5 September 2012
god bless america
Big skies, big cars, big hope, big country: Dion Nash visits the United States of America.
Over the last five or six years I have had the privilege of doing business in ‘God’s chosen country’ – first as a small but emerging bottled water business trying to sell NZ purity to the thirsty in California; then as part of a large American corporate selling NZ vodka to the masses; and more recently, peddling my own brand of cosmetics to anyone who cares to listen.
This time, I entered LAX fresh off Air NZ flight 0001 with my heart on my sleeve and hope on my shoulder, craving for some of that brazen American capitalist dream to rub off; some of the unbridled optimism and unquestioning belief to work its magic on me; for success to welcome me with open arms.
From what I’ve witnessed, America appears to be a land full of contradiction. It’s all ‘in god we trust, except in Las Vegas’; conservative yet extreme; big and brash yet considered and moderate; capitalist and greedy yet kind and accommodating.
You’re not in Grey Lynn now Dion
I remember making the mistake of thinking that I understood America on my first few trips, having watched movies and a few episodes of CSI Miami. It’s safe to say that I know better now.
America’s culture is multi-layered and complex, and I am often reminded of my mother’s old mantra (‘Never mention politics or religion at the dinner table’) when visiting the land of the free. It’s ok to curse the president or the democrats so long as you are American and a republican; but as a visitor, you should never cast aspersions, nor assume to know anything about local politics. If you do encounter discussion revolving around these taboo topics, the best you can do is stay silent and let the conversation run its course, before heading to the bar to get the next round. I guess no one likes outsiders sticking their nose into their business, whether it’s personal or political.
Perhaps the most obvious and flabbergasting fact about America is its ability to consume. I remember buying a can of Coke in NYC – the shopkeeper placed it in a brown paper bag with stacks of paper napkins and several straws (each individually wrapped in paper) before I was allowed to walk away with the bag. As soon as I was outside, I took my drink out of the bag and threw the rest into a trashcan overflowing with brown paper bags, stacks of paper napkins and straws.
Work will set you free
America is a land of consumers, filled with people living the capitalist dream and believing that anyone can make it if they work hard enough. There was a piece of art in the Chelsea hotel I was staying at, which simply said ‘All we ever do in America is work’ – which I thought was true in a way. Work, for many Americans, is what defines their lives, and has thus become a culture in itself.
The lucky country
As I fly across the Nevada desert en route to Vegas, I get a sense of just how vast this land is – and its beauty is in its scale and its extremes. Not a blade of grass can be seen on the plains, while the Grand Canyon carves deeply through the landscape like a vicious knife wound. From up high you can barely make out the signs of human occupation deep down below, but telephone lines still stretch on forever alongside dirt roads, the odd ramshackle settlement and failed water capture installations that dot the aerial view. It seems as if the battle with the desert is never-ending.
As I stand on the rooftop of a Vegas skyscraper, I look out at a landscape that reminds me of Central Otago – its beauty shocks and stuns me. This was not what I expected of such a busy, well-trodden place, and perhaps this is the paradox that is America. Every tine I think I have an angle on her, an opinion, a theory, she throws it back in my face, mocking me for my foolishness in thinking that I finally understand her.
Still I try all the same – wrestling, opining, because I need to know what makes this fair land tick if I ever stand a chance of making a buck in this place. I’m in Vegas for three days to attend a trade show; Ben Affleck reckons that’s a day too long for Vegas and I think I know what he means.
Yet, even after three hustling and bustling days filled with casinos and semi-drunk Americans spending up large, I know one thing – I love it here, even for all its faults. There is space in America. It feels big, vast and cavernous. There is intense competition and lots of noise, but the ceilings are high and the corridors wide. And, if you pick a good line, there just might be a chance for you to succeed; to make your case, and catch a ride to the very top.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, America feels like one big opportunity. Its people seem to have luck on their side in varying degrees, and everyone’s playing the same big game of bluff. It’s where fortune favours the brave – sometimes.