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The Lonely Americans

Tonight I watched The Lost Boys of Sudan and it’s a film that won’t leave my thoughts. The film is much more about America than about these Sudanese refugees, and what it reveals about the American experience, through the fresh eyes of immigrants, is quite unsettling. Very subtly the film shows the way success in America requires isolation from community and support–the only person who is successful is Peter, who succeeds by suddenly leaving behind his friends in Houston and moving to Kansas on his own, living with a white host family in the suburbs, and getting an education. Meanwhile the friends he leaves behind, all living together in Houston, remain in low-paying menial jobs barely able to make rent. One has “success” but is lonely and isolated, the others have no outward “success” but have the love and emotional support of community. Acting out of self-interest rather than group interest is what it takes to succeed. Peter even stops sending money to his sister in Africa, and calls her less and less frequently, and defends his right to self-improvement when she calls to criticize him. The friends Peter left behind were hurt and angry at his abrupt departure, but he doggedly pursued his plan of self-improvement and he “made it”–a perfect image of “the American Dream.” Though I detect a subtle question mark at the film’s final frame–a shot of Peter in his cap and gown on graduation day–a question mark regarding the definition of “success.”

The immigrants all discuss how difficult it is for them to make friends, that Americans are not receptive, that everyone is “always busy, busy,” and they learn quickly that in America two men cannot walk in public holding hands, as they did regularly in Africa … sign after sign of the lack of community here, the isolated and isolating nature of success-driven American life. Here you are “on your own,” they learn quickly.

All of this reveals pretty standard American individualist dogma, one might say. But watching this film I felt that Americans must be the loneliest people in the world. By design. (Though all my readings about Japanese culture tell me that the Japanese might be the only population lonelier than we.)

2 Responses to “The Lonely Americans”

  1. Blog Crasher
    September 26th, 2005 | 10:04 am

    I think that applies also in every cities of developed western countries. I’m not talking just about major european cities. Take my hometown, Lisboa, capital of humble Portugal, for example. Families are breaking appart, like my own, friends are left behind because you always want to improve yourself… The dynamics of capitalism and free trade simply crash into the dynamics of empathy among human beings. We become machines rather than humans. No wonder our society today is ridden in anti-depressives.

    Nice Blog. Keep it up!

  2. cynthia rockwell
    September 26th, 2005 | 10:31 am

    good point, self-improvement is not an exclusively american goal. it is certainly institutionalized here, though.