Photo: American Grocery Store
America – my home country…my passport, my culture. I’ve been gone from it for 15 months and am now re-entering it with a fresh pair of eyes. I have to first start out, I do love my country. It is my heritage. I love our freedom, I love our rights, I love having opportunities to seize as a female, and I love the general ‘you can do anything if you put your mind to it’ attitude that Americans have. Yet coming back here is like visiting an old boyfriend that got away – you are excited to see him and hear what he’s been up to, but yet in the same way you are afraid that seeing him may set you back to that post break-up depression that it took you so long to get out of. Maybe that’s why as I was high in the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean I felt physically sick about coming back – a bit of excitement mixed with dread equals the vomit bag. There have been a number of things that have surprised me as I returned to the US. Most of them snuck up on me as if I just saw a mouse poking its head out making my heart race and body jump. Yet sometimes it was a simple feeling, a sinking feeling of knowing that something just didn’t feel right, but my mind was not able to decipher it immediately.
The stunning realizations began on the flight back to the US. As I entered the Tokyo airport to board my United Airlines flight, it hit me. This was going to be the first time I flew an American airline since I left 15 months ago. My body immediately tensed up as I prepared ready to be poked, prodded, and questioned. I quickly rummaged through my handbag and carry-on trying to find all of the liquids I could as someone handed me a plastic bag. Besides a short trip through Greece, this was the first time I ever had to put my liquids into a bag. I know that may be hard to believe for some of you who are subjected to the baggie check all the time. However, the rest of the world doesn’t always operate like the US and London….the rest of the world is more lax. I’m not saying that it is the better way – it’s just an observation – every country still does their own thing based on their situation. In addition to the first time baggie usage, I was also asked to take off my shoes – another new request for me. I mustered up all of my new found vagabond patience and did everything they told me knowing that this strange new world I was entering, the world of my birth, was different to me now and this was only going to be the beginning.
On the flight I was confronted with more distant memories. When the flight attendant came by and asked what I wanted to drink, I asked for a Coke Light. She handed over the can and as I looked at it on my tray, it seemed different to me. The can was different – but I couldn’t exactly put my finger on what was different. Then it hit me – the can said Diet Coke. In the last year, I had been living in the world of Coke Light, not Diet Coke! I wondered if it would take me as long to switch my brain to calling it Diet Coke as it did for me to switch to calling it Coke Light. The flight attendant next brought out the food…and the plastic silverware. That was a bit shocking to me again. I had forgotten about plastic silverware! I reminisced in my head about all of the crazy flights I had experienced over the last year. Fights where I sat in between the pilot and co-pilot, or the ones that were 45 minute flights in which the cabin crew would serve you a full meal and drink service at lightening speed. All of it with metal silverware which I had used without even thinking twice about it.
As they passed out immigration/customs forms on the plane, I started filling it out – I knew the routine by heart. When you are a professional traveler, you have all of your immigration/customs data memorized – as if I was back in college and had to recite my social security number to register for class. However I stopped and stared at the box that read:
List the countries visited on this trip…
Hmmm – this threw me a bit. Did they really want to know that I had been to 24 different countries on this trip? I used my judgment here and wrote down Singapore and Japan….I figured I could explain the rest of my passport stamps if necessary while getting strip searched.
One of the most disturbing realizations I made on my journey back to the US is that I am no longer a minority. No, I have not had a sex change, I’m talking about being an ethnic minority. When I stepped on that flight to San Francisco, it hit me – I was surrounded by Americans. People that looked like me, talked like me, ate similar food as me, and laughed at the same jokes as me. Yet as I sat there and took everyone in, listening to their loud boisterous laughs and complaints, I realized maybe they weren’t like me – or is it that I was not like them any longer? Something to ponder for months no doubt.
It was a long flight back to New York so when I stepped onto the Airtrain and left JFK airport heading into New York City towards my ‘home’ I couldn’t quite figure out why the young woman talking on her cell phone was annoying me so much. Was I just tired? Was I upset about being home? I wasn’t sure. However I was sure that if I had to hear one more moment of her conversation about her boyfriend and the personal details of her sex life that I was going to rip the phone out of her hands and step on it. Ok – maybe not that violent, but I wasn’t happy about being subjected to her conversation. I was already losing my vagabonder patience that had taken months to aquire!
Later that week I stopped in at a Starbucks to waste some time before an appointment. Once again I sat there trying to work on some writing, yet I was feeling bombarded with the excessive noise around me. Once again I was preoccupied and annoyed with the cell phone noise and personal conversations around me. I thought about how loud Americans were. I thought about why this was so different than Asia. Everyone in Asia had a cell phone and friends there, so what is the big difference? Then as I sipped on my tea, I had my ‘A-HA’ moment – a light bulb went off. First, the Asians tend to text and play games on their cell phones in public places. I don’t really remember them talking much – however the main reason why I didn’t remember them talking was because they weren’t speaking English. The reason why all of this cell phone and conversation noise was attacking me was because they were speaking English and I actually understood what they were saying! As I ride the subway, go to lunch, sit in a coffee shop I feel attacked by a barrage of English – hearing everyone’s personal life, business deals, heartache, and sex life. That is America – everything laid out there for anyone to hear. Or at least anyone who understands English. I can’t really say if it’s that much different than the other countries I traveled in because I never understood the background noise there. There was a constant buzz, but it never phased me while traveling.
After being back in the US a month, I have had time to let things really sink in…sometimes in disgust. As Americans our national pastime is accumulation and consumption. I can’t help but feeling that somewhere along the way, we went a bit overboard with ‘stuff’. We accumulate stuff, we pine away for more stuff, we want other people’s stuff, we have so much stuff that we have to take out a sub prime loan and buy a 3,000 square foot house to put our stuff in. As I re-entered the US, my home, one of my observations was that Americans consume – that’s what we do best.
As I sat through endless college Econ courses, I don’t think I ever fully understood the concept of consumer economy. How can you, until you actually step outside and look in as a ‘foreigner’? Now I’m fascinated by it. My first stop at an American grocery store left me standing in the aisle looking around in amazement; jaw hanging open, eyes wide, as if I had just entered Santa’s Workshop at the North Pole. The giant bottles of ketchup, the 20 different kinds of pickles, the 100 ft. aisle of cereal, just cereal; it was completely overwhelming. Sure, you could find anything you wanted, but at the same time I missed the local lady selling fresh tomatoes at a roadside stand, ones that weren’t injected with red coloring, but ones that were actually in season. If they weren’t in season, they didn’t sell them – plain and simple.
As I exposed myself to American television again, I had to do so in small doses because watching the commercials would infuriate me. I found myself in shock about the amount and type of things that are produced for our consumption. Take one simple area – the amount of toys and electronics that American kids have. Does it make them any happier – or does it just give them shorter attention spans and reason to throw more tantrums? I saw many perfectly satisfied kids in the world without an x-box, Kids that ate what was put in front of them instead of ketchup colored green to entice them to eat it. Yet at the same time, I am impressed with the American creativeness and ability to persuade consumers that they need something that they’ve been living without their whole lives. As a country, it’s our sweet spot – we know how to come up with ideas, how to market them, how to make people want them.
This ‘homecoming’ has left me rather confused. So much so that many days I feel like simply staying in my pajamas as if the old boyfriend has ‘won’. While on the road, I had grown accustomed to living very simply, being different, standing out, and not understanding the noise/language around me. I realize that this isn’t really what America, and especially New York City, is about. After a month of being in NYC, I felt like I am just one of the consumer masses again. However, after writing this post and going through it a number of times fixing mistakes, pulling it together, really listening to what I was saying, I realize that I am different, I do stand out. Not just because I have a passport full of stamps, but because I am now an international American – a bit of a foreigner in my own country.