U.S.?

What did you actually believe in?

As I  listened to my American peers talk about their dreams for this country, I thought about whether and where my values fit into their stories. And I discovered that some stories were more convincing than others. Some stories were rooted in struggles. They were rooted in frustrations. Conservative or liberal, these stories came from empathy, ambition and dreams for one’s country — sentiments I could relate to.

These sentiments lay at the intersection of people’s personal narratives and the expectations they held for their nations. Hardships from their pasts and hopes for their futures shaped their opinions and the political groups they associate with. Conservatives were shaped by traditional backgrounds that differed from their progressive peers, but their motivations often surprisingly aligned.

As I heard these divergent stories, it became hard for me to imagine dividing and placing this country’s people into one, two or even ten political categories. Political parties across the world seemed to face this challenge. Each time I moved countries, I had to learn about novel political concepts set in local political realities — and find my own little place in them, over time. And each time, I found myself collecting new stories from those around me.  

I have been fortunate enough to hear these diverse narratives across continents. Narratives that range from the dreams of Indian street vendors to the frustrations of the English middle class, to the lofty ideals for democracy and freedom in political science classes here at UC Berkeley.

And I have heard stories grounded not only in some personal beliefs or objective reality but also in clever reconstructions of the truth. These opinions often seem to intentionally divide society into superficial groups — groups that ultimately do justice to none of their constituents.

My father’s advice echoes each time I pick up an American newspaper, meet someone from a distant state or hear a new opinion grounded in a different reality. I have learnt that listening to and mobilizing around people’s stories remains the only test between true political struggles and self-exalted ones. And it is unquestionably still the path toward bridging the social chasms that we may find around us today.

Jayesh Kaushik writes the Wednesday blog on his experience as a first-generation immigrant. Contact him at [email protected] .