1. Archive

U.S. amazes and dismays Asian visitors

All in all, said the woman from the Philippines, America isn't as dangerous as the TV cop shows make it look, but it also isn't as pretty as the movies.

Seven Asian journalists who have been studying with me here in Honolulu returned from their travels through America amazed and dismayed. Some had seen the mainland before, but others knew it only from exported television and movies.

While they were there, six American journalists, including me, spent five weeks in East Asia. All of us returned to Hawaii to compare notes.

It hurt to hear what the Asians had to say about our country, although they loved parts of it. Their reactions varied according to their backgrounds.

"The experience is awesome, if I am using the correct word," said Abid Ali Syed from Pakistan. "It is simply beautiful. It's like coming out of a dungeon and suddenly there's music in the air, brightness, sunshine."

To him, America was clean and orderly, and the dangers of ghetto neighborhoods were little more than "mild merrymaking." In Karachi, his home, gun-toting gangs ride in trucks through the city. The army dissolved the government while he was away.

Indeed, none of the Asians argued that their countries are better off _ well, except the Japanese. Their disappointment in America was measured against their expectations for a country that is the only remaining superpower, that has trumpeted its values and successes to the world.

Why, they wanted to know, do Americans tolerate such a wide gap between rich and poor? They saw homeless people sleeping on the streets in Washington where taxpayers have spent a fortune for marble monuments.

"My God, there are more beggars here than in Manila," said Ceres Doyo from the Philippines.

Why, they wondered, can't a country that has achieved so much manage to solve its problems with crime and race?

They were shocked at the status of blacks in America, shocked at the guns, drugs and poverty in the inner cities. At big-city hotels, they said, the desk staff pulled out maps and marked the neighborhoods to avoid.

"Why can't government do something about this?" said S.

P. Singh of India. "A society of such caliber _ if they can't do this, there is something wrong somewhere."

Well, the Americans asked, did the Asians pose such a question in Washington, where they made the rounds of bureaucrats?

The Asians hooted at the idea.

"Washington," said Verona Burgess from Australia, "seems to be a wall of smug, self-satisfied people who are absolutely certain that what they're doing is right for the country."

The Asians said they were patronized at the State Department and found no one in Washington who knew much or seemed to care much about their countries. No wonder President Clinton has been getting bad advice, they said.

Still, they had hopes for Clinton and were appalled at the Washington press corps' writing off his presidency after just four months, "carrying on like jilted lovers," the Australian said.

(I must say, the Americans traveling in Asia had the same reaction. For weeks, every time we picked up an American newspaper or magazine, the lead story was something like: "Can this presidency be saved?" It struck us as tiresome, whiny and unfair. We concluded that Washington has far too many reporters.)

In general, the Asians said they found Americans to be inward-looking and surprisingly ignorant about other countries, with newspapers and television acknowledging only a few foreign stories. "Most of the world is not Japan, Russia and Sarajevo," the Pakistani chided us.

The journalist from China reminded us to be grateful. Americans don't appreciate their country's stability because they have never known chaos, he said. But he also wondered whether our freedoms have gone too far.

"America is a truly rich country," said Gu Cheng Wen from Beijing. "It seems you have endless resources to waste."

He was distressed by escalators gliding up and down with no one on them, wasting electricity. He didn't like seeing piles of used cars in junkyards. He worried that so many newspapers are thrown away.

He marveled at the mechanized farming, remembering the years after high school when he was sent to work in the Chinese countryside during the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese still farm by hand.

"You just cannot imagine in this country what bitterness they suffer in the work," he said.

We had talked with Gu for weeks previously about human rights. He shares the view of the Chinese government that America should quit harping on that subject.

When he returned from his travels, he said he could see that America's tolerance for different kinds of people and lifestyles had helped it prosper. All the Asians saw strength in America's diversity.

But Gu was uncomfortable with the live-and-let-live attitude that allows people to pursue self-destructive paths. Las Vegas wasn't the fun he thought it would be.

"I did not feel good when I saw those girls trying to sell themselves," he said. "I thought of their parents, of their brothers and sisters."

He was thoroughly disenchanted with gambling, too, "an industry to win money from you."

In America, he said disapprovingly, people apparently have a human right to be prostitutes or throw away money if they choose.

Other Asians said they liked the feeling of freedom in America. The journalists from Hong Kong and Tokyo, two workaholic cities, came back especially relaxed.

The Asians mentioned one other thing, one that we were surprised to hear: Americans have a deep capacity to enjoy themselves.

Entertainment in America is like nothing else in the world, they said. The Asians had a marvelous time at Disneyland and Universal Studios. They were fascinated with Alcatraz prison and the aquarium in Monterey, Calif., built in a former cannery. They loved the festival marketplace on the old Baltimore waterfront.

"You have a wonderful way of turning junk into museums," said Doyo from the Philippines.

I could only conclude that if America is in decline, at least we'll have fun on the way down.