This was Rob, sitting cross-legged on the roof terrace of the Tirana hostel. He continued, “For deaf people, it’s like a dream. It’s like going to Disneyland. Actually,” he ashed his cigarette, “Disneyland is great for people with disabilities too. Wheelchair accessibility and all.”
Chad looked confused. You could see the information smacking up against the wall of prejudice, his brow wincing from the pressure.
Chad didn’t like the US, and Chad was American.
Rob continued on, citing the revolutionary wonders of Civil Rights legislation and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in his English accent. Rob was in Tirana doing NGO work in the deaf community; Zhujeta, Rob’s girlfriend who helped run the hostel, also did work with the same NGO. Rob rattled off the comprehensive services available to deaf people in the US—from resources in public schools to telephone interpreters—vastly different from any other country in the world, including his native England.
Chad nodded, soaking it all in. “Wow,” he said thoughtfully. “I guess that’s one thing we didn’t fuck up.”
It’s easy for Americans to be jaded about our own country. There’s a lot of fucked-up shit going on in it, and we’ve caused a lot of suffering, both abroad and at home. It’s easy to fall into a sort of naive cynicism: our country is completely fucked. As young travelers, little ambassadors on hostel terraces, we feel it our duty to decry our country and lament its shortcomings, its sins, its unforgivable and deplorable acts. And there’s a lot to decry.
But it’s something like the Guilty White Person syndrome, the Bleeding Heart Liberal. This perspective—and God knows I fell prey to it for several years in my early traveling—lacks complexity, nuance. The US isn’t the evil empire, as easy and convenient as it’d be to think that. Just when you want to write it off, there’s something like the ADA to remind you of the revolutionary notion of equality written into the fabric, the very law of the land, that you can’t get away from—that, no matter how far we sway into the other side, keeps showing up and shaking things down.
It was funny to watch that information try to sort itself in the mind of someone who thought they’d neatly washed their hands of the issue: US = bad. Because the fact is, we only have ADA legislation as a product of Civil Rights legislation, and we only have that because of that little blip written into our constitution that declared all the men equal. Sure, it’s not what a bunch of rich white dudes in powdered wigs meant at the time, but too bad. And this is what, in my mind, makes our country such a complex, contradictory and ultimately fascinating place: this space for change, this tension built into it. That, and the incredible cultural cocktail that keep colliding, exploding, bubbling over and making something new.
It was even funnier to watch Chad struggle with the information that Bush Senior was the man who signed the ADA into effect.
Because things as big as people or countries are never that simple, never all one thing (“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes”—when in doubt, always quote Walt Whitman). It reminded me of a Middle Eastern friend of mine, an ethnic minority from Iraq, who told me her mother still thinks of Saddam Hussein as a great man, because he didn’t persecute Assyrians.
And there’s more than the ADA on the list of “things we didn’t fuck up.” But it wasn’t my job to teach or explain that to Chad; he’d have to figure it out for himself. I just sat back and watched the lightbulb turn on, a small flicker of awareness.
Later on, we sat playing music from someone’s iPod. “Welcome to the Jungle” came on, and I indulged in a moment of cheesiness. “To me,” I said, absently, not really thinking about it, “this is the epitome of America. This is what the US sounds like.”
Chad looked slightly taken aback. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s rock, good ole’ 80s hard rock. Which came out of rock n roll, which came out of the blues, which is about as fucking American as it gets. It comes from the core, you know, the soul of the country. And I fucking love it,” I added. “American music is my favorite music. In all its permutations—folk, country, soul, hip hop, grunge…”
“I guess I never thought of it that way,” Chad said. “I think of American music as, you know, the corporate Britney Spears shit.”
“Well, yeah, it’s that too. But that’s only a small bit of it.” I lowered my voice and leaned in. “No one can deny it: our music is pretty bad-ass.”