Nearly 33 years ago I came to this country. Since then I have seen many changes over the years. Some of my friends have told me that it's more for the bad than for the good and that America has become a bleakness for the future and the 20th century is looking for a tragic country. Millions of immigrants like me came to this promised land and find this comment a bit incomprehensible. As immigrants, we made a deliberate choice to come to America. Personally, I find these comments hard to believe and yet disturbing because I greatly admire my friends. To me they represent all that is best in American thought. I always listen to what they have to say and nearly always find wisdom in their words. Yet their saying of the 20th century is looking for tragic country is a harsh judgment. Why should we give up on America? I believe it's a matter of perspective. I can say that in the 33 years I have lived in America that it has not fallen short of promises and indeed changed for the better. Take, for example, the progress made on the issue of racial relations, which seemed to tear the country apart during the 1960's. Who would have thought that within just two decades Jesse Jackson would carry Virginia and be a credible candidate for the Democratic nomination for President? Or that thousands of blacks would be elected officials throughout the country, particularly in the South?
America never ceases to evolve. It is an ever improving process. Mostly it is muddling through. Things are never really neat and tidy as I was used to in Holland, but always changing. No other country changes as fast and as much as America. Even the complexion of its own people changes. The French and the Japanese essentially have remained French and Japanese throughout their histories. So have the Indians and Chinese. This is not so with Americans. They let people of all kinds and colors come to their shores. Just imagine, in a mere half-century, America will no longer be a country of white majority. From 1980 to 1988 14 million immigrants came to America. Of the 14 million who came to this country, 45% were Asians, 40% were from Latin American countries and 5% were form the European continent. And the melting pot not only remakes the immigrants, it also reshapes the country. New generations of immigrants bring vitality. The fresh new stream keeps the old water from stagnating. That's America's unique strength. No other country attracts the best and the brightest from all over the world. What's more, even the wretched, tired and poor, those who come risking their lives, gratefully repay this country with their hard work and dedication.
Currently the Asians are remaking the country much the same way that the Europeans once did. I look to them and their offspring, those who populate spelling bees and win Westinghouse Science Scholarships when I envision America's future greatness. In their zeal to reshape their lives in this land of opportunity, these immigrants are reshaping American destiny far beyond the comprehension of most Americans. They have come here endowed with cultural heritage and traditions that date back thousands of years.
These Asians may come empty-handed, but they do not come empty-headed. They value entrepreneurship, hard work, family solidarity and community — traits we particularly need in these troubled times when, we are told, America is in a decline. Despite all of its ills, the crime, the drugs, the social promiscuity and the homeless, I do not see contemporary America as a tragic country in the 20th century. On the contrary, I see it as a triumphant nation that has provided an unprecedented high standard of living and freedom of expression to the majority of its heterogeneous people. No other country has done it on the vast American scale. It has made good life possible even for the common man. It gives him a chance to make something of himself by liberating him from the crushing burden of poverty plaguing most of the world. Any country that can do that within just 200 years of its formation should not be called tragic.
Most Americans take their good fortune for granted. I don't. I know better. I am from the old country, where they still see America as the promised land.
It's March of 1990 and my 57th birthday. More than half a century of my life has passed. I feel that all people today are living in extraordinary times. Things are changing so rapidly that there are moments that it frightens me. During this half-century I saw things I wanted to see, and there were things I should never have seen. There were many things I was told and wanted to be told, but there were many things I wished I had never heard about. I did many things I always wanted to do, but then there were things I wished I could have done better, and some things I shouldn't have done.