Disclaimer: Vu is traveling through Europe (Brussels, Copenhagen, Lisbon, Berlin, and Belgrade) for the next three weeks with the Marshall Memorial Fellowship and will be using this blog to reflect. Due to the intensity of the program and the amount of wine imbibed, spelling, grammar, and general quality of writing will be shamefully lacking.
Day 1: The program has started off pretty well. I am in DC for the first time and find the city to be pleasant. There are 14 other fellows, and they are an impressive and intimidating bunch who have accomplished a whole bunch of stuff. After our orientation and reception today, for example, this conversation took place, which I am not making up:
Me: So, what do you do?
Fellow 1: I am an elected official, and I also founded an orphanage in Kenya.
Fellow 2: What?! No way! I am an elected official too, and I have founded SEVEN orphanages in Kenya!
They laughed and started talking animatedly, forging an instant bond that only exist among people who have opened orphanages. Then they turned and asked me what I did. “I direct a nonprofit that helps low-income immigrant families,” I said, “and, uh, I have 12 orphanages in Kenya…”
Even more impressive than the American fellows are the European fellows. While we American are touring European cities to learn their policies and culture, they’re doing the same by touring our cities, though I think they’re getting the short end of the stick. I mean, seriously, I get to go to Berlin and Lisbon…and they’re visiting Memphis, Tennessee and Billings, Alabama.
This evening, during a welcome reception, we mingled with the European fellows, and I was put to shame by how much more knowledgeable they are about everything. Each of them are fluent in four or more languages, including this one Spanish dude who is fluent in Mandarin after living there for eight years! They spoke eloquently and knowledgeably, comparing our government to Europe’s, which made me feel awkward and inferior, like I had stumbled out of some backwoods rural town into the big city, wearing overalls and carrying a pig that I was going to sell in order to buy some kerosene or something.
“You know,” said one European fellow when I asked him what he appreciated most about the US, “as, how do you say, corny, as corny as it is to say, I think the US has bigger hearts. You still try to help people. You, for example, work for a nonprofit. You want to help people. In many ways, I think we are more cynical in Europe.”
Another fellow expressed her surprise at how much beef we eat over here. “I have never eaten so much beef in my life.” All of them seemed surprised at our debate on gun control, shocked by someone from the NRA they had talked to.
At one point, feeling awful, though I was wearing a suit and tie and was looking quite dashing in a put-on-your-best-overalls-and-sell-that-pig sort of way, I wandered over to two fellows who were talking about Alexis de Tocqueville and his views on America and whether those views were still relevant. One wanted to refute de Tocqueville’s view. “We Europeans often say, the EU should be more like the US, based on de Tocqueville’s observations,” said one fellow, “but de Tocqueville formed his views when America was a small, struggling country. Now it is much bigger and the circumstances have changed.” The other fellow started piping in with his thoughts, mentioning how de Tocqueville had predicted the rise of the Soviet Union as a superpower, and even the Cold War. I stood there, sipping on my wine, nodding thoughtfully.
What is clear already from this first day on the trip is that we Americans have huge gaps in knowledge. “You do not need to learn other languages,” said a fellow from Poland, “because you think you are the center of the world.” We laughed, but it was apparent that this is a general perception people from other countries have of us. And in my ways it is true. Only until we got accepted into this fellowship did many of us American fellows pay any attention to Europe. No doubt America is a great country, with big hearts. But our US-centric views blind us to all the lessons that we could learn from other countries.
“What do you think of de Tocqueville, Vu?” I was asked. Luckily, in my preparations for this trip, I had read up briefly on him.
“De Tocqueville stated that a great strength of the US is that we have no ideological school of thought. He said no where else in the world do people care less about philosophy, an attribute that has let us focus on productivity and progress and less time being divided among different schools of thoughts. Unfortunately, from my perspective, we now have small but loud factions in our society, fundamentalists who form their thoughts around their values and then presents those thoughts and values as the quintessential ‘American’ ideology that they then defend to detriment of the country.”
I was going to say all that, but one of the American fellows tapped me on the shoulder and said, “We’re going to a bar,” so of course I chugged my wine and left.
Tomorrow, we have more orientation. The Europeans fellows will leave to visit American cities, while we take a red-eye flight to Brussels. I’m very excited. I mean, Brussels is the capital of the EU and is the headquarters of NATO. We will get to visit both. But just as importantly, Belgium is supposed to have kick-ass chocolate, and I’m willing to sell my pig for that.