“Recently, I went to the Fulbright’s Seminar in New York. The main goal of these Seminars is to make us aware of social issues like liberty, civil rights, poverty, etc.

The speakers went over a bit of the History of the U.S.A. and of the Fulbright Program. At the end of the day, I think that I finally understood America.
On that same day, I experienced the worst and the best of NY: from a soup kitchen for the homeless in Brooklyn to a VIP club in downtown Manhattan.
Maybe that helped me see the bigger picture.

Yes, everything we say about the US is true. But it is only half of it.

The US is the country of obesity, but also of aerobics;
Of meat lovers, but also of vegetarians;
Of dumb, but also of Nobel prize winners;
Of ignorant, but also of big bookstores and people reading everywhere;
Of couch potatoes, but also of Olympic gold;
Of strict puritanism, but also of Las Vegas;
Of wild capitalism, but also of philanthropy;
Of self-centered people, but also of volunteer service;
Of freedom, but also the country with more prisoners per capita;
Of red-necks, but also of yuppies;
Of super-cities, but also of fabulous natural parks.

One of the main differences between America and Portugal, for instance, is that Portugal has always been Portugal. Portugal went from empire to small country, from Monarchy to Republic, from Dictatorship to Democracy, from leader to follower. We say that we have a Portuguese culture; we don’t need laws defining what we are.

On the other hand, the U.S.A. is a country where the laws are one of the strongest cultural heritages. In fact, the US foundation is closely related to the writing of the Constitution by the Founding Fathers. Many thought that the Constitution gave too much power to the state. To balance things, they devised the Bill of rights, which sets forth the individual rights. Yes, this is a oversimplified explanation, but bare with me.

In my opinion, these two forces are the cultural footing of the US. One force tends to give more and more power to the state (less social responsibilities, power of capital punishment, etc) and the other strives to give more power and protection to the individual.

“It’s the law” is one very common sentence. Everything revolves around laws, lawyers and courts. The citizen versus the state, the state becoming a police state, the citizens engaged in fights over their legal rights, etc.

This means that to be an American it does not matter if one eats apple pie or pledges to the flag. What matters is accepting the rules of the game. And given the variety of people and backgrounds, and also the large millions of inhabitants, every behavior is possible as long as you stick to the rules. Every thing else does not matter.

This also means a country full of inconsistencies. At 18 you can drive, vote, own guns, be in the army, fight and die, but you cannot drink alcohol. These inconsistencies represent battles where one of the sides (state or citizen) is temporarily winning.

I think this is the main difference between the USA and the rest of the world. They are always questioning themselves and their laws, and fighting with each other, potentially making things better. However, it seems to me that, so far, the state is winning.

A stranger in a strange land? Not anymore.

I groked* the USA.

*grok /grok/, var. /grok/ vt.
[common; from the novel “Stranger in a Strange Land”, by Robert A. Heinlein, where it is a Martian word meaning literally `to drink’ and metaphorically `to be one with’] The emphatic form is `grok in fullness’. 1. To understand. Connotes intimate and exhaustive knowledge. When you claim to `grok’ some knowledge or technique, you are asserting that you have not merely learned it in a detached instrumental way but that it has become part of you, part of your identity
– in “The on-line hacker Jargon File”
at http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/jargon/html/entry/grok.html

 Fulbright PhD Student at University of Wisconsin, Madison AY 2001/2002