Somewhere in central Papua New Guinea a white, blue-eyed man hacks his way uphill through the thick jungle. It’s almost dark by the time he finally arrives at the highest point of the hill. He strains to see as he sets up the cell phone receptor tower he has carried with him deep into the jungle. As he attempts to put it together, perhaps he fumbles. Sweat dripping into his eyes, maybe he drops the screwdriver once or twice. Or maybe a much-needed screw falls to the ground and rolls under a leaf, hidden then gone forever. Maybe a string of Kiwi-accented curse words is uttered, muted by the cacophony of birds beginning their nesting routine as the sun sets. If a Kiwi curses in a faraway jungle does it make a sound?
The fact that there’s even reception available is a miracle as it is. That his texts actually arrive seems beyond belief. It must be so hard to do anything in thick, uncharted jungle; the smallest of modern conveniences, a struggle.
Because I still didn’t have a phone yet, I receive word from him via his mother in New Zealand. “The locals already call him ‘Boss.’ They are friendly but he says they carry machetes,” she says.
He texts: Went to a village on top of a hill. We were the first white people they’d ever met. Amazing experience.
This rare scenario is constantly in the back of my mind, lending perspective as I navigate through the newness of home, familiarizing myself with life in America again. Here almost everything known to mankind exists—everything except people who don’t have generally easy access to everything. I have returned to a first-world civilization built around convenience and freedom; cars, spacious houses with yards and countless shopping centers. While I am experiencing one extreme of existence on Earth, Nick has been submerged in another.
I think of him there in the jungle when I step out of the cool, conditioned air at the Dallas Fort-Worth Airport and promptly melt. It is eleven o’clock at night and you could still fry an egg on the pavement as if it were noon. The reminder is physical. I have forgotten what ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit actually feels like. In fact, there’s a lot about home I’ve forgotten.
Naturally, I expected there to be reminders here and there of what it means to live a daily life as an American. Like (just to list the obvious few) the immense amount of time spent in the car, the general friendly nature of strangers, the excellent and humorous television commercials. But what I didn’t expect was to be presented so frequently–almost hourly–of all the ways that I have been changed by the years I’ve spent elsewhere.
There are the superficial nuances which you quickly become accustomed to in a new country; almost imperceptibly. One example in particular being how in Italy I learned it is customary not to hand your cash to the cashier but put it on the counter. They consider exchanging money hand to hand crass, if not rude. Italians even have a little ceramic dish especially for this purpose. You lay your money down on the plate and the cashier then takes your cash from there.
Today, I was reminded of this when I bought something and put the dollar bills on the counter along with two dimes. The cashier ho-hummed around a few moments and then awkwardly pointed to the money, “Uh, how much is that?” I realized he wasn’t sure if I was ready to actually pay yet because I didn’t place the money directly into his hands. Funny enough, he returned my gesture when he gave me my change, setting it aside for me on the counter, allowing me pick it up. This is just one instance; a tiny, nit-picky little thing that has reminded me that it will be awhile before I get the hang of it at home again.
There are, of course, other more profound values one acquires while living in another culture and society. These are the impacts of the soul, most of which I’m probably not even fully aware of myself. For right now I’m just in the midst of intensive retraining: How to Be an American in America. Again.
Other things that boggle my mind about America?
1. Antibacterial hand gel. It’s everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Sometime in the last ten years or so Americans have become germ-a-phobes and yet ironically some have stopped vaccinating their children. I don’t really get it myself. Antibacterial hand gel is not going to prevent measles or mumps. But that is just my opinion. I’ve noticed we have a lot of these kinds of incongruities in this country. A prime example is public bathroom stalls. Only in America can you see right through the cracks of the bathroom stalls. Everywhere else in the world, even in countries where topless beaches are a norm, they go the extra half-inch to give you privacy in public. Mind boggling, indeed.
2. Microbrew. What’s up with this plethora of IPA nowadays? I love beer but for the life of me I can’t get into the whole IPA thing. Tastes like mud. Sometimes with a seasonal spice for a summertime blend. There’s nothing like a cold glass of hoppy, pumpkin-flavored backwash.
3. Ryan Seacrest. This guy is everywhere. Just like antibacterial hand gel. On TV, on the radio. Is it just me or does anyone really know who he is. Where did he come from? How have I missed his uprising into stardom?
4. Complications. With health care providers, with cell phone providers. More than complications, I should say complete lack of transparency. I find it startling and worrisome. Not so much the complications themselves but how accustomed and accommodating the general public seems to be about all this.
5. Choice to the nth degree.
Oh my goodness, the selection of sodas! I can’t get over it. Choice has reproduced like inbred bunnies with choice and now we have stores selling their own things plus things for other stores. You need a gift card for Chili’s? You can buy it at Wal-Mart. You can give Wal-Mart $25 for a card with a logo of Starbucks on it and go redeem it at Starbucks. You can even go to one physical location and have your choice of either crispy fried chicken, double-decker tacos or stuffed-crust pizza or all three.
But with this list, I should add a disclaimer. At first, noticing all these changes, I couldn’t help but jump to conclusions. I thought it was me. I was the one who has been gone and I’m the one who is lagging behind. I must catch up and quick, before I’m forever pigeon-holed into not fitting in anywhere. But the truth is, it’s not just me. It’s Ryan Seacrest, too. We’ve both changed. Ryan Seacrest* was probably a pimply-faced, no-name kid on the Disney channel when I left the country way in 2000-something or other.
(Okay, no he wasn’t. I just google-imaged him.)
This was then…
This is now…(for those of you who are like me and don’t know who he is)
But the fact is, the more I’m here, the more I see–it’s not just me. It’s America, too. Chelsea Clinton finally got her braces off and found somebody, Britney’s hair has grown back, Madonna’s skin has grown tighter and Jessica Simpson’s boobs have grown even bigger now that she’s not a virgin anymore. True, Dennis Rodman is still just as big an ass as always but as for the rest of us, we’ve all evolved.
I remember the first time I left the States to go to Spain for eight weeks of, ahem, intensive “Spanish” (ie intensive disco dancing and intensive time at the beach). I came home and everyone was talking about this new movie called “The Blair Witch Project.” Keep in mind these were the late 90s–the last days of a bygone era when internet could not permeate all corners of the earth as easily as it does now. I was with the times, I had a Hotmail account which I checked, I think, maybe three times while I was gone because there were no computers with internet connections except for at this bank down the street from my host family’s piso. They offered thirty minutes a day to students. It would wait for a computer forever which would then take at least half an hour to connect and then after that I would be lucky if I could even sign into my account. Because of this, I experienced a complete lag of information. I knew nothing of what was happening Stateside. When I came home after eight weeks I felt like an alien. I remember my younger sister going into hysterics when I asked her what this “Blair Witch” thing was everyone kept talking about. She kept trying to explain it to me but I couldn’t get a grasp of it–what was it? Was it real? Was it fake? I didn’t understand. Was it a documentary? Was it a horror movie? It was a new genre none of us had any inkling of and we were all confused. We were all a little scared. But not as scared as we were the other day when we saw what lil’ Miss Hannah Montana has made of herself.
To some degree, it’s normal to conform to a society when you’re living in it. (Although, I’m not sure what planet Miss Cyrus is living on.) Whether it’s out of a desire to want to fit in or whether purely for a sake of convenience – sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes it happens without conscious effort.
In New Zealand I learned that small talk revolves around the weather, much like at home. While in Italy, all talk–small and not so small–revolves around food and vacation destinations. That is when it isn’t a rant about Berlusconi or bureaucracy.
In New Zealand I got used to shops closing at 4:30pm and how most things closed Saturday afternoon. In Italy, I got used to “l’ora della pausa,” commonly known as the siesta, as well as how regimented life is. The entire country conforms as a whole right down to agreeing upon what time to eat their meals—one thirty on the dot for lunch and eight thirty on the dot for dinner. They even conform over when to have their annual vacation—the fifteenth of August. For the ten-odd years I was there, I at my lunch and dinner they way they did, took my vacation when they did. In short, I signed up. I conformed. I can attest: When in Rome… is exactly that.
In America we have our own way of operating which is mainly that there is no one way of operating. Shops are open both early and late and some never close. Mealtimes are ambiguous and revolve around individual schedules, not national ritual. While there are nice things about these other countries and their traditions I must say that being back, I’m mostly marveling. Being gone has afforded me a new view and with that new view comes a new found admiration of my own country. I marvel at America because we know who we are and we love who we are. We might not love everything about ourselves, but for the most part we are connected by the common thread of diversity.
As I reacquaint myself with America, I think of Nick in the jungle. What would it be like, encountering a person who comes from an entirely different culture, with a different skin tone for the first time ever? What must it be like to see someone so strikingly similar to you yet so startlingly different? It stirs something within me, an emotion I find difficult to articulate.
This is the thing. When we become familiar with things, we forget them. They become so far engrained in our routine that what was once miraculous has the potential to eventually become a mere fact of life.
While it’s certainly nothing like coming upon a white man for the first time, I do feel a bit like an extraterrestrial who has returned to her home planet. Things have changed here and I have changed, too.
The best, most noticeable change I’ve seen in America? Our flag. It’s everywhere. More than antibacterial hand gel, more than Mister Seacrest. The star-spangled banner is a sight I have sorely missed and one I don’t plan on taking for granted any time soon. From the looks of it, no one else is either.
*This is another image that came up when I googled Ryan Seacrest, just for full disclosure.