There were whispers and hints along the way, but it was a car commercial aired during the NFL Playoffs that provided the definitive evidence: America has seen profound changes during the time of my absence.
It was just over one year ago that I left my home and my country to serve in Ethiopia with the U.S. Peace Corps. It was October 2007, I had just graduated from college with two shiny degrees, and my friends and I were heading off to graduate schools, medical schools, respectable jobs or crazy adventures in foreign locations. Americans were showing optimism heading into the new year, according to a variety of slightly rising poll numbers. Jim and Pam were together on The Office. The future looked bright and supremely confident – just as it always had for as long as I had been alive to anticipate it.
A Peace Corps volunteer in Africa has a limited number of windows through which to view her home country, and it wasn't long until the glimpses I was getting began to paint a steadily darkening landscape. Letters from friends recounted struggles to find work. Emails from my alma mater announced new measures to meet a drastically reduced budget, including a mandatory five days of unpaid leave for all faculty and staff. Phone calls from my parents found them at home, having called off their weekend trip to visit my grandparents in the face of soaring gas prices. Meanwhile, stories passed throughout the Peace Corps world lamented rising food prices. TIME and Newsweek began educating the public on subprime mortgages and collateralized debt obligations, and shortwave radio programs aired experts delivering increasingly more pessimistic predictions about the future of the world economy. As news of massive home foreclosures, rising unemployment rates, and collapsing financial institutions streamed back to us volunteers with frightening regularity, we felt as if the very fabric of modern society was crumbling before our attentive ears. And polls showed that for the first time, a majority of American parents believe their children will be worse off financially than they are.
It was with some trepidation, then, that I boarded a plane to come home for the holidays. What could I expect now, over one year later, from a country that had seen such dramatic events in my absence? Would I find a sense of national depression? Wide-spread panic? Would I even recognize this new American life that awaited me?
When I deplaned in Knoxville, swaths of grey clouds hung low in the cold, desolate sky – not unusual for a Tennessee winter morning, but perhaps, to my apprehensive mind, a reflection of the gloom I would witness in the coming days. What I actually saw, however, did not immediately appear so far removed from life as I had always known it there. With gas prices having fallen back to more comprehensible levels, people were returned to their old driving ways. My mother insisted on driving twenty-five minutes out to Norris, Tennessee to buy a bottle of mead for Christmas. (And here I had always thought mead was only for celebrating Viking pillagings and plunderings – not so, apparently.) I did, though, spot two Smart Cars during my time at home, which was much more that I would have expected to see in staunchly conservative East Tennessee.
It was Christmastime, that most wonderful time of the year, that epitome of American commercialism and consumerism and generally extravagant habits of spending, and in many ways, Americans seemed determined to press boldly onward into all the glorious holiday chaos, economic slow-down be damned! The mall exit ramp remained backed up well onto I-40 throughout the days leading up to Christmas, and the brilliant displays of alternately blinking colored lights and glowing plastic Nativity scenes were erected just as big and brash as ever. (Energy crisis? What energy crisis?)
A little closer to home, though, Christmas at the Smith household and elsewhere was a more subdued affair than in years gone by. The gifts exchanged were fewer, smaller, less extravagant, and the gift-giving, for once, did not seem to constitute the core of the holiday. Families employed "Secret Santa" and other similar strategies to cut down the number of obligatory exchanges, some forgoing presents altogether. With my family, the whole gift-exchange ritual consumed only fifteen minutes of our Christmas morning, leaving us the rest of the holiday to...spend quality time together? Enjoy being together again after a year? Talk?
It was really the car commercial, though, that convinced me that a massive shift had taken place in American society. My dad and I were watching the Colts and the Chargers play in the AFC Wild Card game when it came on, an advertisement for the Hyundai Assurance Program, which offers (with some strings attached) the chance to return your car if you lose your income within a year of buying. It was contrary to everything that a car commercial placed during a prime-time sporting event should be, the fuel-injected, pulse-pumping, semi-erotic demonstration of speed, power, and sleek curves counted on to appeal to the American football viewer's yearnings for adventure, ostentation, and all-around bad-assedness. In an industry whose advertising has always taken advantage of an American craving for thrills and risk-taking, this foray into realms of safety and security – assurance, if you will – reflected a significant change in the hopes, needs, and desires of the American public.
My time at home showed me a country gaining in caution, shedding some of its formerly unshakable certainty, more worried and perhaps a little more humble. As a nation, we are beginning to entertain the idea that not all steps forward constitute progress, that sometimes misguided steps must be retraced, undone, in order to return to a point where real advancement is possible. It is of course no coincidence that "change" carried the day in our presidential elections, when American voters raised their voices in favor of a new direction for our country's future.
Moreover, we are beginning to truly see and acknowledge that our actions have profound consequences in the world, for better and for worse. The slogan for Hyundai Assurance is, "We're all in this together, and we'll get through it together." As the frightening domino effects of this financial crisis ripple throughout a tightly interwoven world, one gets the sense that the "we" is being interpreted in America more broadly than ever. One gets the sense that this time around, finally, the U.S. is ready to see itself as part of a global community, and to act accordingly. In the words of Hillary Clinton during her Senate confirmation hearing, "America cannot solve the most pressing problems on our own, and the world cannot solve them without America."
Now that I am back in Ethiopia for my second year of service, local people ask me, "How is America?" I tell them that times are difficult, that the American people face many challenges, that many are worried and some are indeed suffering. But I can also tell them that I know the determination of the American people, that I have seen it in action time and again in the face of crisis. I can assure them out of my belief that an American system that responds to its people and gives them the freedom to speak, act, and innovate will find solutions to our problems, especially when it is allowed to admit and learn from the mistakes of our past. I can say that even when the American Dream has become tarnished, the American Spirit remains, believing that despite all its imperfections, America has every potential to be great, if its people demand greatness from it and work together to achieve it.
And in that way, nothing has really changed after all.