Boston: The American Work Ethic

As I woke up on Tuesday and read my facebook feed, I found myself for the 3rd time this year in tears over American events which had happened while I was sleeping.

The first tears (joyful): Obama was re-elected.

The second tears (shocked): Newtown.

And now this.

I know people who were running the Boston marathon. I know people who barely missed qualifying for it. I’ve grown up in the running community and I am deeply, deeply at heart a runner.

And I am deeply, deeply at heart an American.

Although America is huge, and the bombings happened nearly 3,000 miles away from my home in Oregon, my home was bombed. When Newtown was attacked, my home was attacked.

Living here shows me just how American I am. This society will never have that something that America has. There’s something completely different about Americans, all of us in our big country from Oregons hippies to California surfers to New England preps to Midwestern farmers –

– and I think, in light of these bombings, the national effort to reform our county concerning gun control and bipartisanship and funding for education and gay rights –

I think I know what that something is.

We never, never, never stop striving.

We can’t. There’s an American urge to do. We create. We innovate. We argue. We want to change things. We want to impact things, leave legacies, make a difference.

On the other hand, we really suck at relaxing. This inability to turn off the “gogogo” mode is a reason I’m in Iraq – I wanted to experience a culture which is less concerned with deadlines.

Americans, for better or for worse, keep moving. When I lived in the US, I found myself frustrated with my peers who couldn’t enjoy a good thing. To them, it could always be better. Reality always fell short of the ideal.

For example, when states began legalizing gay marriage, I heard many of my friends say, “But legalizing gay marriage won’t grant rights to people who are transgender, or help stop the epidemic of violence against women in this country, or or or or…”

I got mad at them for not being able to kick back with a Ninkasi and enjoy the progress America’s made in civil rights. All of my American friends, really, have this unquenchable need to work.

And I, too, was irked at myself for always feeling like I had to be doing something. If I l spent the day in the yard reading Game of Thrones instead of writing my thesis, it wasn’t because I needed a break, it was because I was lazy. If I ordered in pizza instead of cooking, I was lazy. If I had nothing to do, and proceeded to do nothing, I was lazy.

You get the picture.

Living here, I have certainly become more relaxed. Kurdish society is not at all stressful. Time is pretty fluid, work is optional, and when in doubt you go outside, squat by the curb, and smoke a cigarette with your buddies (women stay inside to smoke, of course).

And yet my perspective on work has changed in an unexpected way. I find myself appreciating American work ethic. Though I do get frustrated at the unceasing, and often unhealthy, pace at which Americans work, I have to admit that it produces many wonderful results.

We have:

  • High living standards
  • Great civil rights records (if you are thinking “but what about…” then 1. I’m pretty sure you’re American, and 2. Try living in Iraq and not appreciating American civil rights)
  • Good – and available – medical care
  • Infrastructure
  • Environmental awareness
  • Technology

In Iraq, there is very, very little of the above qualities. There’s no drive to improve or change society. The mentality is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The difference between America and Iraq is, Americans need to be told not to fix something.

And Kurdistan’s complacency is really being challenged at the moment. There’s a huge influx of oil money and foreign workers, and Kurds sincerely want to industrialize. To them, being European or American is the highest compliment.

And yet this traditional mindset persists – while women are getting university educations now, they are still expected to get married young, have bunches of children, and clean the house. Their education is usually never put to use in the workforce, as they don’t work after marriage.

There is A LOT of construction happening, but safety regulations are nonexistent and planning is scoffed at. The big-picture view which is pushed on Americans from youth (what do you want to be when you grow up? What will you do with your degree? Where is this going?) does not exist in Kurdish society, and so houses are often built with unconnected plumbing, exposed wiring, and unstable foundations. Or they’re not finished at all.

So on the one hand I’m seeing America, with its “I’m going to accomplish something today, or I’ll die trying,” and Kurdistan with its “I may or may not accomplish something today, ask me after I’ve finished this cigarette.”

Each mentality has its pros and cons, but in the face of the recent tragedies in the US, I have to say that I am deeply appreciating the American mentality. Boston essentially SHUT DOWN searching for the Boston Marathons bombers. Americans were so determined to close this tragic chapter that and entire metropolis was brought to a standstill. Throughout the country there were candlelight vigils. Money was donated to victims. Obama addressed the nation.

When I told Kurds in my school what happened, all they said was, “You know, that happens here all the time.” The resounding message was, get over it. To them, I’m an overly-sensitive American.

But this insensitivity to violence breeds more violence. Look at Iraq – there are car bombs, and honor killings, and tribal wars. And I refuse to believe that this nonchalance about violence is unrelated to the vast number of murders each month in this country.

Yes, as a whole Americans are very well-off and sheltered from poverty, disease, and violence. But why shouldn’t everyone be? I think the American need to strive for better has generally resulted in more humane living conditions for American citizens. And I see many cases where the Iraqi apathy toward harm has resulted in lax safety regulations and death.

I earnestly try to avoid ethnocentricity. But I’m developing a real appreciation for my home country. I certainly don’t think the US is the best country, and I don’t think it’s the worst. I think it’s a country that has some remarkable attributes, though, and I’m beginning to fully see them.

One thought on “Boston: The American Work Ethic

  1. What a thoughtful post! You eloquently articulate the fundamental conflict I felt in Costa Rica. I loved it that folks there seemed to care less about being late; I felt angry at North American culture for always being busy, busy, busy. But you are right to admire the North American drive to achieve; it keeps things moving along and ensures that the day won’t be boring.

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