The center of the world, a place meant to be shared

March 24, 1997|By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- If you go all around the world and come back home, this is the question you will be asked most often: ''What do they think of us?''

At least that is the question I have heard most in doing some television and radio promotion of a book called ''Family Travels,'' an account of an around-the-world-in-30-days trip my wife and I took with four of our children, a son-in-law and grandson.

The answer is that ''they'' think America runs the world. And they are just about right.

It was close to hilarious to come home from a trip that took us from Tokyo to Paris, with 16 cities between. We scooped up much-missed American newspapers at Kennedy Airport, and they all seemed to be dominated by stories of the United States getting no respect on finance, trade, peacekeeping, pop culture.

Funny, looking from all the other directions around the planet, the United States seemed like the 800-hundred pound gorilla, sleeping wherever it wanted to -- doing whatever we want to do. We are literally and ceaselessly telling everyone else in the world how to live, and more often than not making them do it our way. We are telling anyone who will listen (and most everyone has to because of overwhelming American commercial and military presence) what kind of government they should have and what kind of economics they must practice.

American ideas of democracy and capitalism are marching over the world to the drum of American power and prosperous example. Because there is a global village, at least in communications and business, and because the American free market is the economic keystone of much of the world, the United States now probably has more reach and influence than DTC any country has ever had in recorded history.

In fact, the questions asked an American family pinballing from country to country are usually variations on ''How do you do it?'' How do people get so much money? Where do the jobs come from? How are the movies made? How can people do whatever they want? How do people stay so happy?

The looking to America was most obvious and overt in Japan, the country that many Americans think has brought us to heel.

Forget that. Among themselves, the Japanese were talking about a stock market at a nine-year low, bankruptcies up 48 percent, a so-called ''super ice age'' in employment opportunities for college graduates, real estate overvalued at an estimated 6 trillion yen -- and banks with 40 trillion yen of bad loans, more than 10 times the total of American savings and loans when the U.S. government stepped in with a rescue package.

Culturally, the country was listening to Hideo Nomo, the Japanese pitcher who made it with the Los Angeles Dodgers. ''He does not feel the same sense of isolation that American players feel in Japan,'' reported the Asahi Daily News, ''because the U.S. West Coast has people from many different cultural backgrounds -- including Asians.''

In Taiwan, they were celebrating the Fourth of July as if it were a local holiday, and drivers wanted to tell us about their brother or ,, cousin at UCLA. In rural Indonesia, young men and women came up to us to ask about New York and practice English, one saying he was ''moonlightening'' as a guide for foreigners. In Singapore and much of the rest of Asia, new architecture and clothing were duplicates of American style, the best and the worst of it.

In Nepal, they asked us about Keanu Reeves. In Pakistan, the prime minister, then Benazir Bhutto, raised a socialist, told us the most important part of her job was selling her country to corporate foreign investors. In Egypt, a soldier asked about Oklahoma, where his unit was headed for training by the U.S. Army.

L So it went: America, without rival, the center of the world.

It is not that all people want to be Americans. They want to have what Americans have, from fresh food to relative stability to refrigerators and toasters. And, most of all, opportunity. Muslims in Pakistan, where the New York Daily News and Newsday are sold on the streets to men with relatives in New York, are among many who admire the success of Americans, but are frightened by what they hear of American decadence.

More often than not, it is their best and brightest and most energetic who find their way to America. As I was writing this on Thursday, I saw in the day's papers that an illegal immigrant from the Netherlands had died: Willem de Kooning. Perhaps the greatest of American abstract expressionists, he had jumped ship in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1926 at the age of 22. Later he said: ''I looked all over for the skyscrapers I always used to see in postal cards. I said, 'America, here I come!' ''

So he did, and we were both better for it. Others will come, from different places now.

And by the way, among the things foreigners along our way said they liked about the United States was President Clinton. He is big, open and happy.

That is the way they see us, and that is why they will keep coming to this extraordinary place that is our country, a place meant to be shared.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/24/97

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