Seeing things the wrong way round

Jul 3rd, 2011 | By | Category: International

A well-known British correspondent was once sent to California to cover a news story.  Asked by his editor to furnish the newspaper with some additional pieces, he felt that a poetic tone might be adopted in the opening lines of one of the columns.  He wrote of sitting looking out to sea as the sun rose over the Pacific.  The editor reacted with annoyance, advising the correspondent that unless the rotation of the Earth had been reversed, the sun did not rise over the Pacific when one was in California.

Having vowed never to visit a country that seemed to regard me as a criminal unless I could prove otherwise, I am under instruction to retract things I have said about the United States.

Arriving last Wednesday, the official at immigration was warm, chatty and welcoming, a world apart from the dismissive grunts of the Garda officials in Dublin, the cold officiousness of the UK Border Agency, and the downright hostility of the immigration officer last time we had the temerity to wish to enter Canada.

The public transport staff are courteous and helpful; the staff in restaurants really do appear to mean their wish that we have a nice day; even the policemen are friendly.  Standing yesterday morning, waiting to cross the road, a jeep with ‘San Francisco Police Department Bomb Squad’ on the outside pulled up at the lights.  The window was open and the policeman smiled and hoped we were enjoying our visit.

‘I hope you are having a quiet day’, I responded.

We chatted until the lights changed.  It was hard to imagine such a conversation east of the Atlantic.

Like the correspondent who wrote of the sun rising over the Pacific because he was used to working on the east coast of the United States where it rose over the Atlantic, I have to enter a plea of guilty to seeing America from the wrong side.  I have judged a country on the basis of its foreign policy, of assuming a handful of politicians typified a nation.

How many Irish people would want themselves judged on the basis of the politics of Northern Ireland, or on the conduct of the last Fianna Fail government?  There would be the objection that such a view did not represent things as they really are.

If it’s not possible to identify what is typical in Ireland, it’s even less so in the United States. California alone, the seventh largest economy in the world, has a population eight times that of Ireland.  It would not even be possible to identify the typical San Franciscan in a city that ranges from the nudists who sit outside the cafes in Castro to the clientele of the Downtown stores that sell the world’s most expensive labels.

Undoubtedly, there are people who are rude and aggressive and who conform to all the worst stereotypes and, were I not a European spending money, I might be treated very differently, but you can only judge on what you see.

Sitting looking from the motel window across the beach to the Pacific Ocean, the sun is clearly visible, and it’s definitely setting.



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  1. What a well-turned post. And comforting; I’m off to the US myself in a few weeks, for only the second time ever and the first since 9/11, and filling in all the travel authorization forms (in which I had to agree that I have no right of appeal at all if some border official doesn’t like the look of me and sends me straight back to Ireland) was making me feel pretty unfriendly.

  2. I recoiled at completing the ESTA form – feeling there was no presumption of innocence, but I have really been astonished at the courtesy and warmth we have encountered everywhere. Wearing a Leinster rugby jersey yesterday, I even experienced complete strangers coming and talking to me.

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