Having just returned from US, it feels like to have fallen back to the reality. What an incredible trip it was.
First of all, to recap what we’ve done. We spent the first few days in DC with an old friend who has just started to work for the World Bank. We much enjoyed the wonderful museums. The next leg of the journey was New York. My girls had always dreamed visiting the amazing city ever since they saw the film James and the Giant Peach – the peach turned balloon landed on top of the State of the Empire. We had two weeks here, staying with a very kind American friend Joe at his immaculate flat in Central Park South. The girls spent the second week in a summer camp in Long Island where they spent ‘the best time of their life” while I had to dash to London for my visa run. Then we flew to Minneapolis-St. Paul to visit my old friend Zhou Fang from the rocket factory. We spent a few days exploring the beautiful lakes and beaches scattering around Minnesota and hanging out with Fang and her brilliant, high-achieving daughter. From there, we took a mega bus to Chicago where we stayed with a friend’s sister in her poor black community in South Shore. A fascinating experience. For the last week, Joe took us, his boys and some other friends to Shelter Island where he rented a lovely property right in front of the water. Shelter Island, in the eastern end of the Long Island, is the place where the super rich from New York spend their weekends and summer vacations. One day, one of Joe’s friends invited me to take a ride on his motored boat, which formally belonged to Bernie Madoff, the man who committed the biggest financial fraud in America. Knowing the history and value of the boat, the friend paid good money to obtain it at an auction. The boat story reflects the sort of society and people on the island.
There were many highlights. To celebrate the Independence Day on July 4, a famous graphic designer friend threw a BBQ party on his pent house roof top in New York. It was quite spectacular to watch the fireworks and how they sparked in the night air, temporarily illuminating the dramatic skyline of city. I greatly enjoyed biking around the Central Park, guided by Joe. I always love to explore a new place on bike. An Italian diplomat friend who used to be based in Beijing kindly threw a lavish dinner party in my honor at her Manhattan house. Throughout the trip, we were overwhelmed by the kindness people showed to us.
It was a treat to meet up with the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng who told me that meeting me was the turning point in his life. For me, most special of all was to spend time with my old friend Fang. There’s something extremely satisfying to spend time with a dear friend. I always feel extremely lucky to have quite a few friends who have gone out of their way to help me. Fang is just one of such people.
For years now, Fang has been working for 3M as a project manager. She lives in an affluent suburb where people have large houses surrounded by massive lawns, a picture of middle class America.
It’s interesting that we saw different slices of American life, ranging from the privileged, the middle class to those struggle in the bottom of the society. What fascinates me most is the depth of the poverty and the segregated life in Chicago.
I’ve been to Chicago several times, to visit or to attend conference. The first two times, I don’t think I even came cross any black person. The third time was in the end of 2009 when I was a fellow on the International Writer’s Program at University of Iowa. Then I was introduced to Edward Palmer, nick-named Buzz. Both he and his wife Alice, a former senator of Illinois, (who unfortunately lost her seat to Obama) are civil rights activists and are very influential in the black community. Buzz came from a poor family but rose to a prominent position within the police force. There he founded the African American Patrolman’s League, to promote the interest of the black policemen. Last time, he took me to have some soul food one night, followed by a visit to a very lively jazz bar in South Side where I was the only non-black. It was the first time that I realized how segregated Chicago was. We’ve always learnt that the America is the “melting pot”. It is more likely a ‘mosaic”.
At that time I stayed at a decent hotel in the Magnificent Mile in downtown. This time, Buzz arranged us to stay at the house of his 80-year-old sister named Sweetie in South Shore, which allowed me to glimpse into a society I knew so little about. Sweetie was indeed very sweet as she graciously opened her house to three strangers. Her street is the home to some middle class black families. As we were driven in and out, we noticed some very rundown neighbourhoods where shops were boarded up and rubbish littered on the ground. The economic downturn has worsened the situation here. There are few decent restaurants or grocery stores. It is the so-called food desert. In the street, we saw young women with their children. A lot of children in such communities grow up with their mothers without their fathers. Some youngsters hang around. The unemployment rate among the black youth is something like 60%.
Apart from the unemployment, drug abuse and violence have also plagued such communities. The day we arrived in Chicago, Buzz came to the bus terminal to pick us up. He brought a local newspaper with the headline: “Every 40 hours, a black man, woman or child is shot.” This really scared Kirsty, my younger daughter, and hampered her enjoyment of the vibrant city. One evening, we stumbled across a free concert at Millennium Park. I was really enjoying myself, lying on the grass, listening to band from Africa and admiring some spectacular architectural works around the park, Kirsty insisted that we must rush back before dark. Otherwise, we might get shot. Nothing that dramatic happened. On that night, before we reached Sweetie’s house, some black young men whistled at us from a car. We ignored them and they drove away. Earlier in the morning, we took the bus to downtown. Since we were the only non-black, we attracted a lot of stares, which made the girls slightly uncomfortable. That was all.
On our third day in Chicago, Buzz arranged us to visit a brand new school a few blocks away from Sweeties’ house. Black United Fund of Illinois, run by a friend of Buzz, raised one million dollars to build the academic school where most students must reach certain level in order to be accepted. Education is problematic. Since the quality at the community school is often very low and the atmosphere bad, professional parents who want their children to have decent education and go far in life have to send their children far up in the north. The summer school was on. At one class, I gave a little talk and the students, all black, of course, aged between 14 to 16, had conversation with me and my girls. Mandarin will be taught at the school and Buzz wants me to be their on-line tutor, which I’d be happy to do.
Michelle Obama’s mother still lives in a house across the street from the school. The first lady has managed to rise from humble origin to prominence – a phoenix flies out of a chicken coop, as the Chinese would say. In reality, she is just an exception. Social mobility in US is in fact less than much of the Europe and its neighbour Canada where there is less racial diversity. Why? I guess there is a big divide between the rich and the poor in America and there’s thinner safety net.
Why hasn’t democracy helped to improve the racial integration and social mobility. Is cold-hearted capitalism to blame? I wish I have the answers.
Our tour of US, more than five weeks long, has been an eye-opening trip to both the girls and myself.