Initial thoughts on America as a foreigner

Utsav Bahl

This is the first column by Utsav Bahl ’25 reflecting on the international student experience at the College.

The car ride from Meyrin, where I was born, to Genthod, my childhood home in the outskirts of Geneva, Switzerland is a measly 12 minutes. On the other hand, the car ride from Williamstown to New York City over dead week was 4 hours. 

Everything tangible in America is larger: the country, the cars, the roads, the people. I figured they must be compensating. Perhaps it is compensation for the lack of intangible things — like pride, cohesion, and hope. 

Admittedly, I have viewed America as a heartless place where money was the only commodity of real value, whereas some of my friends saw it as a free land of opportunity. However, my narrow experience in Williamstown and the few surrounding states has compelled me to give credit where it is deserved. While the United States is certainly the land of privilege, which is apparent at an institution like Williams, it is also one where even the worst off are working to build a brighter future.

On my trip to New York City, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people enjoying their days in Central Park. We have parks with similar amenities in Switzerland, but there is not the same joie de vivre (joy of life). Central Park has 42 million visitors every year and is heard of almost everywhere in the world. I am convinced there is no other place in the world that would care so much about a park, and that is what makes America stand out. There is a notion that you can take the ordinary and make it extraordinary simply by the sheer will of wanting it to be extraordinary. 

Don’t get me wrong, the “concrete jungle” of modern metallic buildings contrasting against worn-down houses gives an eerie dystopian feeling. The inequality is so evident, yet the people have little escape. In Switzerland, it only takes 50,000 signatures from any citizen to take a proposal to a national vote, and if accepted, it must be written into law immediately. America has no such mechanism — instead power is concentrated in the hands of massive corporations and the government. Citizens merely get to elect the government, and even then, elections are skewed and dominated by the media and massive fundraising campaigns. 

In Switzerland, elections are far more about ideas than the individual. It is not uncommon to see the mayor or even president on the street riding their bike — I have seen the former myself. This would never happen in America; the cult personality of politicians dominates governance. The people have no say and the result is grave: high inequality, shootings, and lack of public goods. Yet, in a place where there should be riots to change the entire system, people went about their days with a smile. 

The public does not react in violence, not because no one wants change — I have met countless proponents of better environmental policies, human rights, and access to education — but because they do not want to see their country ruined to the ground. Although your conservative neighbor may want to see your house burned down, no one at Williams seems to wish the same upon them. Many rightfully dream of fixing the broken system when they leave Williams, and some are already making strides during their time here. Nevertheless, it seems most believe that any change will come from within; there is still hope in America. To me, this is most noticeable during Thanksgiving. 

On my first Thanksgiving, I visited my cousins who live in Scottsdale, Arizona. I was shocked to see stores which had signs denying entry to masked individuals. America has had a history of divisions from slavery to foreign intervention, but it seems everyday there is a new issue. I hear stories from the most tolerant students I know about their racist grandparents who hate masks and want freer gun laws. I wondered what they are even allowed to talk about at the dinner table. As I ate with my cousins, we mentioned my aunt, who passed away this fall in a hit-and-run at a very young age. We talked about how thankful we were for the relationships we have formed in the last few months and how it has helped us in these troubling times. It is here that I saw what is great about America: the can-do attitude, positivity, and above all, resilience.

Persistence in unfair conditions is probably partly why change here is so slow. But resilience itself is commendable in its own right. It means there is something worth fighting for. For an average park or shadow of groundhog to be important to people makes America a unique place. Similar festivities exist worldwide, but no one does them with the same genuine enthusiasm as Americans. Believe me, it is annoying to outsiders, but it is also laudable. 

As Claiming Williams has passed, I would hope that we are reflecting on ideas surrounding class, race, gender, and our own relationship to these identities. It is a time more than ever where we should be thinking about how we want to change the society in which we partake. I have no doubt that in these thoughts, everyone will be thinking about the best interests of their home. There is a reason American news is read by far more of its general public than Swiss news is back home; it is manipulative mass media, but it is also because people genuinely care more than they do in most other places. I have concluded that people want to see change in America not because they hate their country, but because they still love the idea of a free land and want to see it thrive. There is no like-for-like comparison between America and Switzerland, they are based on entirely different fundamentals. Though the choice to return to Switzerland at the end of my 4-years or remain in America is a privilege I cherish, know will not be taken with a light heart.

Utsav Bahl ’25 is from Geneva, Switzerland.