By Donella Meadows
–October 1, 1987–
“How many telephone equipment there are in this house?” Jozsef asked on his second day in America, his second day in the West.
I was embarrassed to answer. Two weeks earlier I had been in Hungary at the home of one of Jozsef’s colleagues, another professor of economics at Budapest’s Karl Marx University. It was a gracious home, part of what looked like a typical set of new American condominium units. The apartments had been built jointly by the owners in a cooperative agreement. For Budapest they were tremendously luxurious apartments. But when I asked to make a phone call, I had to walk two blocks up a steep Buda hill to a public phone. “We’ve been waiting two years for the telephone,” sighed the lady of the house.
I told Jozsef the truth, “There are five telephones here, three separate numbers. But this place isn’t typical. We don’t just live here, we work here too.” He smiled and dismissed my qualification. He had something great to write home about. Five telephones in one house!
There’s a lot going on inside me when I introduce a stranger to my country, which, thanks to Dartmouth’s Hungarian-American exchange program, I do fairly often. I don’t want to insult the visitor’s own home by making invidious comparisons about telephones. I want him or her to feel comfortable and welcome. Above all, I want the newcomer to confirm all my own judgements about my native land. I want to see all my prejudices reflected in Jozsef’s wondering eyes.
I want Jozsef to love our rural beauty, our quiet, our clean air, and he does — it’s the first thing he comments on. I want him to hate our mindless materialism and he doesn’t. He’s enchanted by it. Mindless materialism makes a terrific first impression. I want him to condemn the dumbness of our television and he does. He turns off the evening comedy show after one bewildered half-hour. He can’t believe stuff like that is on every night of the week.
Jozsef does appreciate, as I so much want him to, the freedom of our press. I give him a copy of The Nation so he can see how we criticize our government. He is amazed by it, also amazed to find there a long article on modern Hungarian novelists. “You know something of us here!”
That comment is a lesson for me. The small East European nations are fearful that they have been swallowed up and forgotten. It is tremendously important to them that we can distinguish Hungary from Czechoslovakia from Bulgaria, that we “know something of them” as separate peoples, not just as one corner of a vast gray empire.
Somewhat reluctantly, because it’s not the America I am proud of, I decided to give Jozsef the full treatment, a fast-food hamburger for dinner, followed by a movie, followed by a stop at an all-night supermarket.
I pulled into the drive-up lane of the burger shop, bellowed our order into the speaker, picked up the bag of burgers and coke at the window, and handed it to Jozsef, who was speechless. He just held the bag on his lap as I drove off. “Go on and eat while it’s hot,” I said.
“In the car?” he said. “I never ate in a car before.”
What impressed him most about the supermarket was that it was open on Sunday night. I explained supermarket rationality to him — that the store was full of workers at night anyway, to stock shelves and clean up, so by adding a cashier or two it could snare enough marginal customers to pay for staying open.
I thought he’d be impressed by this capitalist logic, but he was most struck by the idea that the store should be cleaned every night. He couldn’t believe how shiny and spotless it was.
In his country, the small private spaces of people’s apartments are usually immaculate, but every public space, every school, workplace, and shopping place, is tawdry, dusty, crumbling around the edges. Though you see people cleaning, nothing is clean. Cleaning without any commitment to cleanliness seems to be one of the great socialist traits, and ubiquitous shabbiness is one of the minor forms of suffering of socialist people.
“Have you no fear?” Jozsef asked, “outside at night?” One thing people in his country know for sure about us is that our streets are crawling with criminals. They know that from watching American films. If you think about an average assortment of our movies, you can see how they would make a foreigner fearful. It takes real courage for Jozsef and his colleagues to come here — how would you feel if you thought you were going to a country that was “Miami Vice” from sea to shining sea?
There is another thing Jozsef heard about us before he came here, one that he thinks he has now confirmed by direct observation. “It is true what they told me,” he said on his fourth day here. “Here each person can be all that he can be.”
That one brought tears to my eyes. Partly because it is true, especially in comparison with his country. Partly because he will eventually see the South Bronx or the less-favored parts of rural New England and find out how far it is from true. Partly because he doesn’t yet know that there is another struggle that comes after the tremendous struggle for basic freedoms and basic material needs. When it really is possible, without any excuses, to be all that you can be, then comes the obligation to remember that, to be profoundly grateful for it, to extend that possibility to others, and above all to take up the challenge and really to be all that you can be.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987