Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Return Home, Entry #1

Now that we've been back for a few weeks, and our apartment is 90% back in place, I have a few minutes to start recording my thoughts on returning home. I better start now before I forget -- for new things enter my head with a frequency that threatens to push other things out before I've written them down...

Flying into LAX, just as the sun was setting, I looked out the window of the plane and perceived a strange landscape of asphalt and giant box-like buildiings with even larger parking lots surrounding them. Bits of green –– a yard here, a tree there -- seemed like afterthoughts to the paved landscape. The ground below looked like a train model, an imitation of reality. Clean, orderly, efficient and methodical.

This sense of un-reality continued as we drove along on the streets. There were no street vendors or open markets and food stalls lining every street. Everyone, single individuals, stuck in their own worlds, their own cars as they pulled up obediantly to stop lights. Houses were spaced widely apart. There was no-one on the sidewalks. I was struck by a feeling of boredom with my surroundings and a sensation of isolation. My very first impression of landing back in the U.S.: people are disconnected from each other, cloistered in their own private spaces, out of contact with the rest of humanity: their neighbors, communities... they live in orderly grids and wide boulevards, and quiet streets. There is no room for the chaos and commotion that define street scenes in Asia. This pained me -- life seemed dull.

But people seem happy in their isolation I've noticed. There are no smiles and 'hello's to strangers on the street (and there are only a few strangers on the street in comparison to foot traffic in Asia). People just don't seem interested in each other. Or maybe they're too busy. The pace of life in the U.S. is frenetic. People seem panicked. Rushing, impatient, frenzied. That's the irony: in Asia, the streets may be crazy and hectic and bustling with life, but the people are relaxed, mellow; they do things in their time. Here the streets are dull and lifeless yet the people are hectic and manic: in their goings and comings, in conversation... they move at the speed of light. And they are impatient, waving their fists in the air if they have to wait too long at a stop sign. I was seriously stressed out placing an order for a sandwich during the lunch rush hour the other day -- the counter clerk was in such a frenzy I felt like I'd been plowed down by a giant speeding truck after placing my order. There is no time to think, to pause, to consider one's options in the sandwich line.

Of course there are the usual things that are 'different' in the U.S.: the cool weather, the high prices, the large people (even cats look like giants compared to their counterparts in Asia), the high-profile signage of chain stores, chain restaurants, and chain superstores from the freeway. I was surprised by the number of SUVs on the streets, especially in light of the gas crisis... in Asia, motorbikes are the standard method of transport. I'd forgotten about the miles and miles of smooth and efficient multiple-lane highways. I'd forgotten about stop lights and stop signs and driving rules (what's a speed limit?).

People look different: their dress, their hair styles... they look foreign to me yet they are "my people". I don't know what it is... it's one of those indescribable yet evident things -- they look different than everyone I've seen in the past 13 months: Asians and European travelers alike. I know, now, how easy it is to spot an American... I just can't tell you how it's done. And walking down the street or browsing in a superstore or standing in line at a sandwich shop, people sound different. I mean no offense, but a lot of them sound dumb -- they remind me of yellow lab puppies: eager and a little dopey, but well meaning.

I'm amazed by the wealth I see. People dropping hundreds of dollars on groceries and housewares. People in Asia think in the U.S., money grows on trees. Perhaps it does. The other day at Costco (one of the very first superstores I visited in the 'big move in' process), the cashier told the woman in front of me that her total was four hundred and some odd dollars. I was shocked but she didn't blink an eye. Entire families live on similar sums for months on end, if not an entire year in Asia. I understand there is context to this money thing. As I traveled, I was constantly reminded by locals how rich and lucky I was (am). To them I'm a millionaire, but at home I get by. Obviously I get by well enough to take off and travel so far away for so long, but in the grand context of things, I am just a regular person in the U.S. Not rich, but not poor either. Our standards of wealth are on a different scale (on many different scales), that's for sure.

In Myanmar, for example, I had a conversation in my hotel room with a woman employed by the hotel as a cleaning lady. She told me I am lucky to be American: it's such a wealthy country. We have it easy. Somehow the conversation turned to food. She thought our food must be very, very cheap. But when I told her 4 chicken breasts cost about nine dollars, she was amazed. This sum was more than half of her monthly income ($16.00). She, on the other hand, probably has chickens in her yard. And fresh produce is a fraction of the cost than in the U.S. My talk with her reminded me that everything is relative. We may make more money in the U.S., but we spend more, too. And we've made our lives complicated with our fast pace and to-do lists and stress (there is no road rage in Myanmar). Perhaps she is the wealthy one -- forgetting about money. She knows her family members well (they all live together, three generations in (possibly) one room). She lives a less complicated life. But one thing is for sure: we all face the same challenges in life, whether we're from the first or third world. We're all just trying to survive.

One of the hardest things for me, reintegrating, is the expense in moving back into our place. We've bought things, we've painted, we're making our space a comfortable place to be. But after months of living on twenty bucks a day, spending hundreds seems insane. I've gotten used to living on a small budget, and thinking about that budget every day: with every meal, every purchase, every rupee or kip or dong or baht spent. When I was traveling, thinking about the budget almost bordered on obsession (but this is not because of frugality or stinginess... this is the traveler's modus operandi). It's been hard to refurbish our apartment or do the grocery shopping with this engrained mindest.

I'm also not used to having a phone. It was nice not having one for so long -- I just got a cell phone and it seems like a strange and alien object. I have a reticense to learn the multitude of features and functions. I find myself lax in memorizing my number.

I can't get used to the concept of weekdays and weekends. I nearly scald myself in the shower with the abundance and intensity of hot water coursing through good plumbing. I feel strange accepting or giving things from/to others with my left hand (a big no no in Asia) and seeing people with shoes on indoors. I'm not used to leaving my passport at home -- after carrying it around with me every day for so long, it's become a part of me in a strange way. I am bowled over by the size of a large coffee (and I used to drink several of them in the morning). I get excited by the convenience of simple machinery: washing machines and dryers, microwaves. And after 8 countries and 8 currencies, I feel no familiarity to U.S. money; I cannot get used to the new design (coins in particular). This was, oddly, a big letdown. Like it or not, people identify with money and my home currency no longer feels like 'home'.

I have indulged myself in all things I missed: red wine, cheese, mexican food, lazy days on the couch (OK, only one). There is much more to do in this arena... though I find the things I missed on the road are not as good in reality as they were in my mind at the time. Perhaps this is the biggest lesson in my return -- maybe this realization will help me "let go" of thoughts about my freedom and the adventure of life on the road. I am here now and I need to be here... I know I won't be happy if my thoughts revolve around 'there' and 'then'. For now, my happiness is found in thinking about 'next time'.


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