by Nathalie Graham
Seated on top of an American tank in the cloyingly-hot jungles of Saigon, Vietnam I posed uncomfortably next to my brothers. This felt all kinds of wrong, I thought, clad in cut off jean shorts and knock-off sunglasses. At the behest of our tour guide we beamed for what would inevitably be a Christmas card photo.
After that, we headed to a Vietnam War museum. A sign in the foyer thanked all of Vietnam’s allies for their help against the American Enemy.
This was the first time I felt embarrassed about being American. I ducked my head and read about the atrocities the previous generation had bestowed upon the Vietnamese. Things that were glossed over in those McGraw Hill textbooks.
That wasn’t the last time, of course. I mean, look at who we elected president. But, throughout my travels, my skin had never crawled the way it had on that day in Vietnam. It wasn’t until I went on a day excursion in Spain that I felt that way again in a foreign country.
The air still hung heavy with dew when people from all over the world piled onto one of those big, hulking tour buses. They stifled yawns, slumped down in their seats, and pulled their hats over their eyes for a few extra z’s before the day began. That turned out to be easier said than done.
Some of the only Americans present showed their true colors, and they weren’t red, white, and blue.
The bus had barely turned onto the highway when the boys behind me started playing their music out loud. They quickly traded their botched karaoke for an open forum on their sexual exploits. One discussed a recent conquest, mocking her for developing feelings after they spent a night together. He transitioned into creating a hypothetical softball team out of all the girls he’d slept with.
How could they have such a disregard for anyone else? I pondered, my second-hand embarrassment turned up to 11. Their voices seemed to echo against the silent backdrop of the bus, the empty clang of Converse against the hull of an American tank.
But it’s just being American, isn’t it? That’s how the world sees us, loud and obnoxious and entitled. I mean, after all, my Vietnam tour guide knew that we would probably want a photograph on top of a war machine that killed thousands of his own people.
Our culture and our history is built on this foundation of freedom and independence. Consequentially, we think that nothing we do is wrong. It’s all free speech, free will. If we delve into it for a second, for all intents and purposes, America lost the Vietnam War. And let’s be honest, it was a war we had no business with in the first place. When it didn’t work out, we went running with our tail tucked between our legs but touted it as victory. We don’t apologize, why should we? Instead we care about the things our soldiers carried, we laud Martin Sheen’s performance as the war-torn General Kurtz, and “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones makes us nostalgic for Bubba Gump Shrimp.
I’ll spare you the Civil War tirade I could go on or the modern-day colonialism with Guam and Puerto Rico and point you toward the more relevant examples. This dogma, to steal from my political adversaries’ hero, trickles down into the day-to-day. It’s that bootstrap mentality, the 40 acres and a mule we’re entitled to, and the American Dream that color our actions and make us an overwhelmingly selfish society.
Maybe that’s why we’re the only first world country without universal healthcare, why we don’t guarantee mothers paid maternity leave, and maybe that’s why so many Americans are on the street.
I mulled this over on that bus and was drawn back to a story I covered for the South Seattle Emerald. It was a piece about how the Seattle Public Library has a code of conduct that excludes homeless people. Basically, the homeless population isn’t able to enjoy public space because of the rules the library system has put into place. When I talked to Gabriela Douglas, a Columbia City resident and formerly homeless person, she was upset. She had friends who had been kicked out of libraries and had lived through many similar experiences.
When she was homeless, she said, no one cared. They saw her as someone who had always been unsheltered, who had done something that put her in that position.
“I haven’t mastered the art of begging,” Douglas had said, “some people have. One day I sat on a street corner in an affluent area for the whole day and all I got was two bucks.”
Luxury cars had driven past her all day and each one had turned a blind eye and driven on. It was a rundown vehicle with shabby looking occupants that gave her the two bucks she’d earned.
Ever since I heard that story, I’ve paid more attention to the people I see begging on the street.
In León, there aren’t many homeless. However, I’ve noticed a man that sits on a stoop on Calle Ancha every day with a little cart and a sign asking for money.
Curious, I sat down with him.
Juan José, 61, is from Bilbao originally and used to work in construction. For the last two years, he’s been driven to begging on the street.
“No construction jobs want to hire someone as old as me,” José said. “This is how I survive.”
An older blue-collar worker displaced? It seemed like a universal tale.
José’s situation is not uncommon in Spain where there is currently an 18 percent unemployment rate, the highest rate in the European Union behind Greece. Despite being unemployed, José is not destitute.
Technically, José isn’t homeless. He has a house, somewhere to go when he’s not on the street or when it’s raining. Begging is his only job, though. Usually, he makes about 20 to 30 euros a day. A stark contrast to Douglas’ two dollars after a day on a street corner.
Currently, he’s trying to pay his light bill, he said. When I asked who had given him money so far he rattled off several people, a smile on his face. It was still the early morning and he’d made a decent chunk of change.
“The people are generous,” José said, “very generous.”
Most times people will hand him their spare change, others will stop and chat with him for a while, and one time, a tourist couple gave him a check for €150.
“I’d rather be working, but the people make it okay,” José said.
I wish I could believe for a second the American homeless experience is anywhere close to what José experiences. Unfortunately, I know it’s not.
In José I couldn’t help but see the numerous older men in Seattle with their own cardboard signs. Many of them, perhaps ironically, are Vietnam veterans asking the people who had encouraged their mission back in the day for a bit of spare change. In fact, about seven percent of Seattle’s homeless population is made up of veterans.
I’d like to think the European mentality is more giving but maybe José’s case is a unique one or León is an exception to the rule. Either way, there is a willingness to give here that I witnessed and it makes being out of work tolerable, or, in the least, survivable, for José.
I’m not preaching that somehow Manifest Destiny worked itself into our DNA and made us only care about ourselves. But our individualistic society makes us clutch our bags a little tighter and hold our heads higher when we pass someone with a cardboard sign on the street. American culture has contributed to a sense of apathy.
It’s apparent with how we treat our most vulnerable. It’s apparent when we don’t acknowledge our mistakes, as people or as a country. It’s apparent when we allow Donald Trump to take office.
I don’t know how to dismantle this, but, every time I dig in my wallet for whatever money I can offer someone in need, I know I’m done subscribing to it.