But lately, I've been thinking a lot about freedom, a topic that Janis was more than happy to incorporate into her repertoire; all you have to do is listen to her song, "Me and Bobby McGee," to get a sense of her opinion of what "freedom" really means. (I would be remiss if I didn't point out that the song was actually written by Kris Kristofferson for a male to sing about his lost lady-love, but for my sake of argument, let's just assume that Janis whole-heartedly agreed with Kristofferson's lyrics.) Because of my recent experiences, I have to say that my ideas on freedom definitely diverge from those of the defiant diva of yore.
Dare I say it? I think that we, as Americans, take our freedoms very much for granted. I realize how trite that sounds, but please stay with me. I'm not pointing fingers and calling names; my goal is not to preach or instill guilt. I am merely making an observation based on my recent travels, and conversations with good friends. I am as guilty of this as anyone, but my goal is to be more aware of myself, my good fortune, the idea that freedom is a finite quality in many parts of the world.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I traveled for three weeks in Egypt this summer. While a number of things were exactly as I expected, many were not. Everywhere we traveled, there were posters of the current president, Mubarak, who has filled his position since Sadat was assassinated. For all you young folks out there, that was in 1981. I hear Americans speak of recent presidents who stole elections, and as a historian, I know that it's not uncommon for a U.S. president to receive the majority of the popular vote, but not the electoral vote. However, no matter what opinion you hold, as long as you have reached the age of majority and are a U.S. citizen, you have the right to vote, and you have a choice. True, it may not seem like the candidates are all that different any more, but you still get to pick your poison. The current political joke in Egypt centers around what will happen when Mubarak dies or steps aside: Egyptians will then get to choose their new president - either his older son, or his younger son.
|Poster of President Mubarak, with mosque in background.|
Now, before I go any further, I want to mention something. I started this post several days ago, and realized it was going down a path that I didn't want to travel. I wanted to share what people told me about their experiences, and how their words made me appreciate what I have. But for some reason, I couldn't stay on track, and what I had written beyond the few paragraphs you see above sounded like a lecture. Oh, man, did I cringe when I read my own "you-should-do-this-and-not-that" little speech. So forgive me for delaying the post - but I PROMISE, you would have been getting a mini-workout from all the eye-rolling and heavy sighing had you read the post as it was. Thank you for bearing with me, and giving me your ear, because now I want to talk about a couple of very recent conversations that I've had, with two very different individuals. They were, after all, the inspiration for this post, and I believe they had something important to say. In the end, I promise to tie it all together, even if it seems like I'm being a little circuitous for the present.
Conversation One happened a few months ago, when a friend was explaining the circumstances of her husband's arrival in the U.S. He's Japanese, and we have several Japanese manufacturing facilities in this area, so I always sort of just assumed that he came over with his business, and just decided to stay when he got married. I was partially right - he does work for a Japanese company, and he did decide to stay here after marrying my friend, who is of obvious European-American descent (yes, I hate these hyphenated labels, too, but in this case, I feel like I just can't avoid using it). BUT, the real reason that this couple remains here stems from the freedoms we have that aren't necessarily a part of Japanese culture.
|Hitachi Building, located along the Nile River in Cairo.|
That was a bit of a revelation for me. You see, I once worked in one of those local Japanese facilities that I mentioned above, and most of the Japanese guys - there were no Japanese women working there, because that would mean that their husbands were very poor providers - were scheduled to live stateside for a certain number of years or months, and most of them looked on their time here as a necessary evil tolerated for the sake of showing loyalty to their employer. As soon as their time was up, they went back home. Not so for my friend's husband, even though his wife has spent a year in Japan, and is fairly comfortable with both the culture and language. He likes the idea that he can buy a house with a nice big yard, and not have to worry about the neighbors shaming his future child for something that we would consider a trivial matter. Believe it or not, the concept of minding one's business is inextricably tied to freedoms of choice, and I'd never seen the matter quite like that. The whole conversation opened my eyes a little, and I was glad for her candidness.
Conversation Two occurred when we were packing up on the last day in Egypt. The professor who organized the trip is married to an Egyptian woman who grew up in Cairo. I asked her if she got homesick after traveling to Egypt because she shared so many wonderful things with us about Cairo, and I could tell it was very dear to her heart. Her response to me was not as straightforward as I had expected. "Of course I miss Cairo the minute I get on the plane to leave," she told me, "but the U.S. is my home. It is where I can dress as I please, and do what I want to do." Based on all we'd seen and heard, I understood her point. She felt like the U.S. was the place where she had the freedom to be herself. Her husband/father/brother wasn't going to choose her wardrobe for her, nor limit her activities to those involving household chores. Even in the U.S. of the past, women had more say in their lives than many Egyptian women of today, and I'm so grateful to all those women and men who've gone before me, fighting for issues such as women's suffrage and the ERA, regardless of its failure to become a part of our constitution.
Since my return, I've settled into the groove of my daily activities, and I've thought a lot about both of these people and what they shared. It humbles me. To grow up with so much freedom, with people telling me that I could be anything I wanted to be made me blind to the million little restrictions other cultures place on personal freedoms. I know we have some of that here, too - I am not so naive to think that all women have the same access to jobs (or pay) that men have, nor do I believe that people of color can walk through "our" world in the same way whites do. We still have a way to go before we have a truly level playing field when it comes to freedoms and rights, and if I'm honest, I think these two go hand-in-hand.
So what would Janis say about all this heavy talk and deep thinking on the topic of freedom? I'll let you decide for yourself. But for my part, I'm pretty sure she'd say that it's all in the concept of how you interpret freedom, especially in the context of relationships and personal connections. But I like to look at the bigger picture, the one where freedom can be the opportunity to decide something seemingly unimportant, like the color of my hair, or something much larger, when I participate in choosing our national leaders. However I look at it, I feel like I'm finally seeing what it means for the first time in my life. Thank you, my two dear friends, for your openness and sharing. You've given me a gift that I didn't even realize I had the freedom to accept.