Far from the madding crowd
I just returned to Manila from a weeklong official trip to New York City. I have been there many times before; I once served as consul at the Philippine Consulate General in the city. The consulate is located right on Fifth Avenue — fabled to many, especially the shopaholics, mainly because it is home to the flagship stores of the world’s top brands for men and women’s clothing and accessories. It is also the location of Saks Fifth Avenue, the quintessential luxury department store that Audrey Hepburn immortalized in the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
One balmy day past 5 p.m., I found myself seated on a visitor’s chair at the corner of 34th Street and Broadway. My attention was divided between reading Amy Chua’s “Day of Empire” and watching a steady stream of people passing, hurrying as though chased by mad dogs but only catching a subway ride home or somewhere else.
Americans. New Yorkers. People of varied colors, shapes, and social and political persuasions, always in a rush, ever in search of fame and fortune. They reminded me of many fellow Filipinos dreaming of coming to America someday at any cost. Some succeed, as Obama and Trump have succeeded. Obama had the audacity to hope for much bigger things in life that for a long time were traditionally considered by most Americans as befitting his people. His oratorical prowess and tenacity catapulted him to the White House, thereby ending four centuries of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant’s dominance of the US political establishment. Trump’s wealth, built on real estate and casinos, braggadocio, and, let’s give it to him, infectious positive thinking, captivated millions of America’s embittered voters, making him, at 70, the oldest person to occupy the Oval Office.
But many fail as hundreds of thousands of Americans have failed, making America at once the “land of milk and honey” and epicenter of extreme depths of poverty. In many cases, failure has led to depression or other forms of psychological or mental illness. It is reported that yearly, about 42.5 million American adults (or 18.2 percent of the total US adult population) suffer from such mental illnesses as depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. One does not have to visit a mental institution such as those found on New York’s Randall’s Island to see some of these unfortunate souls. Many freely roam the city’s streets day and night, or take shelter in its subterranean transit system in winter. Captain America and Marvel’s other superheroes do not always succeed in making the economically marginalized believe, even if momentarily, that their country is the most egalitarian and meritocratic society on earth.
Many Americans have pinned their hopes on Trump for a better future, with his bold promise to make America great again. But how soon the Trump administration can do this remains to be seen. The presidency has been hobbled from Day One by scandals, many seemingly self-inflicted, thanks to Twitter. Or is CNN to blame? Add to this the fact that the US health system is broke, and its infrastructure crumbling. Many US cities are dying, with many companies they have long hosted under a promise of tax breaks and other corporate incentives decamping for less costly overseas manufacturing bases. No wonder US television shows like “Survivor,” “Alone,” and “Mountain Men” are overnight idiot-box successes. The characters in these shows must be channeling the Hobbesian human instinct for self-preservation that is increasingly being felt by many Americans.
I have heard of some Americans opting to live off the grid, into the unspoiled wilderness—far from the madding crowd, undisturbed by city life’s superficial demands and necessities. Truth be told, the overall economic landscape in America is not all that bleak. Success still comes to those who persevere. Or so I heard. But I have also heard directly from some American friends that the “American Dream” is no more.
Back to those Filipinos dreaming of emigrating to America someday. To them, I offer this unsolicited advice: Reassess your goals. Assuming you make it to America, work doubly hard or you will end up chasing after fame and fortune with no success, and wanting to get as far away as possible from the madding crowd like many Americans do today.
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Edgar Badajos is a career diplomat. He previously served as consul at the Philippine Consulates General in Toronto and New York and at the Philippine Embassy in Bangkok.
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