This Comfortable Cage Called America

This Comfortable Cage Called America

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This Comfortable Cage Called America

My brothers have a cage in which they keep two iguanas.  I'm sure these creatures were born in captivity, and I assume they will die in the same cage they are in now.  It's not a bad cage.  There are quite a few square feet for them to run around, there is a stick they can climb up and down, there is a heat rock they can relax on, and they have everything they need to survive at their clawtips.  They don't even need to hunt for their meals because their meal tickets (my brothers) provide them with four square meals a day.  They can see outside their cage, but have no idea what it would be like to live outside.  I often wonder, however, what would happen if we were to set these two animals free in what would be considered a natural habitat for most iguanas in the wild.  Would they be likely to adapt in no time at all, or would they look for a nice place with four glass walls and a stick to play on?  And how could this story about two lizards, even if used metaphorically, apply to us as a race?  We are responsible for our entrapment within four similar glass walls, yet we are not aware of them.  Inside of a cage called America we sit, and though we have a great view of the rest of the world, that's all it is-a view.  If we could somehow find a way of recognizing and breaking out of this comfortable cage called life, we would be more capable of coming together as a human race and putting an end to a division so obvious that terms such as "first world" and "third world" are created to define the differences.  Although I will incorporate the use of a few references, the main section of this essay will focus on my own experiences of life in another country which, in its own way, was another world.


     I was taught little in school or home about cultures and people other than my own.  Was theple other than my own.  Was there a reason I should have learned about a less productive people in some remote country?  There was nothing wrong with the land of the free and the home of the brave, and whether or not I was culturally diverse was of little importance in my life-until I went to live in a different country.

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  For two years I would bunk in Brazil, who like a relative who would much rather I just stay at my own home, assured me that I could hang around as long as I wished.


     The idea of entering a new country, learning a new language and becoming part of a different society was appealing to me, but I must admit that I also thought that my life as a misfit in a third world society would be comparable to an extended camping trip that was going to be really fun.  Even as a student graduated from high school (we all know the prestige involved in obtaining a high school diploma), I had the most naive possible conception of what Brazil, a third world country, was like.  History classes never taught me about the extreme poverty in Brazil, the huge division of lower and upper classes on of lower and upper classes or the admiration and envy Brazilians have for Americans.  I was never encouraged to learn about the government or economy of the largest South American country in school.  I wasn't taught in church about the diverse religions that exist in a country populated by a people that, as a whole, express more penitence and dedication to God than the American people do.  Even as a student fresh out of high school, an encompassing cage had begun to form around me.  Although I read now and then for pleasure, and completed most of the reading assignments given to me in school, it appears that one thing that greatly affected me, and I'm sure affected many other people as well, is not as much that which I've read, but that which I have not.


     I spent but a short time in Brazil, and I regretfully say that, had my conceptual framework of the world been created within a global perspective, not just an American one, it would not have taken me so long to understand why the Brazilians, despite the fact that they live without many of the things Americans might consider imperative, are so content with the life they have.  When I first arrived in Brazil, I was so overwhelmed by the idea of being in another country and the adaptation that would have to take place, it was as if someone had opened the door of my cif someone had opened the door of my cage and let me run out for the first time.  It didn't take me long, however, to begin to recognize that I was in a place that functioned in a very different way than the one I knew.  I wish I could say that I saw this different way with an open mind, and maybe even as the right way.  After all, to those people, it was the right way because it was the only way they knew.  Unfortunately though, I was quick to criticize because the American way was not only easier, it was the only way I knew.  In a sense, I began to look around for all the neat things I used to have in my cage, and when I discovered that they were nowhere to be found, I started to criticize my new environment.


     In order for one to be able to understand what I mean by the term "criticize," I think it is important to receive a little background on whatever it was I was criticizing, and perhaps why I presumed that I was worthy of doing such.  I will attempt to give small bits of information about Brazilian society, but I will not make this the main focus of my essay because there are obviously certain things one cannot learn about a people or their way of life without actually becoming a part of that people's society.


     The Brazilian people are vebsp;  The Brazilian people are very traditional.  Often a decision about religion or an occupation will be greatly influenced by the religion or occupation of an individual's father or mother, which came as a result of their parents, and so forth.  This is not to say that the people do not think for themselves, it implies that many Brazilian people believe in honoring family names, beliefs, and reputations.  The people of Brazil are very happy with a life that most people born in the states would not be capable of tolerating.  Poverty is not uncommon and comfort is not nearly as available there as it is here.  For example, in the state of Sâo Paulo, the average temperature all year long is comparable to the average summer temperature in a desert state like Utah.  However, most people live without many of the conveniences Americans have such as air conditioning, the availability of a car and often even telephones.  Yet for most Brazilians this is nothing more than an inconvenience they have been taught to deal with by life in Brazil.  We often complain when we're "forced" to eat the same thing for dinner two nights in a row.  Consider ghts in a row.  Consider eating the same basic meal for lunch and dinner every day of your life.  Rice and beans are an intricate part of any lunch or dinner, partly because it is a traditional dish, partly because it is cheap and fits the budget of most families whose sole provider works twelve-hour days and makes minimum wage (which over there is not even close to what minimum wage here is).  Schooling is not a requirement like it is in the states.  Many people stop going to school after completion of the Brazilian equivalent of high school, many students don't go that far.  Poverty is evident everywhere in Brazil.  Many homes consist only of four walls and a roof overhead, and are sometimes smaller than a small bedroom in the states.  Despite all this, the Brazilian people are warm, friendly, and genuine human beings.


     After becoming aware of several conditions like those I just touched briefly upon, I was quick to come to the conclusion that the lives of these people would be so much better if they could only live like we do.  What conclusion I wasn't quick to come to was that the Brazilian people had no wish to live like we do.  My failure to come to this conclusion took me out of the world I had recently been shown, and put me back in my cage where I had become so comfortable.  My misconbecome so comfortable.  My misconception that our way was the only right way led to a half-hearted effort on my part to allow myself to become a part of society, and as a result of that, I was not able to avoid implications in my speech and actions that my country and way of life was, in many ways, superior-or at least more appealing. Sometimes I would do this without even thinking about it, and in an attempt to explain life in the United States, I would unintentionally discourage a man who came to the sudden realization that things for him, and perhaps his family, were as good as they were going to get.  Often in expressing what I loved or missed about my country, I would succeed in making myself unapproachable, or my presence undesirable.  After all, what reasons would I have to miss aspects of an American lifestyle in another country?  1.  They are desirable.  2.  They are unattainable in that part of the world.  Can you remember when you were a little kid, and for Christmas your friend got the new state-of-the-art bicycle that cost about three times as much as the used bike Santa got for you at a garage sale?  You tried not to show that you were indeed jealous by telling your friend you were happy for him, but inside you were wishing someone would steal that bike and your friend would have to bum rides off you.  Now try to imagine an enthusiastic American in a third worldenthusiastic American in a third world country explaining to a couple sweating profusely because of the heat how wonderful a concept as simple as central air conditioning is.  That was fine for me because, of course, I knew I would have access to this convenience again, but for someone who may never come across even something this simple, to hear a "rich American tourist" go on about it was obviously very discouraging.


     If this attitude of inherited superiority were mine and mine alone, I would not be so anxious to write about it, but unfortunately there were many colleagues of mine with the same molded misconceptions that I had.  Something that has been brought to my attention just recently is the concept of perspective.  John Berger, in explaining the evolution of certain art forms, said, "What you saw depended on where you were when, which we aren't familiar with or don't understand.  In order to understand what lies beyond the walls of our cage, we must learn about it.  Efforts can be made by learning institutions, religious institutions, and the pupils themselves to ensure that we dohemselves to ensure that we don't get too caught up in whose way is better, and who is right.  When it comes down to it, whether we are talking about the people of the United States, the people of Brazil, or the people of any other country, there isn't one way that is right for everybody, and we cannot assume that there is. Who's to say that someday the walls of our cage won't be torn down and the alternative will cease to exist?  Once we realize that the differences between cultures is necessary, learn to accept those differences, and learn from each other, we will be more able to overlook our idea of whose way is superior and which country possesses more control.  This realization could bring us closer to a societal junction, and the knowledge and vision of the invisible walls that separate the human race from itself could very well be the first step. 
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