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World Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card December 12, 2004

A Letter from a Foreign Student in the U.S.

A friend of mine teaches college-level American history as a home study course. The students are required to write a final essay on one of four topics. The fourth one is to provide "a non-American's perspective on the American founding and its fulfillment." They were especially to explain the role of the Constitution in creating American society.

Recently he sent me one such essay, and with both his and the student's permission, I pass it on to you. (I have removed or changed references that might lead to the student's identity.)

He wrote:

As I was growing up in [my country], I saw some of my relatives and family friends left home after they finished their education. Many of them went to the United States to pursue advanced degrees or to seek working opportunities, while others headed for other countries. Many of those who went to America have never come back. I wondered why.

Very often in my childhood as well as my teenage years, I heard or saw the name of the United States of America in the news. In almost all of these circumstances, I was constantly brought to the knowledge of how powerful and successful this country was. I wondered why.

Being a follower of Sports started as young as I could understand what was happening on the television, I saw the United Stated of America always ranked number one on the Medal List and Americans always broke world records in every Olympic Games. I wondered why.

Nearly ten years ago, there was an immigration trend occurred in [my country]. Many people feared the government which took over in 19--. Although not everyone could immigrate to America, there were still a lot of people tried. Two of my high school friends moved to America with their families. Both of them have never come back. However, there are a lot of people who immigrated to Canada and Australia have come back. I wondered why.

In many of my textbooks used in high school, whenever the subject of economics was taught, the pictures of the World Trade Center must be on the pages. And the teachers always told us that New York was the center of the world economics. I wondered why.

As I grew older, it was I, myself, had the opportunity to study abroad. When my relatives and friends found out that I was going to ------, which was an American university, they unanimously told me not to go back to [my country] after graduation. Instead, they suggested me to find a job here in the United States. Some of them even went further to ask me to marry an America so that I could become a US permanent resident, or even a US citizen. I wondered why.

The "I Wondered Why" list goes on and on even when I first came to the United States. I wondered why the United States of America was so special so that hundreds of thousands of people would do as much as they could in order to become a US citizen, or at least a US permanent resident. I wondered why Americans were always so pride of their countries.

I was happy to know that everyone, including non-Americans, could have an opportunity to attend the American History course in university. Many people asked me why I did not take this course in my freshman year so that I did not need to worry about it as I started taking major classes. My response to it was that I wanted to wait until the last stage of my degree so that I would not take the course merely to fulfill university general education requirements, but seriously and carefully study the subject in order to find out why America was so special.

The Constitution is essential to the success of the United States of America. This Constitution was framed by a group of wise men who met in a special convention in Philadelphia in 1787. The wise men were so called because they had read so much in the writings of ancient philosophers and the philosophers of the Enlightenment. And they believed that they could build a "Good Society" on the America Continent.

In these wise men's vision, America would be "large, powerful, stable, and honorable to mankind" (Fox). After a long and hot summer meeting in Philadelphia and through many of important compromises, the Constitution was finally adopted. The Founding Fathers had actually made the idea of "Good Society" a reality.

The followings are the characteristics of the "Good Society" of American.

First, the government exists for the benefit of the people, not the rulers.

Second, individuals should have real and practical freedom.

Third, economic opportunity should be unrestricted.

Fourth, citizens should be virtuous.

And fifth, people should honor the rule of law.

The establishment of the United States of America was based on principles.

Why my fellowmen left [my country] and moved to the United States and never went back? It was because many of the people did not have faith in the [new] Government. People were afraid that they would lose the freedom they used to enjoy.

In fact, [my] people did not have real and practical freedom under the [former] Government. We did not have the right to choose our governor and other leaders; however, we at least had freedom of speech. This freedom of speech was nearly eroded and seriously tested by the [new] Government about two years ago, [with] an anti-subversion law.

This, in fact, was a nice way to say do not give freedom of speech to people in [my country]. Everyone who criticizes the Government would be considered as treason and would be punished. Fortunately, the bill was withdrawn. Even though the bill was not passed, [my] people's already-weak faith in the Government was dramatically decreased further.

The other issue is the ongoing debate on whether the [new] Government should allow popular election in [my country]. The Government has already denied popular election in 2007 and 2008.

The instability of the Government is one of the reasons why, I believe, once people have the opportunities to leave and move to the United States, they will not go back, because they find real and practical freedom here in the United States.

I often hear that the United States is a place that is filled with opportunities. Whoever has an idea and is willing to work hard, he or she must be successful. I think it is a fulfillment of the Founding. Two of the five characteristics of the "Good Society" of America promise this kind of success. In the United States, individuals have real and practical freedom and economic opportunities are not restricted.

The following paragraphs are extracted from a letter that was written by one of the friends of my family in 1995. This person was a very good friend of my family who left [my country] in 1991 and came to the United States to pursue his bachelor degree. He wrote (translated to English):

Dear Family:

In November, it is Thanksgiving season and I would like to give my thanks and love to you all through this letter in this special holidays. It has been more than seven years since I left [our country] and five years since I graduated. I have learnt a lot in the past years. After I graduated, I moved to San Francisco, California. I loved the place where I am residing now.

After I graduated, I was hired by a famous structural engineering firm working as an entry-level structural engineering. I could not find a better job than this. It was like a dream come true. I have never thought of being an engineer. I could never become an engineer if I was in [our country] because I was not smart enough to enter university.

In 1994, I passed the Professional Engineering Examination and registered as a professional engineer in California. In February of last year, I started my own engineering company here with a colleague. I wanted to do my own business. The company was small in the beginning with some clients.

In fact, the company is still small now; however, it is continuously growing and we grow from two staff to four in the last one year and a half. And I see opportunities come ahead of us and I am confident that our company will be successful.

I would like to say thank you to you, by this letter. And I also would like to tell you how much I appreciate you two for your willingness to be my sponsor a few years ago when I desired to study abroad. If it were not because of your generosity, I would not be writing this letter at this moment. And I would not be able to have my own company and to be a professional engineer. I might be still working as a clerk in the bank where I used to work before I left. Thank you very much.

If ------ or ------ wants to come to the United States to study in the future, do not forget to let me know. I will definitely take care of them for you and help them to settle down. And if your family will come to the United States on a vacation, please come to San Francisco and I will be more than happy to be your host.

The above letter from my friend totally demonstrated what people could find in America. Only America could provide the kind of opportunity he sought. In [my country], for example, not everyone could make their dreams come true even though they were willing to work hard because the opportunities were basically not there. Because universities were limited, only a portion of young people was able to pursue high education.

Others, who were less lucky and less "smart," were limited to lower level jobs -- office clerk in his case. Because of the unrestricted economic opportunities promised here to everyone, he was able to become a professional engineer and eventually have his own company, which he had never dreamed of. This is another reason why my fellow men left [my country] and moved to the United States and never come back.

I believe there are a lot of people like my friend in the United States. As in the reading material of their course stated, hundreds of thousands people from all over the world immigrated to the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth century in order to obtain "a better life, a better occupation, a better land, etc."

I think this can also answer my question why Americans always break the world records and the United States as a nation always rank number one on the Medal List in every Olympic Games. The United States is a multicultural country; it contains the best people from all the countries around the globe.

When the best people are pursuing their goals in a country that provides all kinds of opportunities, there is no doubt that these people can reach their highest potential. With my friends' case, and other athletics', the Founding is truly continuously being fulfilled.

Even though I still do not, and I think I will never, fully understand the Founding, the Constitution, and the United States of America after taking this Home Study course, I understand more why there are so many people willing to sacrifice so much in order to leave their homelands and move to the United Sates. It is because the United States offers something special that people cannot find otherwise. Without the Constitution, America may be just like any other counties in the world. I hope more Americans will understand more of their own heritage and appreciate more what the Founding Fathers have done for them.

Being a non-American, I have the feeling that this is not my heritage in the beginning of this study; however, the America history course has provided an opportunity for me to learn the true meaning of becoming a virtuous citizen no matter which country you are a citizen of. It taught me that a citizen should participate more actively in political activities, matter, and issues. It does not mean that I need to be a politician, it means that I need to more fully understand what is going on in the country that I live and that I need to speak up and support for the good.

It means that I need to carefully study the participants in an election in order to elect the best people to represent the society as a whole. Even though popular election is not granted to people in [my country] now, we still have limited opportunities to choose other leaders in the community.

Also, I learn from the course that I need to respect other rights, even though sometimes these rights are not granted to the people by the government in some countries.

I hope when I go back [home] after I finish my study here in the United States, I will bring this knowledge back with me and become a better citizen than I was before. I will actively participate in region election, which is held every four years.

I hope that when people have the same questions why the United States is always mentioned on the news, why people always want to immigrate to the United States, why Americans always break world records, etc, as I had in the childhood and my teenage years, I can explain to them and resolve their concerns.

I truly hope that one day, [my country] can become a Good Society in which the government is consent of the governed. I hope that the freedom of speech in [my country] will never be taken away and will eventually be given to anyone and any organization. I hope that one day [my country] will provide opportunities to everyone who has an idea and is willing to work hard.

Copyright © 2004 by Orson Scott Card.


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