WRITING FROM SANTA BARBARA — America was always wearing a big smile when it strode into our living room in damp and ghostly England: Lucille Ball, the Beach Boys, a shining young president with two small kids, all stepped down from the screen in the days just before the convulsions of Vietnam, and summoned my Indian-born parents and me to the Land of Promise and Unending Sunshine.
It would never seem quite so rosy after we knew it off screen, but Ronald Reagan or Julia Roberts -- even Bruce Springsteen, at times -- ensured in later years that America still meant to the outside world possibility, freedom, the perpetual future tense. It was, everyone knew, the home of the Hollywood ending: the final clinch, justice restored by the lone hero, the dawning of a bright new day.
Or so, at least, ran the self-fulfilling myth of the last 100 years, rightly called the American century.
In 1890, as the global columnist Fareed Zakaria points out, the United States had only the 14th-largest army in the world, and its navy was an eighth the size of Italy's. By the late 1940s, it controlled 50% of the world economy.
The growth of technology meant that the American dream got turned into a global cottage industry that everyone longed to feed on. It was the vision that drew millions of dreamers up from south of the border, over from East Asia and my parents' Bombay, and as these migrating dreamers raised the country to even greater heights, they made it their business to spread rags-to-riches stories to the world (on screen) and to tell their friends back home that you really could find new beginnings in America.
As soon as the new century began, though, we were not so quietly reminded that dreams at some point bump into realities. America's very youthfulness, its remoteness from the tragic lessons of history, seemed to render it more vulnerable to terrorists than even the victims of later (and much smaller) attacks in London or Madrid or Mumbai (the former Bombay) would be. It was as if endless summer had no way of dealing with darkness and cold. Hell, to adapt Shakespeare to America, hath no fury like a dreamer scorned.
Yet as the seasons have continued turning, and as we have adjusted to a new vision of reality, that initial shock has matured into something much more promising. Returning to America this spring, after many months in Japan and India and Europe, I am struck by how much the country, in the wake of its latest attack (from the treacherous cycles of the market), seems in tune with the rest of the world, at last.
Our new president smiles less than did his predecessor, and many of us feel better for it. On a recent episode of the Japanese version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," one question noted that the ringing word Barack Obama kept out of his inauguration address was not "freedom" -- or "peace" -- but "dream."
It has long seemed to some of us that America could best play a part in the new global order once it had older hands, from more seasoned cultures, to help direct its evergreen energy and hopefulness. Youth, as wise men have it, is wasted on the young. As soon as the New World was ruled by people from Iran and Vietnam, bringing us their own, more weathered sense of history, the land of happy endings would have both the experience to see what was realistically possible and the freshness to make it happen. The American dream would have less to do with conquering the world than -- as seems to be happening already -- with living in something like harmony with it.
To the planet as a whole, our new president speaks for the hope and opportunity, the youthfulness of America, which is what most of the planet craves. But to anyone who's met him on the page, he comes from some much older and more qualified place. His memoir is not about finding his roots and bringing "closure" to his search for identity but, rather, about being unsettled and even shocked by what he found out about his father and his legacy in Kenya, and being haunted by Indonesia even in the born-again sunshine of Hawaii. His tone in recent months has been prudently sober, refusing to talk too easily of happy endings or quick victories.
At times this looks like the best, and most unexpected, new development of the century: What's being outsourced now are American dreams and Hollywood endings. After all, this year a British film from my parents' Bombay about the victory of hope and rags-to-riches dreams got the top Oscar, eclipsing our home-grown movies about doubt, a murdered San Francisco revolutionary, a "dark knight" and a prematurely old little boy.
I'd never have guessed it in rainy old England: The Old World is becoming new, even as we -- at last -- are getting a little older.