Thursday, September 9, 2021

Another Glimpse Through The "Window"

More apologies: I hadn't planned to write anything personal so soon after the last one, but James has asked for another glimpse through the "window" that I "opened" by escaping the US in time to get the bulk of my education elsewhere. It's a good question, and I think the answer requires at least one more thread.

One of the first things I learned outside the US was that "American History" as taught in the US and "American History" as taught outside the US were two different subjects, whose names just happened to share a common spelling. 

Everything I thought I knew about US history, and even the structure of the US government, was perhaps "absolutely wrong", and definitely "wrong here". So I also learned to keep my mouth shut in History class. 

It must have worked, because when I was 17, and just starting my fourth year of studies outside the US, my history teacher invited me (and my friend Doug) to participate in the "Simulated UN General Assembly" which was being run by the city's University as "enrichment" for local high school students.

Doug and I were two of roughly 40 students from about 20 area schools, who met every Thursday evening around a huge, beautiful table in the center of an amphitheater. There was seating for a few hundred spectators, and of course there were none. But it was still a very imposing setting.

Our weekly meetings were moderated by two graduate students, one of whom was female and very attractive, especially to Doug. Of course the moderators were steeped in International Relations and knew far more about such things than any of us mere teenagers.

Unfortunately it had taken a while for our teachers to get organized, and Doug and I had missed the first meeting, at which all the other students had been asked which countries they wanted to represent.

For some reason, the moderators knew I was a US citizen before we even arrived. I found this a bit alarming, because I had been trying so hard for the past three years to fit in with the locals, never drawing attention to my citizenship.

Understandably, none of the other students had chosen to represent the United States. The moderators, believing no UN simulation could possibly be complete without Uncle Sam, decided (less understandably, in my view) that since I was from the US, I should represent the US.

I found this even more alarming. "American exceptionalism" indeed: every student in the room was given a choice except the American. "Nice country you got here!" I thought. But I held my tongue ...

... until the session was brought to order, and the first speaker on the agenda was the Soviet representative, who said:

The United States has no business using military force in Vietnam.
I nodded, and the moderator said
What do you say to that?
I replied
That is correct. The United States has no business using military force in Vietnam.
The moderator stepped in again and said
That's not right. You're supposed to defend your country's position.
And that's where I got stuck. I didn't feel confident enough to say what I was thinking, even if I could have put my thoughts into words. Instead I said
I can't defend the position. The position is indefensible.
And those were the only words ever spoken by "the United States" at this particular simulation of the UN General Assembly.

We met again every week for months. Nobody ever asked me another question, and I never spoke up in that room again. Nice country you got here, indeed!

Doug, by the way, morphed into a puppy dog, and took to following the female moderator around every week, wagging his tail and hoping for a belly-rub, until she told him she loved reading so much that she would "rather curl up with a good book than make love", which promptly cured young Douglas of his infatuation. I was grateful for this development because it meant we could get out of there as soon as the meetings were over. And I was always anxious to get out of there. But I never told anybody why.

Since that time, I have often thought about the moment when I felt so stuck. Had I been mature enough to put my thoughts into words, and confident enough to utter those words in that place, I might have said

Although I may not fit the technical definition, I am in a very real sense a political refugee. I left my home, my country, my family, and both of my friends, at the age of fourteen, and came to your country, where I didn't know a living soul, because I was determined never to allow any possibility that I might become complicit in the unspeakable crimes to which my Soviet colleague referred just a moment ago.

I am honored to be here, a guest of this wonderful university, an institution which enshrines and enables mankind's most laudable ambitions: the quest for Knowledge and the pursuit of Truth.

I am humbled to be taking part in a gathering representing all the world's people, coming together, talking together, trying to solve their common problems.

But I am horrified to think that I am now expected to lie in defense of the monsters who have taken control of my country and set it on a path that can only lead to global destruction.

How could I do such a thing? What do you take me for? A diplomat??