For the sake of argument, let’s just say that it might be interesting for us all to see how the USA looks and feels through my eyes now that I have been immersed in Isaan culture for a year. I mean the title of the blog has always had two parts- the In and the Out, and it began with the leaving, so for my own sake at least I will carry on, if for no other reason than to process my reentry, to ascertain my identity. Speaking of identity, I met an affable young man on the flight from Taipei to LA whose wife was getting a master’s degree in International Development with a specialization in identity issues, specifically the effects of moving to the US for young Asians.
Since I got on the bus in NKP- all the VIP seats were sold out and I rode the cheap bus which was 15 dollars, or about $1.25 per hour travel time, not the nadir of bus services, 12 dollars, this one charging more because it had, unfortunately as it turns out, a bathroom. Said bathroom did not provide me any particular relief, but it did provide such a strong stench of urine that I looked down on the isle floor more than once to see if a great wave might be barreling my way- as I was saying, since I got on that bus, though more accurately I should say since I got off that bus which was full of “my people”, Isaan villagers headed to lowly jobs and universities in Bangkok, I feel as if I have been funneled, first a trickle and then a torrent, of globe trotting travelers. It really does have that feel- a tributary where I met three young Italian medical students, a bearded, smiling and laughing young man and two stunning raven-haired women, fresh of a trek of Laos and Cambodia. Just on appearances, and their happy-go-lucky liveliness, I would have guessed them hippie university students. So…Italian! Then there was a French couple back from Myanmar, and later a half besotted young Dubliner bending my ear about his wild times in Phuket and his admiration for Obama. Dingle Mate! Of course you would have been to Dingle! Americans, they all go mad for it! Followed by a near disastrous backwards spill when the automatic walkway ended. The tributary found its big brother in the customs line where I let a turbaned Arab cut in line ahead of me, sensing his time-crunch anxiety (requested and rewarded with his gentle, apologetic smile) and the chatty Chinese student, soon to be moving to Thailand, who asked me to be her teesher via e-mail about Thailand since I had lived there and knew where to go (though I am quite sure she was interested mostly in where the best mall shopping was more than where to get down in the dirt with poor villagers, so I doubt I can help her much), and then there was a further shuffling and resorting and spreading as we hit the alluvial plain of Taipei and people ricocheted off into myriad directions and I was on a plane bound for LAX seated between a portly Taiwanese businessman who speaks no English and a former Vietnamese refugee now a US citizen living in Oklahoma where she owns a smoothie shop in a mall Always many customer. There was the young barbwire-tattooed LA hipster who pulled his hoodie up to hide away and make sure I did not talk to him (How is it while we are young that we trick ourselves into thinking we are so interesting, unique, and important? When I see that so-cool young man, I see myself in France at 25- so full of imagined smoothness and resilience, yet to my 52 year old eyes so pathetically insecure.) My story, the story of working in a poor Thai village, echoed so recently by 12 others in our Saturday conference room, now diluted so that it is but a small green leaf lost in the flooding mighty, increasingly less Asian river. The faces, the variety of stories floating by, I love. The endless airport duty free shops, overflowing with ever more pseudo-luxurious goods, mostly tobacco, liquor, and perfume, those still pain me somewhere deep. And the more mass produced the product (they are in every damn airport, often up to a half dozen selling the same brands- Chivas, Mont Blanc, Dior, Coach) the more desperately the attempt to establish exclusivity and a sense of the ultimate- the velvet lined, sliding-doored, gigantic, decantered Chivas, the diamond-encrusted Mont Blanc. In Taipei 4 and 5 and sometimes even 6 immaculately dressed, lovely salesgirls hovering by the gleaming merchandise, ready to descend like peregrin falcons the moment one crossed the shop’s threshold. Who buys this overpriced shit? Who pays all those young beauties? But someone must.
The essential question is ridiculously simple- How do you want to live your life day to day? Which in turn could be asked- What matters to you? Not big questions like conservative economics or freedom of the press- but: Do you like to sit and read a book quietly, or play video games? Do you like to shop and buy things? Do you like to eat strange new foods? Does your car matter to you? Do you like being with children? Do you like working on a computer? Do you like checking your phone every 10 minutes for facebook messages? Do you like eating big boxes of doughnuts and massive coffee drinks? I look around and people are doing things. They are buying and moving and talking and eating- they are making a thousand choices a day. Who am I to say if they are happy or not with their choices? The world is headed in a certain direction because most those things that don’t make me happy make lots of other people happy.
I am in Los Angeles and many things strike me. Some nice things- America is very diverse- at least in the LA airport. The passport line for US citizens had all colors, languages, sizes. Some quite friendly. But there are other aspects I haven’t been around for a year: People rushed and intense- as if most of them are on some very pressing and important mission. They ooze a sort of confidence. Constantly exhaling an aura that exclaims the necessity and completeness of their existence. Isaan people don’t exude this.
Well- maybe Rambo. But I think that it intimidates even his coworkers who are much more reserved, almost shy. Certainly compared to the muscley small town cops here, with their batman belts of guns and tasers- as if the high schoolers smoking pot cops so busily chase on Friday nights might secretly be backed by Al Quaida, or to be prepared for a secret casting agent for an episode of Fox Channel’s COPS. Ready to Take Down some pathetic shitfaced redneck after a wild car chase. Cleaning up the mean streets, one bad guy at a time.
I had my first Sam Adams Lager in a year and talked to a nice young man soon leaving the navy. He told me, I want to go undercover, because, you know, I don’t like drugs. I don’t like drugs and I want to clean them out. I could see he actually believed it- that he could put on a uniform and get out and Clean out drugs. If the airport bookshop is any indicator, quite a bit of that kind of believing is happening - lots and lots of angry sounding titles talking about Taking Back America. Like if enough people put on white hats and that slacker underclass taking all the government handouts gets up and works real hard all these contemporary problems will be gone.
Also it strikes me how few people are on any given station compared to all the other countries I visited- more automation and self-service. Fifteen customers trying to fumble through the “automatic” check in process while a lone, undertrained worker runs about trying to smooth out the kinks. No wonder unemployment is so high. A store that in Taipei had 6 girls in perfectly pressed uniforms has but one pimply and pasty-faced teen perched behind the cash register, knowing only how to scan barcodes, another sweeping the floors and restocking the shelves. The profit motive cycle complete. Where can we cut? Labor costs.
At least flying in to Maine is more promising. The beautiful coastal landscape abides, the scale of the airport is conceivable and the process of getting though less painful than LAX. Perhaps Maine is my American Isaan and I will be safe. Time will tell. I will try to keep this up as long as it feels genuine. I hope you will tag along.