You Can't Go Home Again
. That is the title of a novel by the early-20th-century American writer Thomas Wolfe. It describes the reality that once a person has become an adult -- and has faced all the changes that go with that transition -- it is impossible for him to return to the world of his childhood.
As part of VOA's ongoing series on youth in America, we sat down with three Americans who did go home again, after living abroad for a while. And they told us the America they see now is not the one they knew when they were children.
Kirstin Broderick, 29, lived in Japan from 1998 to 2000, where she worked as an English teacher for the Japanese Exchange in Teaching Program.
Arsalan Suleman, 25, spent a year abroad in Dublin, Ireland, doing a Master's Degree in International Peace Studies.
And Michael McCarthy, 28, spent three years in England, doing a Master's degree in Modern Middle Eastern Studies, and another year in the United Arab Emirates, in the Emirate of Sharjah, where he studied Arabic on a Fulbright Fellowship.
For all three of these young people, their time abroad coincided with their transition into adulthood. And they all say the experience left an indelible mark on their understandings of what it is to be an American.
For Kirstin Broderick, the time she spent in Japan taught her that things about herself she thought were typically human are actually typically 'American.' "We're very individualistic, and we tend to think for ourselves, and just think that that's our natural right," she says. "What I realized in Japan is that they are trained, as we're trained to be individualistic, they're trained to work as a group. So from the time children are in pre-school, they know you do what's best for the group and never for yourself."
And that, Kirstin Broderick says, has allowed Japan to avoid many of the social problems -- like systemic poverty and inadequate health care -- that plague America today. She says when she first started teaching in Japan, she was very enchanted with this group ethic…
"Of course, three months later, after I've been there, and I am struggling with the fact that these kids don't have a voice of their own -- that when they're in sixth grade, they take a test that essentially decides the rest of their career path for the rest of their life -- then I began to hate it, and I went to the other side of the curve," she recalls. "And what you find over time living outside a culture of your own is that the oscillations, they get smaller and smaller over time. And there's this learning that there's no right and wrong. It's not that simple. You can't dichotomize that way."
It is a realization Kirstin Broderick says has helped her interpret American policies and actions in what has become an increasingly polarized political environment.
Now the fact that "Westerners" are different from people in other parts of the world
was no great surprise to Arsalan Suleman, whose parents are immigrants from Pakistan. What he did learn in Ireland, though, is that the "West" is not a monolith, dominated by pro-American sentiment. He says he saw this in the outrage expressed by the Irish people following the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
"You know, this is a country with deep ties to America, that loves America and loves Americans," he points out. "Yet they were very, very disappointed, very upset with our actions, and my time in Ireland gave me a lot of perspective in terms of how the rest of the world views America, and how America views the rest of the world."
There is also the issue of how America views itself in the world - which is something Michael McCarthy says he became aware of during his time in the Middle East. Old enough to remember the Cold War - and the sort of education Americans got during that time - Michael McCarthy says he grew up thinking of America as a beacon of freedom in the world, a model that everyone aspires to.
During his time in the U.A.E., he says he discovered that people are interested in coming to the United States to study and work, "But at the same time, there are also reservations. There's a recognition that there are social issues in America that have not been addressed," he qualifies. "And it was unexpected for me to see people don't want their own countries to become 'little Americas.' They want to preserve their own cultural elements -- that they want to adopt certain features we have done well, and they want to avoid the features that we have not done well."
One of the things Michael McCarthy thinks America has done well, now that he has returned home, is its system of law -- and the justice citizens are able to push for through that system. For that reason, he is planning to go to law school next year.
Arsalan Suleman is already there; he is in his second year at Harvard. And next fall, Kirstin Broderick will join him in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she enters Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. She says she wants to find a way of incorporating Japan's communal spirit into American life without sacrificing the individualism that has allowed her -- and many other Americans -- to thrive.