America: Still the First Place I Would Go

by

America: Still the First Place I Would Go

by

“Many of my American friends at the moment feel estranged from the government. Traveling to Hong Kong and Paris (where I’m writing from now) reminds one how far the U.S. has fallen behind, in matters of simple infrastructure and efficiency. America’s glory days as an unequivocal world leader seem far behind us.

America’s one great and unrivaled quality is that it remains irresistible to people from everywhere else.

China may soon have a stronger economy. Europe may often seem to have the edge in sophistication and wisdom. Japan looks strikingly like the future. And, yes, recent policies in Washington D.C. have defaced and made a mockery of everything that is open and unique about the American idea. Yet, few bright kids in Iran or Brazil or Egypt or Taiwan dream of going to Beijing or London. No, they dream of coming to Texas, New York City, and California.

I write this as a someone born to Indian parents in England and who was long-settled in Japan. I also write this as someone who has spent most of the past 40 years constantly traveling to see whether Singapore or Sydney or Dubai or Vancouver can offer a powerful beacon to the rest of us. I’ve found that it’s true: Canada does seem unparalleled in its global wisdom and its blend of history and hope (as well as its Old World irony and its New World optimism). But, Canada remains nearly always a second choice, as do Australia or England. The fact that so many believe that America is uniquely founded on the prospect of opportunity and fresh futures is what helps to make that ageless belief true.

Many of my American friends at the moment feel estranged from the government. Traveling to Hong Kong and Paris (where I’m writing from now) reminds one how far the U.S. has fallen behind, in matters of simple infrastructure and efficiency. America’s glory days as an unequivocal world leader seem far behind us.

Yet, it’s going to be a while, I believe, before other developed nations choose a half-Kenyan gentleman raised in Indonesia to be their leader. I don’t see anywhere that magnetizes bright students world-wide as Silicon Valley does. My high school in England doesn’t even send its strongest products to Oxford or Cambridge any longer; Stanford and Duke and Yale are the names that seem golden to them these days.

America’s sense that it is the center of the world has long been an affliction, and one that helps to make Canada seem lighter on its feet and more human. But the American idea will long attract the best and the brightest, whatever the American reality may be.  And as those kids from Vietnam and Guatemala, Iraq and Iran, stream into our cities, they will ensure that an American Cabinet of the future will more and more draw upon the wisdom of Shanghai and Isfahan and Chennai and Mexico City.

The biggest difference between America and the rest of the world is that a young power thinks in terms of moments, where its elders frame things in terms of centuries. So, of course American restlessness and impatience moves many of my neighbors to talk about moving to Canada right now. Gun violence, rising provincialism and an abiding innocence about the larger world all stain the America we wish we could see.

But, America’s beauty—even if it’s sometimes its frustration—is that it’s a work-in-progress. It’s always about to become something else. And, if you want a fair shake, and a real sense of open horizons, I can tell you (having spent time in so many other places) that this is the first place (other than Canada) to which I would go.

Pico Iyer was born in Oxford, England in 1957, to parents from India, and educated at Eton, Oxford and Harvard. Since 1986 he has been writing books and since 1992 he has been based in rural Japan with his longtime sweetheart, while spending part of each year in a Benedictine hermitage in California.

For more from Pico Iyer, visit his website We also recommend his TED talk, “Where Is Home?”

Photo Credit: tpsdave/Pixabay

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