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On Discovering America

by Pearl S. Buck


June 1937

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I 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.

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 way„that 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.

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—and 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 lynching, 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 lynching, 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?


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003