A U-turn on the road to the American dream

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 March, 2012, 12:00am


For the first time in over two decades, I am no longer a driver. Faced with spiking petrol prices and a prospective bill for much-needed repairs, I finally donated my Toyota Corolla to an organisation that takes care of orphans.

It's an odd feeling to be on this side of being green. Without a car, my sense of time and space has been immediately altered. What was once a matter of expediency is now an effortful navigation.

'I'll be there in 15 minutes!' I used to tell a good friend who once lived nearby but who now resides, without a car, at an inconvenient distance. Going to my favourite Asian food market suddenly has turned into another arduous chore: once a 30-minute event, it has become a two-hour ordeal, with bags in hands, and bus transfers.

Indeed, when I came to San Francisco from Vietnam with my family at the end of the Vietnam war, I remember such delight when my older brother bought his first car; as we cruised the streets at night, it felt as if we were becoming Americans.

The automobile, after all, is intrinsically American, and owning one determines how we arrange our daily lives.

For immigrants, the car is the first thing we buy before the house. Vietnamese in Vietnam marvel at the BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes that their relatives drive in America, and no doubt the photos sent home cause many to dream of a life of luxury in the US. It seems a natural progression that the housing crisis should quickly lend itself to a car crisis. Both were readily available at one time, with easy loans and cheap fuel. But, now, with skyrocketing petrol prices and faltering mortgages, many have had to give up one in order to keep the other.

Not surprisingly, the car is often the last thing that downtrodden Americans let go. 'I can see losing my house, but I can't imagine losing my van,' one unemployed friend told me. Despite accepting global warming as de facto, Americans are still very much in love with the automobile. On average, we own more than two vehicles per household.

America was built on the premise of progress and expansion. Yet our vision of a future of unimpeded opportunities and comfort is now in conflict with the health of the planet. From experience, however, I can say that being on the right side of the green divide is not easy. As I trudged to work this morning, a 40-minute trek, I dearly missed my car. As I budget my time and memorise bus routes and timetables, it seems as if I am returning to my humble immigrant beginnings, repudiating some notion of being an American. But I'm not. Because I can, giving up the car is my new American responsibility.

New America Media editor Andrew Lam is author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres