THE TWA hostages are home, but we are left once again with the terrible image of gun-waving fanatics fuming with anti-American slogans and trampling our flag. For us Americans, it is not a pretty picture of the world outside. Fortunately, it is also not an accurate one. Several years ago I had a close-up glimpse of what many third-world people really think of the United States. I was just out of the Peace Corps and working my way homeward through East Africa and the Middle East. With little money, I had to live frugally. But because of how I traveled and where I stayed I had a chance to learn directly what some average people felt about our country. It was quite a lesson.
On Zanzibar, I met a young Indian in his late teens who grabbed at the chance to tell a young American what life was like for him on that exotic but terrible island. He showed me what it meant to live as a minority under a brutal, revanchist dictatorship. Regimentation on that island was then absolute, from hair length to courtship. Even holding hands in public was forbidden. The Indian youth could not engage in business; neither could he leave the island.
The only refuge for this lonely victim of repression was his small apartment, which turned out to be his own personal shrine to everything American. The walls were covered with posters and album covers of the latest rock stars. There, in this island within an island, he had transported the culture and freedom of a far-off land. He could not wait to get me in that room and turn the music up.
Weeks later I was living in a dollar-a-night hotel room above the old walled city of Jerusalem. Each evening I would wander through the Arab quarter, following the maze of passageways and shops that wind through the city. Peering through the displays of leather goods and ornaments, I could see a familiar picture hanging in the little shops. It was that of Muhammad Ali, the American boxer.
In Cairo, I made my way through the crowded streets, besieged by young boys. ``Do you know John Wayne? Do you know Muhammad Ali? Don't you say anything against Muhammad Ali; he's my friend.''
I had seen it all before. During my two-year stay in southern Africa I had come in regular contact with older British expatriate families who spoke lovingly about ``the Yanks'' and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They had come to appreciate America during World War II and felt all the wonders of a country that spoke the same language and had the same democratic institutions but whose freedom was so much more real than in the class-ridden isles they had left behind.
I had seen the love that desperate black South Africans felt for anything American, particularly jazz, that freest of all musical forms. For them, aspiration and freedom were synonymous with the promised land of America. It was a place where people could do things, man!
It takes strangers to show us what we have in America. It was John Lennon who once called New York ``the center of the consciousness of the universe.'' For him, freedom was not just an ideal, but a city, a place to be and to enjoy.
What some Americans cannot see is that our great cultural influence in the world is exerted not so much through diplomats in pin stripes as by free-living Americans in blue jeans. What people find irresistible about us is not freedom in the abstract, but what comes of it: the music, the clothes, the look and feel of freedom.
There is a wonderful bit of dialogue in Paul Mazursky's movie ``Moscow on the Hudson,'' when a couple of CIA bureaucrats are grilling the young Soviet musician played by Robin Williams on his reasons for defecting to America.
``Why are you defecting?'' the officials demand.
``Artistic freedom or political freedom?''
Like the Eskimo who has 13 different words for snow, we Americans make an art of such distinctions. But those who see the wonder of it for the first time just want to go sledding.
Christopher J. Matthews is administrative assistant to House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr.