@Sept 11 – Olive Park in Chicago, my favorite spot, which I chilled at with my friend from Egypt and a fantastic self-taught photographer who took this pic – Ma’andi!

“If you don’t know your origins, how are you supposed to know who you are?”

So I just wrapped up a month visiting US, meeting old and new friends from all backgrounds and skin color, friends who immigrated, or whose parents did (like mine), and also those who’s families have been around for a while. This time, visiting SF area, LA, Seattle, Chicago, and Champaign-Urbana (big school in the middle of midwestern farmlands), I had conversations where we discussed or made me think – what makes up American people and are our values?

Then a week ago, I took an Uber at 5am from Chicago to the airport. My driver, Art, actually gave me quite a number of insights about this. He looked like Snoop from the backseat (and no, I’m not trying to be racist!), and his stories and opinions were philosophical for me.

Me: “Hi! Oh, yikes. What happened to your leg?”

Art: “I fractured it trying to do a fancy move playing ball with my son. But then I injured myself. Now he thinks I’m just old hah. Luckily it’s my left leg, and I can still Uber. What time is your flight? Oh yeah, we have plenty of time. Other Uber drivers, they can only follow GPS, you know? Me? I’m born in Chicago, lived here through and through, all 37 years. I know the roads. If anything unexpected happens on the way to airport, I can get us around it. Other drivers use GPS. They know as much as you know. But when you know the ways around, it’s all good, you know? It’s not about just getting there. It’s about how you go about doing it.”

Me: “It’s the journey not just the destination. Sounds like a metaphor for life.” …And many more philosophies followed :)

Art, on Discovery:

“Oh man, once I just took my family and we just drove west. The best way to see the US is to drive through it. We drove and drove, stopped by places, national parks. Driving the winding roads up mountains – some had railings, some without. Man its so different than in the midwest – it’s just flat here! There’s so much to see, so much to live here. The US is just so diverse. The land, the people, the life. For me, I wanna see as much as I can of the US, and then I’ll be ready to travel the world. I loved Arizona. Thinking of moving there soon actually. Would love to just move there and see what it’s like living there. It’s calling me, so why not?”

On Space to Grow:

“In my opinion, China got it right with the one child policy. It was growing too fast they couldn’t manage it. If the government didn’t push it, the country would be overflowing, kinda like India – growing too fast to handle. From driving around America, I saw one of the great things we have, is space. When the cities get too packed, too much, we can look around and expand. We have so many opportunities and options to grow.”

On Human Consequences:

“Luckily now, wars aren’t about taking over land anymore. Like it used to be. There are some here and there, like Russia suddenly taking Ukraine. But then what are some people fighting for? That’s the problem. People can start wars, but no one can predict how it’ll end. And when. People don’t think about that when they start them. And what will happen to the people.”

On US being a leader:

“America is amazing, but it can be a two edged sword as well. Sometimes it can have its own target on it’s back. I watched a special on CNN recently, on how America has the most untapped oil in the world. More than even Saudi Arabia. So we’re sitting on the largest plot of national resources. Some people aren’t ok with that, and will probably want to target us for that.

On the “No gun” signs on public buildings (which were new to me, saw them all over Illinois – Chicago, Champaign…are they everywhere now?):

“Oh yeah, apparently concealed weapons are a liability now. But if people must have their guns, there should be as many exams and tests as the police force. We gotta do the work. We need to make sure they’re mentally sound, etc.”

On our Identity:

“Your parents are from Hong Kong? Then you must speak Chinese. That’s good. It’s ok, even if you’re not the best, doesn’t matter. You have another language. Most Americans do, but some of us don’t know our origins, and don’t have a mother language to learn. So we only know English. The old guys, when they stole us from our land, they didn’t do a good enough job on keeping tabs on us. For a long time now, we don’t know where our people came from in Africa. If you don’t know your origins, how are you supposed to know who you are?

On seeking Truth:

“Ooh. Hong Kong. Damn, Bruce Lee is the legend. My hero – everything he ever said is philosophy on life. You know, he wasn’t too big before Green Hornet. Which is funny. It was like he had to come to America, get big here, to then go back and big and be famous. I love reading about the guy. I’ve read a lot of facts and books. It’s a good thing to do. Read as much as you can, from different sources. Then take the average of what you read. You can’t rely on one source. It can be bias. Then different people learn different things, and makes it harder to know real facts.

On being Legendary:

“Really, we should all be the Bruce Lee in what we do. It’s like I tell my son – be the Michael Jordan of what you do. Maybe you don’t have to be the best in history, but be your own Michael Jordan. Do it the best you can. And you know, you can’t just line up all the Bruce’s or MJ’s and find a winner. That’s not the point. Point is to just do the best in what you do. Give it your all, you know?

On finding our Way:

“Oh! My name. It’s Art. Yeah, Art – you took me in school. There were 4 Art’s before me. I’m Art the Fifth. Haha yeah, I stopped it there. Five is good. It was time for a new name for my son. You just gotta be you.

…Ok so some of this was not word-for-word, as I don’t recall it perfectly. But still, paraphrased, and super casual and chill paced. Our conversation reminded me of a one I had just 2 nights before over sliders, fries, and cider in downtown Champaign. We were 3 – a Japanese guy raised by an American couple in Tokyo, and a Vietnamese girl who moved to US years before. I reflected on some American values and what drives us, what systems could work here vs other cultures, where people have different values and/or history.

We started by discussing restaurant service motivation in Japan vs America, on how the tips are service-based rewards, but needed to make a living since base pay isn’t enough. Like how sales positions are base pay + commission. If you’re the best waiter in the state with the best service, why should you receive the same take home pay as the next waiter? Our friend recently moved to US from Tokyo, where he was born, raised, and also spent 5 years managing a McDonald’s before starting his own business. He said to improve service performance, they held competitions and wondered why US couldn’t just do that. They would hold races to find the fastest cashier, etc – with prizes like tickets for a vacation, Olympics, etc. I can see how cashiers would need to practice speed, or whatever is measured, in their jobs in order to decrease their cashier time, but could that translate to the US as a means to enhance the customer experience? Not sure, maybe not? But looking around our dinner table, like most places, we could see that Americans love interaction. Great service here is direct related to friendliness and attentiveness.

American work ethic – you start at the bottom (or your family did), and you (and/or your family) start by working hard for every penny earned. No free higher education yet like places in Europe. Perhaps it works there, as there’s a sense of one culture, one people, similar family history and challenges. Where many came from similar places and circumstances. A connection deep rooted in their country. Perhaps. Versus in the US, people immigrated very or relatively recently, or started off at similarly financial situations at some point. Everyone’s worked damn hard for what they have now (like the rest of the world), and are proud of it. It’s an individualistic culture as well. It’s hard to put 40% or 50% tax on what they earn so that everyone can get a free education, when people work so hard for rising from nothing.

Education in Japan/China/Singapore/Asia vs US – For myself growing up in the US, our opinions were welcomed, many classes were discussion based. Even in history class, we discussed both sides of the concept of communism, on if we thought it would work. In math, we learned that there’s not only 1 way to reach the solution, that there might be many ‘right’ ways. Sharing your method of getting to the answer was encouraged. For complex problems, geometry proofs, calculous calculations, economic class case, chemistry formulas, we must “show our work”. We’re then graded on a sliding scale of getting from point A to point B, not only if the final answer is correct. It’s not that it’s the best way of education (there’s not best ‘right’ way, after all), its just one way and how it is in the US. About not just getting there, but about how you get there – about honoring the journey. It shapes who we are and how we think/work/interact. In Asia, education can often be conducted in a way that has a hard answer and a ‘right way’ on how to get there. Opinions and discussion play a much smaller or nonexistent role. There’s competition, whereas in US, it wouldn’t be looked upon the best if you were the top of all your classes and flaunted it. Perhaps one reason why workplaces competitions play a different role than other places. We talked more about Americans and training in the workplace, on American manners, on friendliness, openness. Then, we went off to salsa and bachata.

Our night brought me back to a discussion I was a part of 4 years ago in Malaysia, on the topic of education. Malaysia is made up of ethnic Malays, as well as 3-5th generation Indian and Chinese. Plus many many mixes of these groups, and others. Our discussion on education included sharing ideas and feedback. I don’t remember anything else, but what I heard a lot, which proceeded or followed an opposing idea or opinion was, “I hear you, and I respect that. But/I also think that/I’m thinking…”

I hear you.

I respect that.

Which makes me wonder…

What a beautiful world if we all continue to share ourselves with others, and in so doing, learn more about what we believe, our values, and where we come from, and perhaps, why that is :)