American flag in a field

With something of a literary apology to Garrison Keillor …

It was anything but a quiet week in Lake Woebegone, aka These dis-United States, as we headed into the nation’s 246th birthday. Rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court dropped fast and deep, like a set of car keys tossed into Lake Superior. Criminalized abortion, prayer circles at public school football games, tax-funded vouchers to religious schools, an emasculated Environmental Protection Agency … the waters are cold and rising.

I was trying to explain some of this to an investigative journalist from Sri Lanka who is staying at my house this summer. It’s her first time in the U.S. The newsroom she was assigned to through a fellowship is still working by remote, so she’s more isolated than ideal. She’s managed to figure out what passes for public transportation in Seattle — something I’ve never had the patience to attempt. She found her way to a Memorial Day music festival, a large park overlooking the Puget Sound and the annual solstice parade in the neighborhood of Fremont. She came back wide-eyed from the latter, which features naked bicyclists.

Perhaps wide-eyed is the best way to describe much of her reaction to life in the U.S., from the giant grocery store (“So many choices. Which milk is best? What chicken do you buy?”) to Seattle’s cold, wet June (“I don’t have enough socks.”). Because she’s a journalist, and isolated, she spends a lot of time online, watching the dire economic news from her country and trying to track what’s going on in mine.

I asked her the other day whether her far-away views of America fit with what she encounters here every day. She asked good questions about some household things, like why the top of the gas stove is always warm (pilot light) and why I keep the door of the washing machine ajar (mildew). She was hesitant to ask, but curious about the homeless tents that climb up the freeway berms and exit ramps. She had no trouble grasping the reality of income inequality — a universal curse, I guess — but could only look around my kitchen in wonder when I told her about housing prices in Seattle.

We soon steered the conversation to more current news. She wanted to know how the courts and congressional hearings work, and why laws can be so different state-to-state. She knew about the reversal of Roe v. Wade and, of course, the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. We hadn’t yet learned of the desperate, hopeful migrants who died in a locked semi-trailer in San Antonio, but we talked a bit about immigration, race, religion and gun rights.

Finally, she simply said, “I don’t understand.”

I paused for a long time, then finally said, “Neither do I.”

I hope I do better when we next talk over dinner, and focus on how the American press deals with all of this. And I will turn the conversation around as I try to learn about her life as a young woman and serious journalist in a distant place. Her presence, curiosity and wonder are good reminders that all reporting is foreign reporting. We can’t assume our readers/viewers/listeners share our knowledge or agree with our views. That’s true whether they are from Sri Lanka, or across the street.

Further Reading