Reflections of America this July 4th

Posted on Jul 4, 2011 | 27 comments


July 4th.

The funniest experience I ever had on July 4th (US Independence Day) was in 1999. That was the year I spent July 4th in Tokyo, where I was living for 6 months.

I had been living in Europe since the start of 1995, most recently in London. I have always had a strong affinity for Japanese culture, perhaps because I grew up in Northern California. So one of my bucket list items was to live in Japan. If you want to know how I made this a reality you can read this story and if you have extra time you might enjoy this prelude.

Anyhow, I was working on July 4th since we didn’t have a vacation day in Tokyo and we were on a tight schedule. The office assistant realized it was US Independence Day. She must have been struggling with what the right thing to say to somebody on such an occasion.  She came by my cubicle for an attempt at recognizing the importance of the day.

I knew she was coming from about 30 seconds out as I heard her shuffling her feet as she walked, a telltale sign of a Japanese woman approaching. I love these little cultural idiosyncrasies. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.

“Congratulations” she said to me in her best English accent. You could tell it was a long word for her and she had probably practiced it as Japanese are very sensitive to not offending others. She smiled and walked away.

I chuckled. It hadn’t occurred to me that one might wish somebody congratulations for marking the day you became independent as a nation but I guess when you think about it, if you didn’t have a cultural reference it was a pretty appropriate guess at what to say. Congratulations, indeed!

She then went back to her cubicle and somebody pointed out to her that I was from England. I’m actually not, but that is where I had been living and working and they suddenly realized that maybe I was British. (I only later became a dual citizen having lived there for 10+ years.) In her mind, she had just congratulated me on the day in which my nation was unceremoniously thrown out of a foreign colony and my king was declared unwanted.

Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. Slowly. Stop. Shuffle, shuffle. I knew she was coming back but wasn’t aware of what had transpired.

“I am so sorry. I have misspoken. Please. I did not mean that mistake.” Mortified, she walked off.

Huh? Only an hour later did I realize what had happened.

Ah, the charms of international relations. And cultural gaffes. I have many of my own.

July 4th is a special date in America. Like Thanksgiving it’s a guilt-free holiday filled with family, fun, sports, beer, hot dogs, apple pie, water sports, beer and this year a bit of billiards, foosball and little kids running around.

America is a place that has always welcomed the best from around the world. We have become a great nation through embracing those that seek religious freedom, tolerance, acceptance and economic opportunities for anybody who is hard working, industrious and who hustles.

I know things around perfect. But I’ve lived around the world and it’s a pretty wonderful place we have here.

We don’t have total equality for women, but I’d stand it up against most nations in the world in this regard. I think women who haven’t worked abroad would be shocked in certain countries if they worked there. Still, we have work to do.

We have religious freedom: Separation of church and state. This right is very important to me and at times it feels that it’s not respected enough. Still: when I lived in England the forms for my son’s preschool asked our religion. I refused to fill it out. I’m proudly Jewish but that’s none of their freakin’ business. How is it relevant to my application?

We have economic opportunities for all. I wish we had better policies to help those that weren’t born with the same educational backgrounds as I was since education seems to be the great divider in terms of future opportunities.

I invested in a company whose goal is to bring low-cost computing to inner-city schools in America. Some people have said to me, “That’s dumb. Why bother? We’ll all just have iPads in a few years.” Um, get out of your comfort zone, mate. And get a feeling for the rest of the country. It’s clear to me that our economic divide is also a technological divide and unless we solve this economic disparity will persist.

We have much to do. Which is why I’m grateful there are people like Charles Best in this country. He founded Donor’s Choose, an organization whose goal is to help low-income schools get more supplies by aligning donors with actual projects of interest based on geography, interest or whatever.

If you’re feeling lucky this July 4th, how about donating a small amount to somebody who is less fortunate. Click on the link above. Warning: they have a minimum donation size of $1. As Charles would tell you, even small donations help make young kids dreams come true. They now give away $32 million per year. Or if you’re a developer perhaps you could donate time by dedicated to their hack-a-thon?

In American we have people like Charles Best.

Still, we are cutting back on public education. I know we have a budget deficit and as an economic conservative I believe in smaller government. But not at the expense of educating our next generation and creating economic opportunities for all.

But in America nobody ever asked me where my dad came from. At least not in California. Nobody cared. They wanted to know what I had achieved. What I had to say for myself. Not true in Europe. At least not in my experience. Every government form in England seemed to ask questions about my parents.

In India in order to fill out paperwork to import IT equipment for when I opened our offices there in Pune, the form asked where my grandfather was from. I’m told in older societies stuff like this mattered historically because if you could bind families to commitments you were less likely culturally to have cheating and fraud. I understand that.

Still, I’m proud to live in America.

My dad’s from South America if you’re interested. He grew up in Medellin in the days where the grew a different kind of sugar. He left in his early twenties to come to America for his med-school residency. He started out in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, where I was born. A patriotic place – fitting for the 4th of July.

My dad’s father was from Romania. He escaped Jewish oppression in the pogroms. He traveled throughout South America on a donkey selling tools and cutlery until he met my grandmother in Columbia. She, too, was from the old world.

A few years ago on Passover we were at my cousin Marlene’s house in Sacramento – a child tradition. My dad asked to speak for a moment out of turn. My dad is somewhat introverted so I found this curious.

Passover is a time where we celebrate Jewish freedom and we’re reminded that not everybody in the world is as free as we are today. Ironically our oppressors in that era, the Egyptians, are at the birth of their fledging freedom today.

My dad wanted to talk about immigration. At the time he had been living with his long-time girlfriend from Honduras. Her whole extended family still lived there and weren’t able to visit the US. She hadn’t seen many family members for years.

My dad talked about coming to this country. He talked about it as the land of opportunity for those around the world who sought to make a better life. While we couldn’t have totally open border there had to be some way to bring in more talented people to this country to help grow our base of the world’s smart people.

Tears filled his eyes as he thought about those that couldn’t come to America. He spoke about the things that we still take for granted in our cozy living rooms. He thought about the plight of his long-time partner and her desire to spend time with her family.

Freedom. It’s such an easy thing to take for granted when you have it. When you grew up with it. I know that I’m spoiled because I grew up taking it for granted. I stand on the shoulders of my grandfather’s hard work and accomplishments. I stand on the shoulders of my dad and his hard work in school and his desire to build a better life for us.

In America we still need to realize that this dream exists in the eyes of many smart, enterprising and hard-working individuals around the world. They want to come to our academic institutions and learn from us.

I know that it’s hard to find the right balance on issues like immigration but there is one thing of which I’m certain: The future competitiveness in the world will depend on who has the brightest, most hard working & industrious people.

If we’re lucky enough to continue to invest in our academic institutions and attract the brightest from around the world then we must do everything possible to make it easy for them to stay in our country upon graduation.

As Thomas Friedman has spoken about (although I’m told Paul Kedrosky originally had the idea!) we should staple a green card on the certificate of every science graduate who comes to America. Let them stay and create more jobs in our country rather than abroad.

It’s a non-partisan issue. The hard left is wrong on this issue because they say, “you can’t let them stay unless we have protection of today’s unemployed.” Believe me I’m sensitive to this. Let them stay and help create jobs.

How about a policy that they could be guaranteed to stay if they moved to high unemployment zones and created startups there? We need more high-caliber people in Ohio, Michigan and other mid-Western states.

The far right is also wrong on this issue. They espouse issues such as the high-rate of illegal immigrants already in this country, the need to screen people harder for terrorism, etc.

Most of us are in the smart center on this one but I guess there’s not a strong enough lobby to bring us all together to turn politicians our way. All of the people behind Startup America and the Startup Visa sure are pushing us on the right direction.

In America we have people like Steve Case, Brad Feld, Dave McClure, Shervin Pishevar. We have people who spend personal time advocated for the advancement of our country and for the people in it to have better opportunities.

So that’s what’s on my mind this Independence Day 2011. I feel lucky for the freedoms that I have to spend with my extended family in peace and prosperity. I watch my kids grow up and start riding on the back of a boat on intertubes and thinking that they’re growing up so quickly. They will inherit this country sooner than I can imagine.

I’m optimistic about the future of our industrious nation. I lived abroad long enough (11 years) and travelled far enough (lived in 9 countries) to appreciate the uniqueness of our union.

Still, there is much work to be done.

Happy Fourth of July, all. And … congratulations!

Image courtesy, as always, of Fotolia.

Oh, and yes, I’m sure there are tpyos in this post. No need to email me. I want to get back to a mean game of horse-shoes. Fixing all of my typos would defeat the purpose of today.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    Nice post Mark.

    Makes me nostalgic for  my grandfather, born 1897 in eastern Russia. immigrated to NY alone at 8 years old. Garment factory worker. Remarkable human being. My hero to this day.

    Seen here in this photo in 1939/40 on the Grand Concourse, West Bronx. 

    http://on.fb.me/keUK4Q

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    Nice post Mark.

    Makes me nostalgic for  my grandfather, born 1897 in eastern Russia. immigrated to NY alone at 8 years old. Garment factory worker. Remarkable human being. My hero to this day.

    Seen here in this photo in 1939/40 on the Grand Concourse, West Bronx. 

    http://on.fb.me/keUK4Q

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    Nice post Mark.

    Makes me nostalgic for  my grandfather, born 1897 in eastern Russia. immigrated to NY alone at 8 years old. Garment factory worker. Remarkable human being. My hero to this day.

    Seen here in this photo in 1939/40 on the Grand Concourse, West Bronx. 

    http://on.fb.me/keUK4Q

  • http://www.aaronklein.com/ Aaron Klein

    Awesome post Mark. We may not all agree on the details of what will get us there but the vast majority of us agree with the hopes and aspirations you wrote about. We are blessed to live in such a great country.

    Viva USA!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Awesome photo. 8 and alone. Wow. My son is 8 now, I can’t fathom this.

    Happy 4th.

  • http://twitter.com/fvRyan Ryan Frazier

    Great post mark, happy 4th

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Hey, Aaron. I accept that we don’t all agree. That’s part of what makes America a great place. People can respectfully disagree and debate and still walk away friends.

  • http://www.aaronklein.com/ Aaron Klein

    Just to be clear, I’m not sure I disagree at all with what you wrote. But that is indeed the wonder that is America. Have an awesome 4th.

  • http://www.betsmartmedia.com Jesse Learmonth

    My fave of your prefaced typos was that you included ‘beer’ in your list… twice ;-)

    “Like Thanksgiving it’s a guilt-free holiday filled with family, fun,
    sports, beer, hot dogs, apple pie, water sports, beer and this year a
    bit of billiards, foosball and little kids running around.”

    Happy 4th from Canada!

  • Anonymous

    Nicely said, Mark! Here’s to America :)

    BTW, I’m doing a lot of political coordinating with Startup Visa and all the folks supporting it. Mind if I email you about it?

  • Anonymous

    Great post, Mark. Happy Fourth!

  • http://twitter.com/arniesingh Arnie Gullov-Singh

    Terrific stuff Mark and thanks for sharing so much about your personal background. As someone who came to America 12 years ago with 2 suitcases and a computer I’ve never ceased to be amazed at how much you can accomplish in this country if you put your mind to it.

  • http://www.taxlawpro.org Property Tax Law

    Incredible Post Mark! Your Japan’s visit is interesting.

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    Happy Independence Day!

  • http://www.kokev.in Kevin Ko

    Fantastic post. I’m of the first generation of kids in my family born in the US. I was raised healthy and privileged.

    My grandparents had to evade Chinese communists who took away their land and killed dissenters, fleeing to Hong Kong where my Dad was raised. Not having enough money, my grandfather had to immigrate to the US first to make enough money so his wife and 4 kids could come over as well. 

    My dad worked as a busboy for many years as a young adult, facing discrimination as a Chinese in America at the time but worked hard enough to graduate with a law degree later in life.

    They say the millennials are too self-entitled and privileged, in most cases they probably are. We’re afflicted with primarily #firstworldproblems and too often we forget that it was on the backs of those that came before us that we can live well, dream big, and build startups, heh. 

    Happy Fourth of July, it’s important to celebrate not just the independence of this country and what has resulted because of it, but also those that have worked their entire lives to uphold these notions.

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  • Dave W Baldwin

    Great post.  Thumbs up on the investment you mentioned at the top. 

  • Anonymous

    As the child of a refugee/immigrant father and immigrant mother – Amen & Amen.

  • http://twitter.com/Cafeppl Pete Meehan

    I am not an American citizen, I was born in Australia (not a shabby place either) but I do love America for one particular reason – it’s the grand melting pot of the best people, experiences, ideas and visions. 

    It has evolved beautifully.

    Beyond economic measures (which blow in the wind as times changes), America has advanced through trial & error and risk-taking. It has self-curated and it now presents itself as a model for the planet.

    If you were sailing on a space ship through the galaxies and wanted to check out some of the better examples of places and living, your guide would insist you take a close look at America.

    There are other fine countries, but this would serve as a great example of what the human race can achieve when they put their hearts to it.

    I hear your inner voices – it’s not perfect of course, Nirvana doesn’t exist as a country, but if there was a Maslow scale for countries instead of people, the US would be right up there, and deservedly so.

    Still one heckuva place.

  • http://joeyevoli.com Joe Yevoli

    Great post, Mark.  Well said, all the way through.

    I spent the Fourth of July in DC.  It was my first time in the area, other than driving through it on the way to a lacrosse game.  I sat on the west side of the potomac river and watched the fireworks over the Washington Monument and was awestruck.  

    I just sat there thinking of all the great men that came before me who made this possible.  Sitting there, looking at the monuments constructed in honor of them is truly inspiring. 

    I remember reading a quote from John Adams, something along the lines of “I must work hard to study the ways of politics today, so that my sons may study the ways of finance and economics, and eventually their sons will have the opportunity and privilege to study art, philosophy and music.”

    We all stand on the shoulders of the great men who came before us.  It’s remarkable, and incredibly humbling, especially while spending the day in our Capital. 

    Happy Fourth!

  • http://twitter.com/fbb87 Faizan Bhat

    Fantastic post! I loved reading it. Belated congratulations :)

  • http://www.kineplay.com/ben Ben Milstead

    Great post, Mark. Reminds me of all the shoulders I stand on as well.

    Our country is the greatest VC on the planet and we’re sitting on a ton of freedom funding. I don’t know how we’ve gotten so bearish with investing in those who have much to offer for our freedoms – the risks are lower than they’ve ever been and the returns are higher (love the Kedrosky idea — the science degree is the business plan!).

  • Barbara Tien

    An inspiring post, Mark.    

    I was born on the Fourth of July and lived overseas much of my childhood (including high school in both Tokyo and London, I might add).   

    It’s always seemed obvious to me that the strength of America comes from its ability to attract the best and brightest from around the world.  A hat tip to you for celebrating that fact and for your leadership in guiding the policies that will help us continue to attract the best.  May we use that strength to benefit the rest of the world.  

    Congraturations, indeed.

  • Anonymous

    Mark, as a product of postwar Europe, I sense that what you write has at its’ core the hope of preventing the next big one (probably around energy). Unless we are aware of deprivations suffered and battles fought for our sakes, we cannot value them. An old German pal of my very British father (now deceased) came to my recent birthday celebration and gave me a copy of “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945″, by  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Judt . He and my father bridged a divide of hatred in their youth, and he thought I should understand better. I hope you don’t mind me plugging this book – I feel we have a lot to learn and perhaps more to teach. I also hope someone reading this might be inspired to pick it up on your ideas  - Thank you

  • Henry Fawell

    I enjoyed this post, Mark. I’d add the importance of understanding American history and the hardships endured by earlier generations in order to advance our country.  John Adams summed it up best, “I must study politics and war so that my sons may have liberty to study math and philosophy.  My sons must study math and philosophy so that their children have the right to study painting, poetry, and architecture.” — Henry Fawell, Campfire Communications

  • http://www.web-self-service.com Wesley Wise

    Very nice post. I really enjoyed reading it. This is what other bloggers talk about when they say that bloggers should know how to tell stories about themselves, too, and just not others, even though the readers have the choice not to read it.

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