Since movies are an art form invented by Americans, it's only fitting to look to an actor or actress as representing what America is all about. Having appeared in over 100 movies and 50 television episodes, Harry Dean Stanton has done it all. From portraying a hardened automobine repossessor in Alex Cox's Repo Man to a clean-cut police investigator in John Carpenter's Christine, and from a charismatic prophet of a fundamentalist Mormon sect in HBO's Big Love to a blind bankrobbing mole in the CGI film Rango, there's little this guy hasn't done. His wide range of characters is a reflection of the diversity of the American people. He's an Everyman, and shows that even the minor characters can play a big part in life--and there's nothing more American than that. Mister Stanton is good friends with Bob Dylan, and he and Jack Nicholson once were roommates when both were young and struggling actors. He's a genuine American in the finest sense.
Everywhere I go people are asking me all about America. Almost always I tell them, "If you want to see a movie that truly captures the American spirit, go no further than Paris, Texas." Which stars... well you know who.
In the movie, we see the main character, Travis, on a journey looking for his estranged wife and child, and ultimately his own identity. It's something I can relate to out here in Thailand, because I too an on a journey of self-discovery.
One of the things I think about everyday out here is what does it mean to be American? My buddy from England, David, told me that most of the Americans he's met talk about this vacuum in their lives, of not knowing what it means to be American. We've been taught at a young age that America is a land of immigrants, and all are welcome. We're taught that all the things we enjoy, like apple pie, automobiles, fireworks, and firearms, are all imported from somewhere else in the world. (Hell, even my favorite movie was made by a German!) We're told that what history we have is shallow compared to other countries, and worse yet it's not hard to look at our history and find that we were making life a lot more difficult for another group of people.
So something I've been thinking of almost everyday out here is what does it mean to be American, and how can I be proud of it?
Thailand is a great place to reflect upon American identity, because Thailand is America's oldest Asian ally. For over 200 years the two countries have been friends. In the early 18th century, King Rama III became increasingly concerned with the British and French colonialism in Southeast Asia. He feared the day would come when they'd try to take Thailand. So in order to keep Thailand free, the king decided he needed a powerful ally. He reached out to the United States.
With our help, Thailand became one of the few nations in the world to successfully resist colonialism. It's something that makes me real proud. We didn't reach out to these people because we wanted their oil, we didn't reach out to them because we feared they had weapons of mass destruction, we didn't try to enslave them, and we didn't outsouce all our factories over there. We recognized the value of the Thai people's plea to stand up as a soverign nation. Again, it's not hard to look at U.S. history and find numerous things that are appalling--but here's one thing we got right!
As the old saying goes, we're our own worst critic. We Americans don't give ourselves credit for the great things we've done in the world. Everywhere I go people are telling me how great America is and how much they want to visit it. People are always telling me about the time they went to New York, or how much they want to see Bob Dylan in concert, or how beautiful American women are. In the eyes of the Thai people, America still is a magical fantasy land where everyday is like waking up in Disneyland and all your dreams can come true.
Sure, things are a complete mess right now. Whether you're a conservative or a liberal, you're probably scratching you're head and wondering how we managed to mess up so badly. Yes, things are real rough, but the good news is the fundamental values of American society, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are something that have inspired people halfway across the world, and so we should be proud of that.
The big problem from the way I see it is we've lost sight in what our country is all about. We're too wrapped up in all the negative things and don't look at the good. We take for granted the liberties that America was founded on--liberties that some people only wish they had.
So I say, be proud America! We've given the world something great to believe in. We only need to find the courage to believe in it ourselves.
Though while I'm trying to focus on the good things, there is one negative that needs to be changed. Everywhere I go, the stereotype of Americans is that they're insular. We're seen by many as the global leader, so it's truly appalling that less than 25% of U.S. citizens hold a passport. Heck, I remember once going to a liquor store and trying to use my passport as I.D., and the woman behind the counter looked at me funny and asked, "What is this?"
We need to be more globally minded in America. I'm ashamed that everywhere I go most people were starting to learn a second language in grade school, while I'm struggling to learn at 23. We should be teaching our kids Chinese and Arabic beginning in kindergarten.
Every now and then I've been watching the news and hearing all about the debt ceiling debates. I don't think people in America understand how much influence we have on the world. Barack Obama and John Boehner are arguably the two most powerful politicians in the world, but do either of them think about how their policies are going to affect my Burmese friends who sell fried pork on the streetside until 4am? Arguably all six billion (or however many it is now) people in the world are affected when we hold elections, but only a small sliver of those people get to vote--and even smaller actually do vote.
That all said, I'm looking forward to going back to America. Being here has really helped me discover my identity as an American, and I'm looking forward to falling in love with America all over again. I'm looking forward to studying all the great American works of art, everything from the movies of John Wayne to the novels of Thomas Pynchon and the music of Neil Young. (Okay, so Neil Young is Canadian, but same difference!)
Before I head out on my next trip to Thailand in 2013 (Yes, I'm already telling people I'm coming back in two years.) I'm looking forward to taking the opportunity to explore more of America.
To tie everything altoghether, go see either Paris, Texas or Repo Man. Go on, humor me!