99: The Fullness of Freedom

99: The Fullness of Freedom

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

The Fullness of Freedom

We must be free not because we claim freedom but because we practice it.

~William Faulkner

I surveyed the grocery store and tried to wrap my mind around the shopping process. A couple dozen pyramids of various canned goods and boxed items rose from the floor. Counters edged the room, with shelves of bread, meat, and cheese behind them. People queued up in long lines yelling to the clerks that manned those counters. The customers didn’t seem to always leave with food, though, just tickets. Then they moved to another line. “Well,” I thought, “I’m certainly not in the United States.”

When I traveled to Kazakhstan with a student group for a month, I knew being immersed in a different culture would bring surprises. But I’d never thought of this. A grocery store is a grocery store, right?

The Kazakh student I’d been partnered with explained: “You get in line at the meat counter to see the goods and tell them what you want. You’re given a ticket for the item, which is set aside. Then, you go to the payment counter and get in line to pay for what you ordered. Your ticket is stamped. After that, you get back in another line at the meat counter to pick up what you ordered. Simple.”

At that point, I realized how different their everyday life was from mine. If they wanted canned vegetables, they were lucky if there was a pyramid of beans that day. I had about twenty different types to choose from on a shelf. They stood in three different long lines for one loaf of bread, while I got frustrated when three people were in line in front of me at the checkout where I could purchase dozens of different items at once. At the same time, I came to see why most Kazakh shopping was done at the local street markets, which were a lot like our farmer’s markets, or at small shops. Much simpler, with a lot of charm and a sense of community.

As my trip continued on, I learned about Kazakhstan, while the Kazakh students we partnered with discovered things about the United States. I certainly got a fresh perspective on my country when I tried to de-mystify our culture for them. Just try explaining to someone who hasn’t experienced it why we celebrate the Fourth of July like we do. “You eat outside? Why?” (I was describing a picnic.) Or clarify how our transportation system works. “On TV it looks like everyone in the United States has a car. Do they really? Why don’t they take buses?” (Cars were a true luxury there. People took trains and buses everywhere.)

One moment, however, made me appreciate my nation more deeply than the others. Somehow, in the midst of a conversation with my counterpart student, the issue of visiting other parts of our respective countries came up.

“So, is it difficult to get a visa to travel?” she asked.

“Do you mean to another country?” I replied.

“No, like when you want to go to another… what do you call the smaller regions… state?”

“Oh. Um, we don’t actually have to get a visa to do that.”

“How do you get permission to go there then?”

“We don’t have to.”

“You just… go?”

“Yeah.”

“But you have to get permission if you move, don’t you?”

“Not even then. We just tell them where we moved to.”

My counterpart shook her head trying to grasp that.

I sat across from her struggling to imagine not being able to travel around my own country without getting permission from the government. To me, what business was it of the government where I went? To my Kazakh friend, such an idea was incomprehensible.

Right then and there, I gained a new appreciation of freedom and what it was. Oh, it was freedom from oppression, sure. I saw how, at that time, the people of Kazakhstan were still working through the break they’d experienced from the Soviet Union. Many were very sensitive to how secure their country was from another nation threatening them. Some still felt more secure when Russia was in charge, and they wanted that back. Others wanted to maintain their independence, but still realized how easily that could be lost.

That simple conversation with a fellow student, however, helped me see that freedom is so much more than just that. It is the freedom to choose. Not just to choose from fifty rather than one type of canned vegetable. But to choose to visit family in another state on a whim. To choose to live my life with as little oversight as possible.

I used to think it was a little cheesy when, on TV, I saw people kiss the ground when they returned to their home country. Candidly, though, it took everything in my power not to do that when I landed in the United States after that trip. Oh, I recognized our country’s imperfections in new ways. For a while, I was irritated by the impatience of people waiting in relatively short lines. And I still long for the kind of community bond I often saw among the Kazakhs. There is profound beauty there. But I wouldn’t for one moment trade it for what my country offers: Freedom that we often take for granted. Freedom that we sometimes don’t even realize isn’t as universal as we assume. Freedom that defines what our nation is all about.

~Diane Gardner

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