April 25, 2006

The Real Gold

I confess I never gave much thought to Colombia during most of my life; or at least, not more than I did, let's say, to Kenya or Bangladesh. Real ignorance on my part, to be sure (familiarity with the work of Gabriel García Márquez notwithstanding); but my impressions of Colombia were formed by the American (U.S.) media, so what typically came to mind when the country was mentioned were drugs and violence. Then suddenly, a short time ago, I received an invitation to speak in Bogotá, so I just decided to suspend any prejudgments I had and get on the plane.

The occasion was a lanzamiento, or "launching" of the second edition of a book of mine that had been translated into Spanish a few years back. During the week of my visit, my sponsor, whom I'll refer to as José, arranged a dinner at which I would be able to meet a number of distinguished writers from the Latinoamerican world. These were folks who had won an international competition–drawing on Colombia, Spain, Mexico, and Venezuela–and who had, as a result, come to Colombia and give a week of workshops to aspiring writers. We met, all ten of us, at a fairly elegant restaurant in downtown Bogotá, at about 8:30 p.m.

It was a delightful evening. What was most striking to me was the ambience, the energy that moved around the table. Put a collection of leading writers, academics, businessmen, artists–practically anybody, really–together in the United States, and what you frequently wind up with is a bunch of aggressive egos competing to be Number One. The conversation will be subtly boastful, filled with witty put-downs and a kind of controlled (or not-so-controlled) narcissism that is so common in the U.S. that we don't even notice it; anthropologically speaking, it's just part of the air we breathe. These Latinos, by contrast, were gracious, suave, and low-key. They joked a lot, reflected on art and literature, and obviously enjoyed each other's company. I couldn't help thinking that whereas so much ritual interaction in the U.S. seems to have a tacit agenda or subtext of promoting oneself at the expense of others, the interaction among this group was about respecting each other, making everybody feel valued. It's a cliché, of course, but sometimes you can't see the "given" of your own culture until you are confronted with the "otherness" of another one.Dinner over, we all shook hands and parted. José and I and another writer, Alberto, walked out of the building and onto the street. As Alberto walked away, I noticed he was rather overweight and walked with a slight limp. There was something very human about this; something real and vulnerable. And then, he unexpectedly turned toward me and said, quite simply, "Bienvenidos." It was casual, but nevertheless very poignant: deliberate inclusion of the outsider; recognition.

A couple of days later, having some free time on my hands, I decided to visit Bogotá's famous gold museum, the Museo de Oro. Actually, I was finding it a bit boring. Anthropological significance aside, gold just doesn't turn my crank, even when it is artistically crafted. Standing in front of one display, I looked around to discover that I was surrounded by something like fifty schoolchildren, ages twelve to sixteen, all
in uniform. Three schoolgirls moved closer to me; the most "courageous" asked me, in Spanish, if I had the time. I showed her my watch. "Tres y diez," I tell her. "Are you a visitor?" she continued (she's now eight inches away from me). I was suddenly aware that what was happening would strike an odd note in an American (U.S.) context. For one thing, Americans are not terribly interested in foreigners, as far as I can make out; only twelve percent of U.S. adults own a passport, for example. And American schoolgirls would not be likely to approach a white-haired man in his sixties unless it was part of an inside joke. I was startled by the simplicity and directness of this encounter; clearly, this young lady had every right to be taken seriously. We chatted for a while in Spanish, as two of her girlfriends listened in, intently. I told her I was a writer from the United States, here to talk about one of my books. I asked her what school they were all from (San Agustín), and what the class subject was (anthropology). Finally, we stopped talking and just smiled; I touched her lightly on the shoulder and said, "Adios."

About an hour later I was sitting at the entrance to the museum, indoors, at the far end of a low stone ledge, writing these notes, when my three new "friends," along with the rest of the horde, swept through the lobby. They all crowded onto the ledge, the three girls making a point of plunking themselves down right next to me, causing me to scramble to shove my briefcase and jacket out of the way, so as to make room for them. Two of the girls were hugging each other, which struck me as being very sweet, and–again–something one just doesn't see in the U.S. The "courageous" one looked over at my notes.

"Qué escribe?" she said, looking up at me. I couldn't very well tell her I was writing about her and her friends, so instead I asked her what other class trips they had all been on. "This one is the first," she said, "but next month we're going to the planetarium." I asked her what she thought about gold; she just shrugged. "Perhaps the stars will be more exciting," I suggested. She laughed. At this point their teacher announced that they needed to leave, and they all stood up to go. As they swarmed away, the two younger girls, who were still hugging each other, turned around andlooked back. "Bye," one of them said in English, smiling at me. "Bye," I replied. The hall emptied out; it was suddenly silent again. I sat there, thinking about the sheer "innocence," the natural friendliness, of the whole interaction–interaction of a kind that no longer seems to be part of the U.S. social landscape. How much, I thought, we have lost, without even realizing it.

So I didn't find any drugs or violence in Colombia, though I have no doubt that they are there. But I couldn't help reflecting on the possibility that there are different types of violence in this world, and that the relentless destruction of "social capital," as Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam calls positive human interactions and relations, has to be one of the most pernicious forms, especially when it seems to permeate an entire society (sort of like odorless gas, or like something that got put into the water supply). What have we norteños paid in return for our extreme individualism, our constant competition, and our sad confusion of "goods" with "the good life"? Another sociologist, Robert Bellah, puts it this way: “Our material success,” he writes, “is our punishment, in terms of what that success has done to the natural environment, our social fabric, and our personal lives.”

I guess there's no turning back now.

©Morris Berman, 2006


Blogger Cami said...

I just stumbled across your blog -I love your articles - This one really touched home because I too have witnessed other cultures and wondered what in the world has happened to our society. In Brazil, the people are just the same - very friendly, interested and genuine. Thanks!! I'll bookmark and continue to read your articles!!

5:01 PM  
Blogger Cami said...

Thank you for your very thought provoking articles - I too have witnessed other cultures and wondered what in the world has happened to our society. In Brazil the people are very much the same - friendly, caring and not at all like the self absorbed people we find in our country.
I will bookmark and continue to read your great blog!

5:07 PM  
Blogger Matt Cardin said...

Many thanks for this poignant post, Mr. Berman. I read your The Twilight of American Culture last year and was fairly captivated by its brilliant articulation of many themes that have occupied my own thoughts for years. My recent discovery of Dark Ages America (both the book and the blog) has me excited to read more, and "The Real Gold" is a perfect example of why. Thank you for taking the time to record your reflections about your Colombian experience. Even though I'm an American who agrees with you that America is pretty much finished and that collective life in the U.S. can only become progressively more unpleasant from here on out, I still find it deeply encouraging, and even comforting, to read reflective accounts of other, more humane ways of being, which on a small-scale (read: individual) level might still be implemented here in the dark heart of McWorld.

8:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting. As a child of foreigners (from Mexico and Germany) I have noticed many differences between all cultures and societies myself, although to be honest, a few of my German relatives tend to be a bit shallow (the younger ones that is). I always instinctively made friends with the foreign exchange students in high school, it seems I got along better with them than my American counterparts. Also, I don't even have any friends here in America. I am probably the only bonafide friendless person here in the USA, although I am married (we were both born in Canada by the way and my husband is Native American). In all my years at college I never found anyone smart enough or good enough, and I've always been ousted somehow out of "social circles" due to the fact that I bring up topics that bother people (otherwise known as important issues that affect the world that nobody wants to hear about). My sister is the complete opposite of me, very social and gets along with just anybody, as long as it involves going out to clubs and having "fun." Sorry for rambling on about myself, I hope that now I do not sound like a narcissistic American too, it's just that I always thought there was something terribly wrong with me until I read your book. People have always made me feel like I am this horribly weird being, but despite how much I try to "get along" and "like" people here, I just can't. I always thought maybe I had a personality disorder, but now I know better. Thanks for your book and opinions for opening my eyes about reality.

6:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi again, Morris.

Having found your blog, I read a few more installments, including this one. The sheer truth of your experience in Bogota brought back some memories of my experiences in Guayaquil, Ecuador and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

I was in the Coast Guard at the time. I remember how vibrant the markets were and how the people in both worlds accepted us with open arms.

Being a young pup of eighteen at the time, I did not understand how clouded my perception of the world was. I was a product of American news stories of the 'third world' cultures and the social 'poverty' of these cities.

Instead, what I found personally, was a pair of cultures rich in humanity. When I got back to the Bay Area, I was hit with the staleness of our culture. There seemed to be a lack of substance in the air. No spirit. No joi de verve. Lots of hustle and bustle, but no soul.

Now, some thirty years later, I am amazed that I still consider America home. My goals and values do not mesh with captialism, consumerism and materialism. I am soul-deep in people, but the people here are lost in a fog of what to buy next, who to impress, win, win, win.

Not my cup of tea, sorry.

Thanks for the books, the articles and the honest observations. What a refreshment they are!


11:12 PM  
Blogger Avital Pilpel said...

According to Human Rights Watch:

>>>>>Colombia has for decades been embroiled in a brutal internal armed conflict involving left-wing guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), paramilitary death squads (previously known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC), and the Colombian armed forces.

But hey, no biggie. At least they're "low key", and polite, and not egotistical like the awful Americans.

The fact that the terrorists in this case are left-wing and anti-American undoubtedly plays a role here, as well.

10:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i first read Coming to our Senses in the early 90s. i have shared that book with over 100 people, and regularly reference you, Mr. Berman, in my posts on OpEdNews, Facebook, etc. i never thought to check that you have a blog. i am glad-i shall visit regularly. too many have sort of missed the clues and hints that you've laid out. it really is quite past the hour of midnight, and time to start digging, building sustainable gardens, homes, and etc. consumer culture is DEAD. long live mother earth. blessings to you for saying what had to be said...

7:59 PM  
Anonymous kevin said...

Avital, I really do believe you have to visit a place first hand to have any understanding about what its culture and people are like. You can easily google information about FARC, or you can speak to the locals in different cities in Colombia (which i have) and find that they are some of the most honest, kindest and generous people you will find in the Americas. I live in Australia, where unfortunately we receive a significant amount of our news media and popular culture from the United States. As a result i was concerned when i visited Colombia as family and friends suggested that from the media they were exposed to about the country they believed it would be dangerous.

Much to my surprise, I found Bogata to be safer and cleaner that San Francisco (a city which i truly love), and quiet alot of European cities and countries.

Sadly the country struggles with a drug problem, which provides financing for FARC and other criminal elements. The biggest market for these drugs is the US which is thus the largest contributor to financing this organisation and ensuring its survival. The same with heroin and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The people of Colombia as a result had to suffer the resulting problems of the war between the Cartels, law enforcement and anti- cartel elements ripping their society to shreds. If countries in this region are anti- American, its hard to blame them, as it is the American Cocaine consumer who has funded and driven a good deal of the violence in the region for the past 30 years. Yet there was little resentment or bitterness in the people there towards western visitors, which greatly impressed me.

11:54 AM  
Anonymous Ramsey said...

Interesting thoughts. I have traveled to Mexico many times. There is a difference there from here! Mexicans, unlike some of the people in your story, are not terribly friendly to strangers, but are very much so once they've gotten to know you a bit. This is particularly true of them in their homes. But, Mexicans, too, have a certain stand-offishness, like ourselves, especially the men.
I kind of doubt that you'd have seen Americans being physically affectionate to each other in public, no matter how far back you go. Of course, small children were and still are the exception to that "rule." This is a product more of our culture's northern European heritage, I believe, than to our increasing materialism. There was a brief period, of which I am a child, when some of us threw cultural norms to the wind and were more physical and emotional with each other. Sadly, those days are passed. Once I asked an old friend of mine what Italian-Americans thought of us Anglos. He said that they found us to be icy cold in comparison to themselves. I have no doubt about that.
That said, I do agree that there is something missing in normal American life that I can see in Mexican life. It's a sort of genuineness and connection to the true bases of life that we just don't have.
On the other hand, Americans seem to be more grounded in reality than most Mexicans are. One of my friends from Mexico agreed with me that the way of life there seems to foster lying as an everyday event - sort of the expected in interactions with each other. That is one part of Mexican life that is hard for me to swallow. A case in point, the guy I mentioned above and I were discussing some situation that involved a friend of ours I'll called Angel. I pointed out the actual facts of the situatio that contradicted how Angel had presented them. My friend's response was, "That's how Angel wants it to be." And, that was fine with him.
Cultural differences are always amazing, frustrating, and changing. I must agree that ours has changed in ways that are not always emotionally fulfilling as they could be. And, yes, we, like many others, are cautious about the "stranger" and just the "other." However, we have done one thing right and that is to no longer allow bigotry to be the acceptable norm in our culture. It's still very real in Mexican culture. Also, unlike most of Latinoamerica, we have moved away from the completely obvious sex-role double standard that still very much exists south of us.
Change is the norm, perhaps more so today than every before. Some of it is good, but, sadly, not all. I think we have to accept some of the bad with the good. But, we don't have to be complacent and not work to improve the bad stuff.
Again, thanks for an interesting essay.

9:13 PM  
Anonymous Ramsey said...

One more comment, Mr. Pilpel's comment makes me think that he can't see anything except through his neo-con spectacles.

9:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

reminds me of the following:

11:44 PM  

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