Viewing America from fresh eyes on July 4


Like many people, I've had my gripes about the U.S. government. Hey, I was a Wisconsin kid in the McCarthy era, an Army guy in Vietnam; I've seen what happens when fools are in high places.

Still, it's fascinating to catch the flip side, seeing this country from the fresh eyes of an immigrant. Alexandra Pelosi (Nancy's daughter) has done that beautifully, with "Citizen U.S.A." -- both a book and an HBO film that debuts (appropriately) on July 4. Here's the story I sent to papers. The Pelosi quotes are from a phone interview; the other quotes are from the film and the book:

By MIKE HUGHES

Quick now, what's the best thing about
living in the U.S.?

Alexandra Pelosi asked a lot of new
Americans, getting some of the expected answers. “Someone coming
from Iran would go, 'Wow, there's free speech here,'” she said.

But as she created “Citizen U.S.A.”
(as an HBO film and a book), others surprised her. “People would
say 'indoor plumbing' or '9-1-1.' Who knew that the best thing was
having to stop for school buses?”

Pelosi, 40, didn't even know that most
states require stopping. “We don't have a lot of school buses in
Manhattan,” she said. It turned out that many naturalized citizens
say they like such rules.

We may grumble, but newcomers praised
American traffic, taxes and more. “In (Jordan), the post office is
not great,” Rawan Barghout said in North Carolina. “Sometimes it
takes a month to get a letter.”

Maria Hayes, from the Phillipines,
raved about 9-1-1. “You just dial it and they come right away,”
she said in Wyoming. Ruby and Robin Yang, twins in South Dakota, said
there's “no teen-age life” back home in China. “They don't let
you go on Facebook or Google or YouTube.”

Then there was Martin Aspin of England,
spotting the ideal for teens and others: “Being able to refill your
soda (for free) is a dream for people all over the world,” he said
in Georgia.

Others praised the basics – automatic
doors, cup-holders in cars, drive-through anything. They talked of
malls, air-conditioning, electricity and food. “I grew up my entire
life (in Albania) with just eating cornbread, nothing else,” Hile
Corri said in Florida. “Here is just like paradise.”

Roy Correia grew up in a Portuguese
village, where the water system was basic: “You take a jar and walk
a half-mile to the river.” Now he runs the water system in Ashland,
Mass.

Often, the locations were as surprising
as the answers. “We knew that immigrants were in New York and Los
Angeles,” Pelosi said. “I didn't know there were so many in Des
Moines and Butte, Mont.”

Her own interest began when her first
documentary was in a film festival in Holland. Michiel Vos, a Dutch
journalist-lawyer, interviewed her, then gave filmmakers a tour of
Amsterdam.

Now they're been married for six years,
with two young sons. “He held up a mirror and made me realize how
much is here,” Pelosi said.

So they began their 50-state tour,
catching naturalized citizens in every state. They heard some gripes
and a lot of praise, especially for the American freedom to be
different.

Rita Miller, a dwarf, said she could
never drive a car in Indonesia. Andrew and Elena Grinberg said they
tried to hide their deafness in Russia. Hossein Allzadeh said as a
gay man, he could never return to Iran; in Louisiana, he sees “people
from different races, backgrounds, walking together without fear.”

And without shyness. Some people
criticized public affection, but it was praised by Helen Henderson of
Malaysia. “You can kiss and hug someone next to you,” she said in
New Hampshire. “It's a great feeling. I can hold someone's hand and
kiss him in public.”

Often, women were surprised by any
privileges. “I was told in my country (Slovenia) that I can't do
much with my life,” Dusanka Wells said in Idaho.

Women were startled by freedom here,
Pelosi said. “Some were surprised I came in a car by myself.”

They're in a country where women have
been secretary of state, governor and presidential candidates. It's
where Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the house and her daughter makes
HBO documentaries.

– “Citizen U.S.A.: A 50 State Road
Trip”

– 9 p.m. Monday, July 4, HBO;
repeats at 7 a.m. July 6, 5 p.m. July 9, noon July 11

– Also a book, New American Library,
2011, $28