What I know about America's greatness I learned from immigrants
An immigrant once told me, "No one knows exactly what the American Dream is, but what all Americans share is that we all believe that there is such a thing." Just as few defend the faith with the vigor and clarity of enthused converts, new Americans often see our country with the respect that we jaded old-timers lose after just a few generations.
I was proud of the unity that our country initially displayed after 9-11. In many ways I hope never to see the most touching scenes ever again: walking by a visitor's lounge at the hospital and seeing a dyed-in-the-wool "redneck", with his long hair braided into a pony-tail, openly weeping as the camera panned over the rubble of the twin towers. I didn't ask him if he were a registered Republican or a registered Democrat. That kind of thing didn't seem very important at the time.
One of the most passionate and outraged Americans I encountered was a Ukrainian who had recently just received her American citizenship and works as our hospital's librarian.
"How can zey do zees to my country!?!" she exclaimed in her heavily accented English. She'd been in this country for ten years, and she was every bit as American as my family that can trace it's descendants to the 1700's. Maybe even more so, given that members of my family couldn't tell you what the three branches of American government are to save their souls.
Back then one of my patients was an 95 year old woman from Poland. She showed up for appointment wearing a beautiful embroidered tiny American flag on the label of her jacket (like most folks her age, she would never have gone to the doctors wearing jeans and a sweater). She had had classic irritable bowel syndrome for sixty years, and nothing I prescribed ever affected her symptoms one way or another. She could remember the exact day her symptoms began.
"My father owned an apartment building in Poland. I remember one night the Nazis came and dragged off all the Jews. I remember the sound of their heavy boots coming up the stairs like it was yesterday. I've been nervous ever since. Then after the war one night the Communists came to my father's apartment building. This time they were looking for my father because he was a land owner. We left very quickly. I've had bad diarrhea ever since."
I've traveled to Romania three times and came away with two things. I'm told I have an excellent Romanian accent, probably because I naturally speak in a monotone and I can roll my "R's". I also have an enduring hatred of totalitarianism, regardless of ideological stripe. Nicolae Ceausescu was a "liberal" of sorts who routinely thumbed his nose at the "conservative" Kremlin hard-liners. He was also a vicious lunatic who damaged the Romanian psyche so deeply that it will take a generation or two for his ugly scar to heal.
Because I at least try to speak a little Romanian, I get to see what few Romanians live in my area. One of my patients is an older woman who was educated as, of all things, a lawyer.
"My education was a total waste of time under the Communists," she said. "The judges didn't care about the law. Most of them didn't even know it. You couldn't bribe them because they were rich compared to the rest of us, who had nothing. All the opposing lawyers could do is to convince the judge which one of them was the biggest Communist. I didn't care for the Communists, so I never won any cases."
I never knew what she thought about our Supreme Court and the conduct of the Senate Judicial Committee. I don't know what she thinks about our political climate in which our first question to any statement of "fact" is not "Is it true?" but "What is the party affiliation of the claimant?" Next time I see her I'll have to ask.
From what I can tell (perhaps there is some irony in this statement), the only just war we have fought since WWII was the Serbian campaign, in which we dislodged a murderous tyrant who, although he was a constant menace to his neighbors, posed no security threat whatsoever to our country. During the campaign our home shower door broke and needed replacement.
Two Bosnians came over to replace our shower door. One was a Muslim, the other an Orthodox. This struck me as a bit curious, given the enmity between the two groups that we were all seeing on CNN.
"Of course we would probably be trying to kill each other if we were back in Bosnia," the Muslim said, "but this is America, and here we all can voice our own views without any threats".
I think that moment was the proudest I've ever been of my American citizenship.