published: March 13, 2005 6:00 am

Understanding America is loving it

By Paval Mazheika

Greetings from the land of the fattest people in the world and country where the least plausible becomes possible."

These are the words I used in a postcard that I sent from the post office on Coxe Avenue to my friends in Belarus. This was my humorous take on America, a country that I would like to understand and love. It's a country I'm seeing for the first time.

But as we say in my country, every joke surely has a grain of truth in it, right?

There is hardly another country in the world today that is discussed with so much passion as the United States, whether it's the American lifestyle, politics or the economy. Struggling to overcome the legacy of the Soviet stereotypes that have been planted in my conscience, I looked forward to my first encounter with America. All I really wished was to understand one thing here - America.

So here are some of my impressions:

First of all, America amused me. First I found that Americans and geography make poor friends. The realization came to me when, after a long and animated conversation, my interviewer would politely and quietly asked me, "Sorry, Paval, could you tell me where Belarus is?"

OK, I told myself, the U.S. enjoys dominance in the world today, and the U.S. is not required to know where some other country is.

So let me explain my country's geography. Belarus lays right smack in the center of Europe. My country has a border with Russia to the east, with Poland to the west, with Latvia and Lithuania to the north and northwest, respectively, and Ukraine to the south. Belarus is a wonderful country with many rivers and lakes and lots of green forests.

Yes, it was really Belarus that gave the United States Gen. Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who served in George Washington's Army during the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson is seen wearing a long coat in the Jefferson Memorial that has been modeled on the one that Kosciuszko gave him. Boris Kit, an important space scientist, hailed from Belarus, as does Olga Korbut, the Olympic gymnast and champion.

Here in America, I was also surprised by how outspoken and firm people were in expressing their opinions about President Bush. But after I learned that last year's election saw one of the highest turnouts of voters in recent years, I understood why so many people had an opinion, especially after the voting irregularities in Florida and Ohio.

I also saw how those opinions colored political cartoons. Some hinted as Bush's intellectual limitations, while those expressing support revealed much about America.

Back home in Belarus, someone who expressed a similar opinion could end up in a labor colony for saying the same about the president.

America has captured my imagination with its spirituality and patriotism. We see the Star-Spangled Banner on the cranes, flags on the lawns, dogs wearing their star-studded blue coats. All this kitsch at first blush makes you wonder if it's just for show. But I was surprised to find that people who may seem reticent to talk politics will proudly wear a sweatshirt with a bold American flag on the back.

These little things show me that people really care for their country.

My country is also plastered with her share of the official and current symbols. The current flag was made over about 10 years ago, when the new president of Belarus threw out the flag of the country's independence for one that reflected closer ties to the old USSR. So the displays, sometimes overdone and hapless, more often than not show a false sense of loyalty to the regime.

America has frustrated and pleased me. I have grown frustrated with the heavy flow of ads that are so ever present here. I cannot "love this game," the message driven home during the NBA all-star game every few minutes. Granted, the ads drive sales and trade, but a game chock full of ads becomes an all-star ad game. That game is not for me.

On the other hand, Americans have impressed me with their sense of public service. People get ahead in their lives. Sometimes they come from humble origins but attain a position of prestige and social significance, then feel the need to give back to their community. I admire a country where a successful businessman, a high official, a dynamic journalist will find the time to volunteer as a school mentor, for example.

In my country, the regime declares its care for the young. But it also demands political loyalty in return.

This America then has captured my heart and mind. I would like to think that I have found and also understood this country for myself. And the Clemson fraternity that trashed rooms and hallways in the hotel I stayed in will not sway these sentiments.

It's not a reflection of the United States I've come to understand.

Mazheika is a journalist who visited the Citizen-Times as part of a program through the International Center for Journalists. Contact him at