…what should they know of England who only England know?
Rudyard Kipling, “The English Flag”
I cannot say that I knew what I was doing in deciding to go to America, even less Los Angeles. There is of course a very simple explanation for it. A friend of mine asked me to, and so I went. I suppose this explanation is quite sufficient. Perhaps I really am as frivolous and superficial as that.
Yet though I had no real conscious motives for visiting Los Angeles, the city suited my present temperament. As my Anglo-Catholicism recedes further into the past, I guess I’ve been becoming more and more Protestant, more modernist, more rationalist, etc. I guess I was starting to appreciate history, culture or tradition less . So, the “newer” West coast suited me just fine compared to the older East Coast with its historical heritages, etc.
America, particularly Los Angeles, is the place where you go to invent yourself, to escape history and the past. As I said before, Los Angeles as a city is very much like an air-conditioned version of Singapore, except with less efficient public service. There are a number of modern attractions and theme parks in Los Angeles, but not very many “historical” sites. I guess this lack of historical sites suited my mood just fine. I didn’t want the burden and pressure of needing to rush about visiting new sites. I simply needed the very American… freedom. Freedom to do absolutely nothing. To not need to “experience” historical sites, cultures, etc, to not tour places or keep to a schedule, etc. When I got there, I simply wanted to act on a whim, go where I pleased or even go nowhere. Los Angeles is very much a modern city and has most things every modern city has and not much more, except what is frivolously distinctly American/Los Angeles, e.g. Hooters and Hollywood and theme parks.
I found many an hour simply lying on bed doing nothing but be moody, think, brood and sleep. To be sure in Singapore there are rest days and stuff, but one is constantly mindful of the need to go back to work the next day and that thought often puts all contemplation out of mind instantly. But in Los Angeles, with its arid desert-like modernistic urban bare city and more than a week available to me, at least for a time, I simply reveled in the American freedom to not need to do or be anything.
If I may use one word to describe the Americans I’ve encountered, I guess that would be “candid”. Or maybe this laid back attitude is just a Californian thing as my friend said to me in comparison to the East Coast “New Yorkers”. But they interact and express themselves freely and spontaneously without any sense of restrain or process with an immediacy I wasn’t exactly entirely comfortable with. I guess this is all part of the American freedom.
Needless to say, the service staff here are much more talkative and interactive than back here in Singapore which is very chop chop and concerned only with delivering the product or service to you, efficiently of course, that is the Singaporean way, without any further interest in the customer. But here they interact with you personally and are really friendly and all, constantly coming in to check on you every five or ten minutes to ask if everything was okay. I found it a little disorienting to be honest, and I felt terrible whenever I couldn’t reciprocate their friendliness and openness in kind because that made me look aloof and standoffish, but it really felt so weird to me to be so free and spontaneous to complete strangers.
This candidness doesn’t merely find its expression in words but in tone and emotions as well. I’ve always found the public expression of emotion to be rather disconcerting, if not bordering on the improper. But there it comes to them rather naturally. I was fortunate to have a friend of mine take me around and I fear that on numerous occasions I gave him the wrong directions with the GPS and he openly, erm, vented his frustrations. I guess this can be seen even in the very accents that they adopt. After talking to Americans for a few days, one cannot help but notice how flat the Singaporean accent is, in comparison to the American accent which rises and falls (Heeeyyyy!!! How’s it going man!). My friend even suggested that Singaporeans had to invent the “lahs” and “lehs” and “lors” as distinct words to express emotions because our tone and language is by its very nature emotionless! (By the way, I was quite pleased that he thought that I didn’t really look very “Chinese” but had a more South-East Asian look and that my English had a slight British overlay.) Then of course there is also the whole American energetic boisterousness thing which I found a little unnerving. (“Bloody yanks” as UK Ball puts it: http://imgur.com/RBkaqBe )
This candidness extents even to the many homeless people which you can see lying about the streets. The number is truly astonishing and made me appreciate more our government’s more draconian measures in shoving them into those one-room flats (as my friend says, that’s better than nothing). Some of the signs on the homeless cards read, “F*ck you, give me some money” and another “Go F*ck yourself!) I doubt a beggar in Singapore carrying such a sign will get much sympathy, even less coins. But there, this is quite common place.
And of course, one cannot complete a description of ‘Murica without mentioning the unbelievable food portions.
But most of all, taking my friend as a representative American, they are truly hospitable and friendly folk. Unlike the popular conception that the more right-wing and parochial Americans are, the more discriminatory they would be against the “Others”, but I found this not to be so. My friend is a sort of right-wing reactionary and yet he entertained me and drove me around and took me to places around Los Angeles, an Asian foreigner whom he knows only from a Facebook contact. This concrete act of hospitality is the refutation against every charge of malice and lack of grace leveled against them. He has been a really good host to me although he must have found my Asian lack of passion to be insufferably boring and stifling. 😛
The American Religion
It seems to me that the American religion is very much an extension of the unsophisticated and “candid” American nature, one might even say an essential product of the “Protestant” immediacy. I went to a PCUSA (Presbyterian Church of the USA) church near my hotel and the PCUSA is considered to be one of the “mainline liberal” Presbyterian denominations compared to the more conservative PCA or OPRC. Yet, for all the claims of the Puritans running off the America to escape the “Catholic tradition” and webs of history from the Old World, I found it quite amazing that even such a church within a “mainline liberal” denomination continued to possess all the vitalities of a living faith. On the first Sunday in Los Angeles, the pastor preached about how Christ came, not as a life guru to school us in positive thinking or to bring happiness, but as a Saviour to deliver us from our sins, etc, and that we cannot ignore the Bible’s discourse on sin and judgement as unpopular as they might be and I was thinking, wow. I don’t think I will ever hear such a sermon preached ever in “conservative” Singapore.
To be sure, I wished that they had a liturgy and I didn’t think much of their female lay elders, but still in America, in a land uninhabited with mediators of history, culture or tradition, America remains the most religious nation in the West and continues to live in the immediacy of their faith. As much as we may think of Americans as “fundamentalist barbarians” in the words of Zizek, but their simple Protestant religion (no doubt a continuity with the English empiricism contra the Continental Rationalistic systematisation) remains one of the most vital force in Christendom, perhaps an extension of the American candidness, lack of embedded networks or systems of culture and restrains, whereby they live their faith with an immediacy particular to the American Protestant Religion, an unashamed religion of me and muh Bible which communicates God’s Word directly to one’s heart.
Ultimately as I become more and more Protestant, I find myself siding with the American “me and muh Bible” style of religion. I may wish that they had a better appreciation for the liturgy or be even more familiar with the history of the Church, but the American Protestant possesses the “one thing needful”, and that is an immediacy with the life of faith through God’s Word, not a faith which forgets its true and proper object of worship in favour of some idolatrous aesthetic or cultural titillation. Whenever a Church no longer appeals directly to “Jesus Christ” or “the Will of God” or even “the Holy Bible”, but instead go round in circles talking about “history”, “beauty” or even “tradition”, then indeed that is a sign of an alienation from the proper object of faith and the subtle and slow replacement of faith with cultural or aesthetic elitism.
Conclusion: The Anglophone World
I think the English has a foot in both the world of the Continental Europeans and the Americans. The Americans are their children after all (although some might say bastards!), and empiricist simplicity, common sense, lack of system or sophistry, etc, have always been hallmarks of the English culture inherited by the Americans.
In some ways, culturally, I can never imagine myself behaving like an American, with their open emotions, jaunty accents and ways, spontaneity, etc. I like very much the English “customs and manners” and virtues of moderation, sobriety, propriety, etc, to ever act like an American.
But I can appreciate the American “candidness” and I find myself missing the American friendliness, ease with interacting with strangers, lack of layers, “artlessness” and readiness to engage. Or perhaps more simply, their honesty and lack of sophistry and ultimately, the immediacy with which they simply live their lives and their faith.
And for that I say, God bless America.