What's in a name?
For example my name, Vukani, is a warning.
And Los Angeles?
The second largest city in the United States of America founded in1781 by 46 settlers (including 26 of African descent), Los Angeles is everybody's delight.
To some foreigners Los Angeles is Hollywood, the entertainment capital of the world. Others are fascinated by the flora, fauna, and tenacious weather which give Los Angeles "its friendly colors."
Americans adore Los Angles. Will Durant wrote: "How could I help but fall in love with a city named after Nuestra Senora la Reina del Los Angeles."
Before I came to Los Angeles in1972, my impressions of it were based on watching Hollywood movies. I marveled. I was particularly enthralled Los Angeles' weather was similar to that of Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia, my country. I believed what Lao Tse says: "The world may be known without leaving the house. The way may be seen apart from the windows. The farther you go, the less you will know. Accordingly, the wise man knows without going, sees without seeing, and does without doing."
I swallowed the bait.
Thus I chose University of California, Los Angeles, from among American universities that accepted me, and further fantasized that UCLA's large student population was insurance against loneliness.
I learnt the hard way. Los Angeles was not imbued with angelic virtues that I dreamed of. It had similar human frailties that plagued other American cities: there was veiled discrimination against foreigners and Blacks, especially in housing; it was a microcosm of the American society (which in general, tended to be rugged individualists who aren't very fond of first generation immigrants, particularly nonwhites).
Even today, "Segregation remains a part of life in the city of Angeles," says Dennis Freeman in Our Weekly of July 21- 27, 2005. Jonathan Musere, author of Southern Californians' Attitudes to Immigrants: Blacks Compared to Other Ethnics says: "The oldest Californians significantly support American nativism and immigrant restrictionism."
My bitter awakening came while I was hunting for off-campus housing. "You should have no difficulty finding an apartment," said one officer at students housing as she handed me a map of Westwood.
I started calling landlords: "My name is, I am interested in the flat you advertised this morning."
"What did you say your name was?, a flat?" came the answer.
"Okay, my name is spelt, I am a graduate student at UCLA and I am calling in connection with the apartment you have advertised for rent."
"Oh, the apartment, its taken."
This went on interminably. Feeling defeated, I consulted my American classmate.
"Your accent and your name give you away. I guess no one's going to rent you an apartment with that name and accent."
"Don't give up," he continued worried by my hangdog look. "Next time you're rebuffed, let me know."
When I got another rejection I called my American friend.
"I'll call the same landlord. You listen in on the other extension," he said.
"The apartment? It's available," answered the landlord.
Together we inspected the apartment. I rented it!
Phew! I was relieved. But shattered: "wasn't I a fit-enough person to rent an apartment on my own in Los Angeles?"
Flashback. In my Zambian small village community I was appreciated as son of the village headman. In my country I was a respected civil servant. But here in Los Angeles, I was just another foreigner who spoke English with an accent. I was a candidate for that attitude, "the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed;" discrimination.
Los Angeles was an illusion. To me.
Campus life was another illusion. As a doctoral student, my basic unit of interaction was my class of ten students; a speck in a student body of several thousands. So the factor of being on a campus with a large student population didn't mitigate against my being lonely. I was alone in a crowd!
Los Angeles is an illusion to its citizens, too, especially minorities. Alongside the glitter of wealth: freeways, the Los Angeles Convention Center, and the Staples Center, are thousands of homeless people. The Los Angeles Times of March 12, 2003, reported that the Sheriff's offered "a list of proposals to ease the problem (because) there's no comprehensive strategy for the city and county in dealing with the homeless problem."
Experts estimate that as many as 84,000 people live on the streets or in emergency shelters each night in Los Angeles.
A Zambian proverb says: Chikome kome cha nkuyu mukati muli nyerere - "The fig is beautiful on the outside; open it, inside there are ants."
I concede I'm being subjective. But Americans have also expressed their frustrations with impersonal life in megalopolises. Roger Rosenblatt wrote in the August 2005 issue of Reader's Digest that he would have preferred to have lived in the eighteenth Century rather than the 21st Century because , "one would have lived more sensibly and in greater harmony with one's fellow mortals."
Inspired by a movement dabbed "an outbreak of wholesomeness," Americans are fleeing from "one dimensional life" in megalopolises like Los Angeles to "micropolises" like Mount Airy of North Carolina which are "cheaper, safer, and easier to live in."
Woody Guthrie, sang:
California is a Garden of Eden,
It's beautiful to live in or see,
But believe it or not,
If you ain't got the dough, re, mi.
An American friend of mine said: "Here in San Diego our acronym, PLAN sums it up."
"Meaning?," I asked.
"Prevent Los Angeles Nonsense."
Los Angeles is indeed an illusion!