the bean in chicagoJUNE 8 — A Chinese woman sold me a red “Make America Great Again” cap from her stall full of other pro-Trump merchandise in Washington DC where only outsiders would don paraphernalia supporting the US president in the staunchly Democrat city.

Just like how the ethnic Chinese woman sold Donald Trump souvenirs without blinking an eye, I would soon learn over my six-week stay in the US that Americans in general are completely unapologetic about what they stand for, whether they are from the left or right. 

I was selected for the Young South-east Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) professional fellowship programme under its “Governance and Society” track for the Spring 2018 intake (late April to early June), along with three other Malaysians and 20 other young people from various countries in South-east Asia.

We were placed in six different cities in the US in various organisations related to our areas of interest. I spent four weeks in Chicago interning with Mikva Challenge, a non-profit that trained high school students how to advocate and resolve issues in their schools and community, from police brutality to school shootings and supplies of feminine products in school bathrooms.

Chicago’s chill and wind were brutal at the start of spring, overwhelming me at first as I sought to find my way in the third largest city in the US.

But it turned out that I had nothing to worry about as Midwest friendliness in Chicago, far warmer than how Malaysians behave towards other Malaysian strangers in Kuala Lumpur, made me feel right at home in this foreign country.

Despite the high crime rate in Chicago, I felt generally safe, probably because I spent most of my time downtown, where glittering skyscrapers and hip neighbourhoods with a certain vivacity masked racial segregation, corruption, and inequality in the city.

Poorer neighbourhoods in the south and west, predominantly African American and Hispanic, had less access to education and public transport, with dilapidated buildings dotting the streets. Some were also fighting gentrification in tight-knit communities, while other more affluent neighbourhoods just outside the City of Chicago comprised US$700,000 (RM2,787,750) homes with a nice lawn sans fence, garage, and basement.

Chicagoans would talk to me on the street, all smiles, while waiting at numerous traffic lights on brisk walks to our destinations.

They greeted and thanked doormen, bus drivers, and servers, treating people in the service industry like their equals.

Americans in Chicago asked me plenty of questions about life in Malaysia and seemed genuinely interested in my answers. They were especially fascinated by how Malaysia had the same government for 60 years, which changed for the first time in the 14th general election.

During my internship in Chicago, where former US president Barack Obama used to be a community organiser, I learned community organising and advocacy skills.

It was especially eye-opening to see how my organisation empowered students, for example, by getting them to interview fellow students who applied to join issue-based youth councils to help city leaders make public policy that impact youth, or a programme to intern with elected officials. Although the adults (ie: Mikva staff) would make the final decision, it was empowering to have student opinions factoring in the decision-making.

Community organising, I learned, isn’t so much about doing everything yourself, but about facilitating the people who are directly affected by a particular issue and enabling them to take the lead to advocate for change.

But more than the technical skills, perhaps the one thing that struck me the most about the US was how unapologetic Americans were in expressing their opinions and, more importantly, getting their elected lawmakers to uphold those beliefs.  

I found the same attitude across the political spectrum, whether it was LGBTQI+ activists who asked everyone during a training what pronoun they preferred to be addressed with, or a National Rifle Association (NRA) member who didn’t see a problem with guns because he was taught how to shoot at the age of six and received a rifle from his father on his ninth birthday.

The many elected officials and political staffers in Chicago and in Washington DC, from both the GOP and Democratic Party, whom I met also revealed the extent to which constituents would pressure them to make laws in their interest.

Some elected lawmakers, of course, are tough as nails, like in Chicago, where citizens and activists have to take extra tough measures to be heard because politicians are used to pushy constituents.

The way Americans treat their elected officials is also a refreshing difference from the way Malaysians hero-worship politicians. Americans expect their lawmakers to serve them and to represent their interests, instead of acting as if politicians have higher status than them.

America has its flaws, with some citizens complaining to me about racism and how they sometimes feel like they don’t belong to their country. But Americans’ unapologetic attitude and optimism that they can do anything they set their minds on are certainly worth adopting.

Watch this video that I edited together with Malaysian YSEALI participant Alissa Rode to see what 24 YSEALI fellows from South-east Asia learned from the programme.