Saturday, November 3, 2007

The American Experience

I miss something. This is not surprising for a study abroad experience, especially in a country such as Egypt where daily life is so different than in the United States. But last month, I realized something was missing, but I couldn’t find it. I simply didn’t know what I was looking for. All I knew was that this thing was something more than a triviality. I didn’t miss American food or American TV or sitting in a café drinking good coffee. Yes, these comforts are temporarily absent, but I can live without them for a short while.

After thinking for a long time, I narrowed my understanding of my problem: the thing I was missing was something larger and less tangible yet more inherently present. I missed the communal experience of the university, the experience of going to football games on cool fall afternoons. I missed seeing the colors change in the trees and the crunch of leaves under my feet during a run through the Arb. I missed seeing my breath float in the air on crisp November mornings. I found myself browsing the Internet for pictures of New England autumns, of Michigan wilderness, and of the great American West—images I could identify with as symbols my larger home.

Last week I ran into a friend who was reading Steinbeck’s East of Eden, a novel I read this past summer while living in Monterey, not far from Steinbeck’s home. At this point I realized what I needed to do: I needed to read Steinbeck. Specifically, I needed to read The Grapes of Wrath, the greatest retelling of the American experience—the most real, the most moving, the most human. It’s not often I revisit a book, but the context of the novel is now radically different. The change of time, distance, and experience, such as that found in Egypt, requires a reexamination of the text.

Now I am half way through Grapes. I am halfway through my semester. The Joads are heading West. I am a product of the West. The Joads are living the failure of the American dream. I, in my relative privilege, am a beneficiary of the American dream. The Joads drive a clunky, rusted jalopy. I drive a silver-bullet Zephyr.

To me, Steinbeck’s unrivaled ability to describe in prose what we as Americans feel deeply inside us is what makes his work so great. Living in Cairo, The Grapes of Wrath has new meaning. The sympathetic vignettes, with faceless characters defined by occupation rather than name, force the reader to fill the void by projecting their own face onto the faceless. The identity of the characters—the capitalists, the laborers, the landowners, the bankers, the living, and the dying—are no different than the identity of the reader. The novel speaks of all America. It speaks of my roots and my identity.

Now I realize what I miss. I miss is the American experience.

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