Change in our hands

Amy Wu says when faced with change that's out of our control and not necessarily for the best, there's some comfort in having a say at the ballot box

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 August, 2012, 2:36am

I've become a relentless observer of differences, similarities and change. I'm no economist but, as an American citizen living abroad who is anxious about the future of her country, I track the US economic indicators religiously.

Although I've just celebrated my second anniversary living and working in Hong Kong, I'm concerned about the US economy. Will my peers and I - many of us now moving into our late 30s - ever acquire the American dream: a steady job, mortgage, the house with the white picket fence, a two-car garage? Is this a dream delayed or a pipe dream?

This year is an election year - where one of the main themes on both tickets is "change". Americans are hungry for change for the better, and I am no different. Signing up for my absentee ballot so I can vote in November was top of my "to do" list.

In search of change, I spent the summer travelling across the US. From Las Vegas to Omaha, Nebraska, to Boston, Washington and Manhattan, shops and theatres are packed, bars and restaurants are booming as part of urban regeneration projects, and Harvard and MIT were packed with tourists, many of them mainland Chinese with their children in tow and dreams of attending an Ivy League university.

Is the US economy in such a bad shape, after all? Where were the homeless, the drug dealers from the 1980s and 1990s? Where was the poverty? Could it be that the stories about a stagnant economy are inaccurate? Is the media exaggerating the problems?

After my road trip, it finally hit me that the change in my homeland was significant but not immediately obvious. In conversations with friends, anxiety and desperation often set the tone. More than once a friend warned me he or she was "broke" before we made plans. Others continued to spend wildly with their credit cards, maintaining a mirage of living well as they racked up debt. "Maybe they are in denial," a friend observed.

Where are the unemployed and the poor? They are under the radar, in tents on the beaches of Hawaii or in the parks of San Francisco. Church soup kitchens are bustling. More twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings are living with their parents and grandparents, or on friends' couches.

After walking down the Strip in Las Vegas, it struck me that the marathon eating, drinking, partying and gambling was perhaps less a sign of a healthy economy and more a sign of hopelessness. In bad times, alcohol and gambling often see an uptick. My friends in their 50s, 60s and upwards are kissing their dreams of golf and retirement goodbye. The stock market has eaten up their retirement savings and they have to work to make ends meet. Many of my friends with Ivy League degrees and MBAs are in contract employment or have temporary jobs.

Why should people in Hong Kong care, why should mainland Chinese care, why should Americans who live abroad care? Because it is a global economy and the world is shrinking. Change for the better is something we can all hope for. The day before I left the US and returned to Hong Kong, I received confirmation that I'm signed up to vote in the presidential election. I felt empowered and energised, if just briefly. Change, just maybe, is around the corner.

Amy Wu is an American-born Chinese writer and commentator now living in Hong Kong