American Faces

June 1937

On Discovering America

by Pearl S. Buck


| HAD LIVED ALL MY LIFE AN AMERICAN AWAY FROM America. Then I returned, a sort of immigrant among immigrants, except that I came to my native land. But it was as new to me as though I came from Sweden or from Italy or Greece. I knew almost as little what to expect before I landed.

But we all have pictures, we immigrants, of what the America is to which we come. They must be pleasant pictures, or we would not have come. People do not easily leave all they know unless they hope for something much better. Of course I suppose most of us hoped for a better chance for a living, for more money, for more education, for more room. Some of us came for freedom, freedom to think as we liked, to be ourselves unhampered by family and traditions. Some of us, like me, came because we wanted to come home, never having known what it was like to be at home, having lived always among an alien race, spoken a foreign tongue and walked the streets and roads of every day as a foreigner. We have all come to the America we each thought we saw.

I wish I could find out what other people have found in America. But I only know what I have found. I came from China, a land of long homogeneity and of unity, except perhaps for that least important of all, political unity. The Chinese are of the same general race. They have had an unbroken history of thousands of years. Their religions are the same, organized into three great types, mutually tolerant, non-evangelical, and mellowed by long human experience to a philosophy of humanism. Social customs are firmly fixed and such impacts as come from modern usages come against a solid whole which they can penetrate only gradually and therefore without great upset. Even the language is not really diversified, because three fourths of the people speak one language, or some form of it. Out of this great security of long established unit I came to America.

Now I had my picture of America, too. It was made up of visual images of my mother's much loved country home, of which she told me many stories, of a land of great plenty and ease, from which came money for the poor Chinese, because all Americans were rich and Christian. It would not have occurred to me that there were illiterate Americans, or unwashed or poor Americans, or criminals. As I grew older and understood better inevitable human nature this picture was modified and reason did indeed compel me to understand that heaven existed nowhere. But still something of this early picture persisted.

I BELIEVED, FOR INSTANCE, THAT IN LEAVING CHINA I WAS leaving forever the sight of hungry people whom I was powerless to feed. I thought I was leaving behind the sight of wasting floods and dried and sun-baked, treeless lands, swept by dusty winds. I thought I was coming to a country which had organized itself into economic plenty and moral clarity. I had heard all my life that America was rich, and I did not think of these riches as being selfishly gained or used. Money was poured generously out of America into China for famine relief, for Christian propaganda, for many and endless causes. Americans, then, though they were rich were generous, interested in a world culture, international-minded. I longed to meet my countrymen, whose idealism seemed almost fantastic to the materialistic philosophy of China.

When I first came here, then, I endeavored to find this recognizable country of my own. I looked first for Americans. But I could not find them. It seemed to me the country was full of foreigners. I found delightful people, for I came home under the best possible circumstances, having done a sort of work of my own which somehow made me friends. The people were wonderfully kind to me, but they seemed to me like English people, or Europeans. I kept thinking, "Where are the Americans?" lt was very puzzling. l bored everybody by asking continually, "Where does one find the real Americans ? What would yon consider the typical American?" To my bewilderment everyone replied the same wayăthat is, he was American, his ancestors had come over in the Mayflower or before the Revolution or before the Civil War or something, and he was the typical American if there ever was one.

So AFTER REPETITIONS OF THIS SORT OF THING, I HURRIED TO American literature, reading every book which was praised by critics as being American, and endeavoring to find out in this way what was American. But the books varied even more than the people and each might have been written about a totally different country and people. There are the people of New England; and there is this city of New York, so full of people born elsewhere, who are the staunchest New Yorkers; and I live in a part of Pennsylvania which might as well be a corner of Europe for all it has to do with these places, where a good Pennsylvania German neighbor said with enthusiasm of my Chinese friend Lin Yutang when he visited us that he must be a fine man because "he talked German so good"; and when I go south nothing I have learned or seen north of the Mason and Dixon line does me any good; and there are the far reaches of the West, where other kinds of people live and none of them is American ăand they are all American. I came to see that these true Americans I had been looking for did not exist at all, and there are no typical Americans. I have come indeed to feel that if there is a typical American it is the one least typical of anyone except himself. The one hundred percent American, for instance, is one hundred percent nothing except himself, and represents nothing else. And America is wherever you happen to find yourself between Canada and the Rio Grande and the great oceans east and west; and American food is codfish and baked beans and Hungarian goulash or scrapple, and beaten biscuit and fried chicken, or cornpone and salt pork, or hot tamales or whatever is put on the table before you wherever you happen to be. And the American religion is to be found in little pentecostal chapels or in great Fifth Avenue churches or in Catholic cathedrals or nowhere at all. The only thing you can be sure of is that if you keep going, you'll not eat the same American food two days alike, or hear the same God preached two Sundays the same, and you will certainly hear, in English, nasal with New England winter, in English German-tinged or Italian-haunted, or dying with the fading inflections of a slave-ridden past in southern swamps, the conviction that whatever is fed you or preached to you is the real American artlcle.

And everywhere I was hurt and confounded by the amazing hatred among all these Americans for each other. I have heard such hatred for black Americans from white Americans, such venomous sullen hatred for white Americans from black Americans, that in another country I would have been afraid of immediate race war. And the hatred burns like wildfire in a hundred different directions. There is the hatred of the Jew and the Christian, of the native-born and the foreign-born, of the Protestant and the Catholic, and these are only a few of the greater hatreds. It is true also that combating each separate hatred, like a leash upon a beast, is an organization of people working for peace between any two opposing groups. But it is a question whether the leash is strong enough for the beast. At least, a sensitive mind at first can not but be frightened and oppressed by the fearful prejudices of race and creed which possess the feelings of the average American.

Thus afraid and oppressed, therefore, I began to delve into these dark feelings which few Americans, it seems to me, are willing to face and acknowledge. For feeling is the basis of these hatreds which take such strange and violent open expressions as Iynching, as unjust treatment of aliens, as inhuman deportation laws. With my Chinese training, I cannot get excited over a particular individual or over a particular bill in Congress, but I can get deeply excited over why people should want to commit murder by Iynching, or why people should want to deport, wholesale, persons who are honorably fulfilling their places as human beings in our country, if not as citizens. The reasons why we hate each other are very important indeed, and there is no cure for individual injustices until thost causes are clearly understood.

From whence, then, do all these diversities of hatred come in our country? I know very well that when I use the plain word "hatred" there will be many who shrink from it and will say, "It isn't hatred, exactly, it's something else." But to the observer and to the person who suffers from it, it is hatred in its appearance and in its effects, and must be treated as hatred. Why then, do we Americans so hate each other and especially so hate those whom we consider aliens among us? I will not here dwell upon my complete astonishment in discovering that we, who are so generous to foreigners in their own lands, who rush relief to Belgium and Czechoslovakia and China and Japan, are so ruthless to the samt foreigners who find themselves aliens in our own country It must have bewildered others than I. A hundred reasons are given me for it. I am told by many that the chief one is economic. But I do not believe people hate each other in groups fundamentally because of economic conditions. Poverty and stress merely augment already existing hatreds. What I want to know is, why do the hatreds exist at all, and why do they burn with such fearful heat in America, still the richest country in the world?

I HAVE GONE BACK IN MY SEARCH, "CHINESE FASHI0N," T0 our beginnings. I find we are all immigrants, we Americans. Not one of us is really native in any profound sense. Everybody in the United States, except the Indians, is now or was once, foreign-born. I find it ridiculous to hear a man whose great-grandfather came to this country look down on a man who comes in now, and call him 'alien." For what is a hundred or two hundred years in rhe life of a nation? The nation is and will be for centuries to come made up of the foreign-born, that is, people from all countries. And looking at all these people, I discover in them all the diversities of the world in race, in culture, in religion. They have only one thing in common with which to become Americans. They are all restless.

For we Americans, we are the restless, the restless ot 11 nations. None but the restless has ever come to America. The quiet-hearted, the contented, the peaceful mind are still on old country farms, in old country shops and business offices. They are not here. Not one of us belongs them. A similar spirit has driven us out from among them and has driven us together. When visitors speak with wonder of the ceaseless hurry and activity which is such a part of the American temperament, I am not surprised. For were we not naturally restless, none of us would be Americans at all. There would be no America and Indians would roam our hills and valleys still. Restlessness, then, is our essential nature.

BUT WHEN WE COME TO ANIERICA, WE DO NOT ENTER ONLY restless individuals. We come as races, as nations, as transmitters of the past to a country without a history, whose only past is that of forests and streams and mountains and plains and endless seashores and rivers flowing into the sea. America's history is only what we all ring as our own individual histories. What goes to make her is what has gone to make us. The prejudices of all peoples on earth are now American prejudices. Hungarian Catholics still hate Hungarian Protestants on these new shores, and pugnacious Irishmen still wear the green, mernbering forever and with joy that once they were killed for "wearin' o' the green." Everyone of us has this present and this past, the present of a new country, whose very newness makes us hold the more closely to whatever past we have. If we could have come here and exchanged at inherited culture for another, it might have been easier. It would be easy, for instance, to become a Chinese. One has only to give up all of one thing and accept all of anotherăgive up what one has had and accept another finite, clear system of life and philosophy. But when e come to be Americans there are many systems and any philosophies, and which shall we accept? If we accept all, we are lost in dillusion, and so it is inevitable that we cling to what we have had before, to what we brought with us. We change, perhaps, the material aspect of our lives. We use electricity and running water and we buy an automobile, but inside we do not change. We remain what we are, and to America's endless variety we add our own bit, and so we become American. And even one's children are different from another's children. They have a veneer of similarityăthe radio and motion picture nd cheap magazines and the public school system see thatăbut their hidden unrecognized roots are, through their blood, in their bones. And I observe that those roots never become lostăat least, not yet. Everyone knows what his old country was even though his ticket was on the Mayflower. It will take hundreds of years yet before we reget we came from England or Ireland, Germany or Italy or France.

And I am not at all sure we shall do well to forget, even then. We ought not to forget, or allow our children to forget until in long common national life vve have achieved a government, a tradition, a philosophy, which is secure and integrated and expressed enough to shelter and guide a peopleăin short, until we have an American culture. And we cannot make an American culture by sitting down and thinking about it and writing it down and giving it out to the newspapers. The Supreme Court cannot do it, and even President Roosevelt cannot do it. Nobody and nothing can do it except time, passing unconsciously and effortlessly over all our diversity, and gradually, with infinite slowness, wearing away differences, and leaving those essentials which will survive our struggles and our climate. It may be five thousand years henceăit can scarcely be less than a thousandăbefore the real American culture is here, and before we have a race of Americans. There will be no Negro questions then, because there will be no Negroes, there will be no Jews and Christians, no foreign-bornănobody but that person nowhere to be found today, a pure American. I cannot but believe he will be an extraordinary person, that pure American, who will be standing in my place five thousand years from today. He will have what no other human being has had in just the same richness, the inheritance of all ages, all races, all cultures. He will have a fine direct eagerness which will be our restlessness, refined by centuries, but concentrated, too, into a driving force which will carry him to heights of human knowledge which we cannot even dream of now. He will be a true superman, standing on the shoulders of those from all nations and races of the earth.

And I hope even then that we shall still be taking into our established America the stimulus and the irritation of immigrants. When we cease to allow people to come in from all over the world, we shall ourselves begin to die, as other nations are dying. New people, coming to a new country, bring new impetus in themselves. They are a fresh infusion, uncomfortable perhaps, and even painful, but they are life. We cannot do without them. It is too soon to close our doors. It may always be too soon. For statistics show that those we call our foreignborn are still our best. Crime is less among them than among the native-born. The foreign-born are amazingly the stronger in the creative arts. To shut them out would be to rob ourselves and the future not only of industrious laborers but of great exploring creative mental energy.

BUT I KNOW VERY WELL THAT WHEN I THINK OF OUR America a thousand years from now and five thousand years from now that I am thinking Chinese and not American. The Chinese thinks instinctively in terms of centuries and he sees himself as a particle in time. But the American stretches his imagination to pain if he thinks two generations ahead to the grandchild that is an actuality or a possibility. That is a trait of the restless. We cannot and will not wait, though the truth remains that the only true view is the long one, and the present will not be right if it is an end in itself instead of being as well a foundation for the future. We Americans, that is, cannot and will not think of our nation as a whole in time and space and so choose nationally, though perhaps at immediate inconvenience, what permanent stuffs we want in our making. We demand to know what we shall do now, in our momentary situation, with "aliens," as we call them, in our jobs, on our relief rolls, and sending good American money out of the country.

Unfortunately for me as an American, I cannot froth about any of these things. I see these "aliens" first as human beings, and I observe that many, indeed most of them, are honest and industrious, or as honest and industrious as the upstarts who dare, at this early date in our history, to call themselves, "the Americans." Citizens or not, I cannot see why these good people should be deported. We need honesty and industry. No nation can have too many people with these qualities. I cannot see why they should not be relieved if they starve, nor why they should not send money back to Italy or anywhere else I should think the more money circulates the better. The richer the Italians are, the better for American markets. And in return for this money the people have given good hard labor on roads and bridges and buildings and the money is theirs when they have earned it, my American spirit tells me. And America is still the richest country in the world and likely to remain so.

Nor can I get excited over the differences between us. Hatreds, yesăthey are stupid and wrong. It is senseless to hate a man because he is different, and the fault is in our education which has not made us enough above the beast to see this. For though men hate each other when they come here, they should be taught as the basis for American citizenship that here we may differ each from the other, and that diversity is our strength and our nature, and each man is to believe what he feels true, and our one common belief is this.

Practically speaking, of course, our life is carried on upon this basis. The reason why we exist together at all in peace, as we do, is simply because there are so many factions among us that once any of us started to fight there'd be no end to the people to be fought. We could not divide into two nice clean divisions, and have a simple war, for instance, between Fascists and Communists. The Republicans and Democrats would refuse to be anything else completely, and so would the Episcopalians and Presbyterians and the Primitive Baptists and the Townsendites and the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Bostonians and all the people who live in many regions in Virginia and Georgia and Mississippi and all the menagerie of Lions and Elks and Moose and what not. None of these would be willing to be a Fascist or a Communist, because he considers being one of these other thousand things is the only important thing to be, and in so behaving he is being something far greater than a Fascist or Communist. He is being an American.

Yes, in our diversity is our safety. It is not wise to prophesy, but I believe ours is the only safe country in the world today, because we cannot be organized and regimented into any simple opposing forces. There are capitalists among laborers and there are Socialists and Communists among millionaires and their sons, and our president may be an aristocrat by birth or a foundling, depending on what he is and how we like him. It is true I hear rumors of a dictator to come, four or eight years from now, but I hear, too, the familiar growl and rumble of stubborn protest which makes me feel a dictator would find it very hard going in America. We will never have a vast bloody revolution as Russia and Germany have had because we wouldn't tolerate any one group having so much power as to make such fools of the rest of us. We may persist in our own kind of lawlessnessăin racketeering and private murders, but these won't get out of hand and become national or international, because we will never be able to agree together on anything on such a scale. We are not at all a moral people nor even at all religious except in small sectarian ways. But we give people a better chance than any other country does because we believe in having a good chance ourselves. We do not really love freedom so much as we pretendăplenty of people would be glad to have all who disagree with them done away with, except it would then be too lonely to live at all. Besides, they know somebody feels that way about them, so it's better to keep still and go on about one's own business. And the result of all this is peace. And another result is opportunityăopportunity for some of us to work, for some of us to strike, for some of us to succeed, for some of us to fail and go on relief.

I believe, then, in exactly the sort of America we have now, except I wish we could see that what we have is good and inevitable, and so cease to hate each other. Our country is based upon diversity of race and upon freedom of belief, and this is our chief claim to being unique and great.

I believe, too, in keeping clear and wide the source of our national strength, immigration. This is not at all to say that we are to allow anybody to come into America. We who are here do have the right to say who shall come into our nation. At the same time I believe we have not yet learned how to secure these values of immigration to our nation, because we have not yet the rational basis for quota immigration. It is not racial or national, it is not what proportion of Anglo-Saxons should we maintain. What rational man says,"l will allow so many Germans, so many Czechs, so many Italians, so many English, and no Orientals to enter my house?" Only a stupid and prejudiced mind could be so irrational. The wise man will open his doors wide to the intelligent and to the good, whatever their race and nation, and he will close his doors to the criminal and the feebleminded. I believe the only tests which should be applied to those wanting to become Americans are a test for intelligence and a test for inherent character. Brains and a sense of right and wrong should be the passport to America. I am glad for every restless eager heart and ambitious mind that looks Americaward. I have no patience with those who would crouch like greedy beasts, holding fast to more than they eat, lest others more needy get it. The future of America depends on immigrationăit must, or we who are here will grow stagnant with too little life of our own.

For we are isolated in a fashion which no other nation knows. Other nations are subject to a constant interchange ot language, thought and people between their close boundaries, but we are not. The two great oceans hem us in with silence, and north and south we have neighbors, good, but not enough beyond us for sufficient stimulation. We need new life for centuries to come, perhaps forever. I should like, as an American, to think of America as forever the land to which the restless and the bold, the brilliant and the good, out of every people, could come and make their home. I am not fearful of such people starving or starving others by their presence, for they create jobs.

I REALlZE THAT IN THIS THINKING ABOUT AMERICA I HAVE maintained to an exasperating degree the long view to which my Chinese-trained eyes are accustomed. But I still believe it is the only view for rational life, and when we try to settle national problems for the day, we are robbing the nation which is to be, and which is just as much America as the America we have now. It is as absurd as refusing to see the man in the child, and shaping his education not on what he should be as a man, but upon his evanescent childish needs. It is our weakness as Americans that we cannot see ourselves in the largeness of time. Perhaps it is a thing the immigrants can teach us, who come from old countries. At least let them know, these immigrants, what our fault is.

When they meet with hostile looks and surly voices of unwelcome upon these shores of their home, when their children hear ugly names and taunts in schools, let them know that this is not America speakingăthat America is more than these, more than any of us who are alive at this little moment. We all have a right here, for America from the very first has had her beginning in all peoples, and her strength is drawn from all peoples and her future depends on us all. We must teach our children, native-born and foreign-born alike, that there is no final America yetăthat they are making America, too, by what they themselves areă regardless of what others are. We must teach the foreignborn to laugh when silly children cry, "You're wopsă you're heiniesăyou're sheenies; we're Americans." The truth is, Americans are all something else, too, and are going to be for a long, long time, and the truest American knows it.




Portrait of America: Survey Graphic in the Thirties