Though we have heard it often enough, the term itself does not lend easily to definition. Speakers from different eras have co-opted the term for their own agenda and purposes. Commencing from a more localized comparison between the US and other Western civilizations in Europe, it has morphed loosely to encompass the entire world.
But historically, one is hard-pressed to find any credible basis to affirm the modern connotation of the term. In at least one instance it is shown to be unrelated to what is claimed. Some credit the old historian Alexis de Tocqueville for its initial reference. Then Stalin supposedly coined the term. In current context, US presidents like Kennedy and Reagan made use of such term. Reagan even went further, citing the country as a “shining city on a hill”.
Whatever it definitively connotes in the current milieu, it still loosely means that Americans possess unique defining qualities that distinguish them from the rest of the world, making them in a manner of speaking, tower above the rest. I suppose then it includes any and all qualities that make them stand out and become the envy of the rest. Like as the sole world super power? The biggest and richest economy? The strongest and mightiest military? The destination most of the immigrants of the world desire to move or relocate to? Etc.
Anyway, every time I hear mention of this unique quality as a defining eminence in American society, it has always been as an outsider in awe and wonder looking in. Because every time I heard it expounded, it had always come out of the confident mouths of well-spoken and highly-placed white individuals in American society, whether in government and media.
So two things have always come into my mind. How exactly is this exceptionalism manifested in everyday life? And who are these people who exhibit such manifest destiny? Many images race around in the mind. Countenances of renowned scientists discovering new stuff, or pioneering ways of doing things. Of superior world-class athletes in different fields of sports. Of well-spoken politicians who can hold in mesmerizing awe the rapt attention of many. Of many more exceptional individuals and ways in whatever fields of activity and endeavor we may find in the rest of the world.
But what about lowly immigrants desiring to partake of the American dream? Can they be part of the exceptionalism that is talked about. Is it opened only to the upper echelons? In the puny universes of the new immigrant minorities are there still definitive signs of glimmer and glint to suggest exceptionalism in what they are doing?
We sure wanted to find out for ourselves. This deep longing had formed as part of the lifeblood of my desire and the rest of my family to migrate to the US in the 80’s. And that we did. And forty years later?
I and the wife are back in the old homeland, taking up where we left off and picking up our lives in the self-same way. But all our kids and their families are still in the US.
The question we ask ourselves at times relates to the families left behind. Are my kids and their families not only living the American dream, but more significantly are they practicing and partaking of the vaunted exceptionalism of the place?
I have no ready answer, except to trace what we had done and from there to search for if any, any snippet of wisdom that could reveal the answer for us.
First it starts with me. For a quarter of century, I continued my role in the new environment as breadwinner of the family, but this time ably aided by the wife, who also had to work. Quite exceptional I’d say, for both parents working while raising 4 under-age kids in a new and strange place and cobbled by very limited resources. But that we had to endure for years on end almost singlehandedly, making sure all the kids got their basic education and fit enough to support themselves to a certain extent. Which they all superbly cooperated with.
Like diligent worker bees, both I and the wife dug our laden heels and pressed our noses to the grind, making sure not to miss any day of work, and even signing up for extra work when the opportunities popped up. And surprise of surprises, our respective employers found all these exceptional! Saying so not only in words, but also in the form of generous financial rewards. Expressed, for example, this way. I got extra vacation time for not missing any day of work, and for signing up for extra shifts. Such vacation time was commutative, that is, one could convert the hours to cash payments.
Many of our peers also found it exceptional that we were able to provide for our own housing within a few years of work, and relieved ourselves early from the burdens of being renters. And what’s more, even provided additional housing so the kids could go to better schools.
And after years of hard work, in positions considered bread-and-butter though better than entry-level ones, we were able to provide ample retirement funds to survive in our remaining years. In this day and age that would be considered quite exceptional even in the good ole’ US of A.
Inculcated with these same cherished values we had brought from the old homeland, it seemed no big surprise that our kids would also exhibit them in the self-same manner and at times even more intensely. And these they did, and even at times in more stressful and hazardous situations, because of the nature of their employment. Their longevity and progress in their endeavors could be rated as clear enough testimonies to some form of exceptionalism. And this had been exhibited by a segment of society that in practice needed more showing and proving its worth and value than the rest or majority of the native community.
So signs of American exceptionalism? Sort of? Because our natural affection as parents would incline us so, we reply in the affirmative.
True, that American exceptionalism could be equal opportunity but what is showing us in this present crisis is how vulnerable the country is with regard to the financial health of its citizenry.
This pandemic with the concomitant effect of drastic and unwelcomed business stoppages has shown how ill-prepared a good chunk of the citizenry had always been. Many of those out of work could not survive the loss of payroll even for just a short time. Typical families are missing the necessary financial back-up like savings or other forms of liquid assets to tide them over, without immediate government assistance.
This lack being attributable to the lifestyle attitude inculcated and developed through the years by monetary policies initiated by banks and government, and compliantly welcomed by the citizenry. The borrow and spend attitude, rather than the save before you spend mantra so startlingly shown by a previous generation. And which past generation was responsible for the remarkable progress of the country. The instant gratification paradigm has been developed to the detriment of the country. Rather than actually being prosperous, it was sold to many that it would be sufficient to feel prosperous when one is able for example, to acquire assets on credit with very little or no personal estate offered in exchange. So we had houses being owned missing any considerable DP or other attendant costs of acquisition. But left the owners drowning in debt from it and other accoutrements of prosperous living like vehicle and credit card debt. Remember this ended in the housing bust and the sub-prime mess some years back.
All this has shown us that the exceptionalism shown by many new immigrants in hard work and thriftiness could help steer the country back to its roots of real prosperity and wealth.