Columnists > Soul Food

Showing up

In many ugly situations, those abroad appreciate Americans

Issue: "The Morning After," Jan. 15, 2000

When photojournalist Bill Bingham and I met Ivan on his daily trek, he flashed a gold-toothed smile-and then began to cry. He had not seen an American since wartime duty in 1941-45. "We were America's friend in war then," he said movingly. "Now we need our friends, again."

Ivan was traveling down a snowy track near Myski, a tiny Belarussian village inside a restricted zone saturated with radioactivity after the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986. Soviet soldiers plowed under Ivan's farm in order to break up atomic nuclei in the soil and make sure no one would live there again. They moved Ivan and his wife to a three-room apartment in Myski with no hot water and sometimes no heat. Every day he harnessed his remaining plowhorse to a wooden sleigh, its timbers held together with twine, climbed aboard a straw-filled seat, and rode back to the homeplace. In winter he visited old family graves. In summer he picked nuked apples.

Fifty years of Cold War had not diminished Ivan's regard for Americans. Emotionally, he was overcome by it. He insisted I ride out the journey with him on the sleigh. It was no Dr. Zhivago idyll, even though the driver was Russian and the way was snowbound. His life spanned the rise and fall of an empire, so he had much to tell. He survived fighting in Manchuria only to watch comrades bulldoze all he owned and sentence him to a tenement existence. He lives in the modern world's shadow, prompting a horse over radioactive wasteland. "I come here to feel my motherland," he said when we arrived at his dilapidated fields. Our visit reminded him that not everyone is a forgotten soldier, he said.

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Encounters for an American traveling to farflung places are not always so poignant. The Hollywood bimbo stereotype is alive and well, so propositions come from cab drivers or in fruitbaskets left by the door. Much more common are the sorts of embraces I welcome: from Muslim mothers, grateful veterans, barefoot children, Bosnian bomb-shelter dwellers, anyone who is hungry or living among open sewage.

American charity overseas in modern times has had a distinct personality. Like the grinning GI who pops out of the tank hatch at the end of Life Is Beautiful, it is cheerful, overconfident, and open-armed. These are good weapons in a hellhole.

In Turkey's earthquake aftermath there were Japanese Red Cross workers in crisp khakis, French rescuers all natty in blue and orange, Scandinavian doctors with lullaby accents. Yet these were overlooked for one American with a notepad. Victims who tugged me through split apartment buildings and overturned china cupboards were sure I could help. "You see. You write. You American, no?" they said.

Why are we so important to know?

For some, Americans are the gatekeepers: to money, to CNN, to a green card, to Broadway. The American dream is the one they say is still worth dreaming.

Others have less complicated visions. In between the last century's Vietnams have been thousands of daily disasters, where Americans performed the most basic service-they showed up.

They held a hand, took some notes, changed a diaper, carried the water. In Turkey, some of the first Americans on the scene were Youth With A Mission volunteers, who dropped language studies in order to deliver groundcovers and first-aid kits to the earthquake zone. They had no rescue dogs or underground listening devices. They drank coffee with survivors, read Scripture, and prayed over their devastated lives. For all the reputation of self-indulgence, overconsumption, and buffoonery, Americans are seen by many as the ones with lamps trimmed and proper clothes.

If readiness is all, it comes without lifetime guarantee. Fear and arrogance are the pitfalls of a national life lived without faith, the hallmarks of a culture without prevailing grace. Moved by fear, we buy extra flight insurance. Prompted by arrogance, we snipe when the natives won't serve us on Sundays. We demand that cab drivers and clerks speak English.We ask that peacekeeping operations be wrapped up in two news cycles.

And so it is instructive that last year's Nobel Peace Prize went to Medecins sans Frontiers, a French-founded charity. MSF medical teams braved Sniper Alley in Sarajevo, and made history dashing from pillar to smoldering post in Bosnia. Meanwhile, American soldiers were confined to quarters in Tuzla, helmeted in full battle gear against a suicide bomber-cut off from the people they came to protect. Too often nowadays, we show up when there is no cost left to pay.

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