We shuffled, groggy and sluggish, toward the sounds of two voices — one shrill and female, one booming and male — that punched through the mumbling sea of other shuffling, groggy and sluggish passengers who’d just spilled out of our plane, down an escalator, and into this immigration hall.
Welcome to the Los Angeles International Airport.
Also known as LAX.
“YOU IS SITZIN’??!! KHMER!! YOU IS SITZIN’?!! KHMER!! UDDER, OVA DAY!!! UDDER, OVA DAY!!!”
Which was not what the smallish uniformed woman with a cinnamon-colored dye job was yelling, her arms flapping semaphore. But after 26 sleepless hours in transit from Singapore to Tokyo, and then from Tokyo to that crowded immigration hall in LAX, that’s what I heard. I still had Cambodia on my brain, hence Khmer. And I had been sitzin’ for quite some time, true. As for why I heard udder and ova . . . your guess is as good as mine. Something hormonal, no doubt.
The man bellowed a translation:
“U.S. CITIZEN??!!! C’MERE. U.S. CITIZEN??! C’MERE. OTHER, OVER THERE!!! OTHER, OVER THERE!!”
He looked shrink-wrapped in the short-sleeved white shirt with the customs officials badge on the left pocket. His silver hair bore perfectly greased comb tracks, making his head look like it was topped with gelatinous corduroy. He was splitting his seams with maybe a dozen too many Krispy Kremes, a six-pack too many Red Bulls and enough good will to cheer even the grousiest of passengers. Between his barking, he hummed and lifted himself up on his toes, arms swooping and pointing right, swooping and pointing left.
Right, lift, left, lift, right, lift, left, lift.
Yell, hum, swoop, hum, yell, hum, swoop, hum.
There was such a catchy choreography to it, if he’d broken out in the moonwalk right there on the linoleum, it would’ve been the most natural thing in the world.
I ducked under the swoop so I could stand in the line for Sitzin’. The gum-chawnking passport controller smiled and winked and asked where I was flying in from.
“Singapore, huh? Whew, well, lemmee tell you—” he flipped back through my passport, “Lemme tell you, uh, Melissa”, he looked at the picture, looked at me, looked again at the picture, “Bet you’re mighty glad to be home!”
When we checked our bags through to Salt Lake City, the handlers were a Late Flight Stand-Up team: one had shoulder-length corn rows with rainbow-colored beads on the tips of each braid; the other had byzantine tattoos that climbed from underneath his crew socks and wrapped all the way up his trunk-like legs to under the hem of his khaki shorts. Together, they were two of the friendliest, laughingest humans on the planet, and they worked the crowd, pretending to be vying for my baggage, the cornrowed guy grabbing my oversized suitcase from his partner while leaning toward me like we were long lost cousins at a family reunion. He slapped me on the back then held his hand there on my shoulder.
“Don’t give him that big bag, lady! Looka him! He’s too old, it’ll kill him!”
“What you talkin’, Ray?” the tatooed man cocked his head then stuck out his chest, “I work OUT, man! Work OUT! Gimme that!”
“Work OUT?!” the first man shrieked, flipping a whole rainbow of braids that made trinkling beady sounds as they hit his shoulders, “Leon, you EAT out, man’s what you do! EAT! OUT!”
Laughter, laughter. And more laughter.
As we left our bags and moved on toward our gate, I heard the banter rollicking behind me:
“Ripped?!! Leon, only thing’s ripped ’bout you’s your underwear, man!” and then the follow-up whooping, the hollering, the flung-wide-open spectacle for the passing masses.
It’s then I thought of the Chens, a Singaporean couple I’d met during the flight. He was a retired government official. She, a retired journalist. This, their first ever trip to the U.S., and they were going all-out: two-and-a-half months in a Winnebago going coast to coast, 31 states, twelve national parks, everything from Badlands to Baton Rouge, Boca Raton to the Berkshires. Ending in the Big Apple.
What, I wondered (with the Dueling Baggage Handlers still yelping and hooting in the background, the passport controller still winking and chewing his gum, the customs greeter still swooping and humming), would the Chens make of LAX? After the hushed plushness of Singapore’s Changi International Airport and the feathery reverence of Tokyo’s Narita? Where general solemnity reigns and decorum means restraint, soft but silent smiles, privacy, keeping the codes, minding the rules? Which means no unsolicited physical contact. No winking. No first names. And no public discourse about underwear.
How would they react? How would they interpret the break-dancing of that customs official, not to mention the broken English of his female counterpart? What would they do with the gum-chewing looseness, back-slapping casualness, the anything goes-ness?
In that moment, if I could have found the Chens, would it have helped had I explained things a bit more thoroughly, offered a bit of a buffer? Told them, for starters, Welcome to the United States of America.
Also known as lax.
Er, I mean, relax.
Er, what I really mean is. . . Free.
Thoughts of the Chens have shadowed everything I’ve seen and done on my own trip this year to the American west. But I’ve thought of more people than just them. I’ve thought also of Norwegian, German, French, Austrian, Dutch, Botswanan, Chinese, Tanzanian, Japanese, Indian, Nigerian, Polish, Russian, Egyptian, Croatian, Lebanese, Australian, Korean, Cambodian and many other friends both western and eastern who, throughout these 20 years living outside of my native country, have helped me to see my homeland through their eyes. These friends and others have homes and lands at times strikingly — at times radically — different from mine. What a tremendous gift this has been.
The Scottish poet Robert Burns knew something about that gift. In his “To a Louse,” he writes,
“Oh would some power the gift to give us to see ourselves as others see us.”
That gift of seeing myself — my origins, my values, my behavior — through the eyes of others with different origins, values and behaviors has altered my vision, which vision has informed everything I do, including how I parent my children. Including how I write and about what. Including my upcoming book. In that particular work, those two disciplines — raising and writing — merge as I explore what it means to bring up our children to become global citizens.
(And this blog gives you a place to chime in. Consider that a no-holds-barred invitation. Feel free.)
So . . . how are the Chens faring right about now, do you think, two weeks into their pan-American road trip?
Before even leaving LAX, they saw people. Lots of them. They saw many colors, but unlike Singapore, the Californian population, even with its growing Asian and Hispanic demographic, is still heavily weighted to caucasians. The Chens saw all sizes, too, but unlike Singaporeans, these people are heavily weighted. Like it or not, it’s what so many newcomers, not just Singaporeans, mention as a first impression of America: The largeness of us all.
By this, I’ve learned they mean more than the superficial largeness of height and girth, although I’m afraid they mean that, too. They also mean a certain roominess in manner: Americans, in general, tend to move loosely. We amble, our gait is ample, our gestures require a Wide Load sign, our personal space spills into others’ personal space, and our voices, like our fast food servings, are super-sized. This isn’t necessarily bad. Unless you are in a Parisian subway and yours is the only voice to be heard for four subway cars. Spaciousness of spirit can also be disarming, wonderfully inviting. If the Chens needed help getting their rental car, for example, I imagine any number of large-hearted LAX people would have wrapped their large arms and broad conciliatory voices firmly around these lost newcomers and escorted them right to the big Alamo counter itself.
On their way there, they would have seen the same parade of Americans that I saw: hippies; aging rock stars; buffed bodies in neon wet swim trunks hauling surf boards; Hari Krishnas; what looked like a displaced circus acrobat; the bearded man in cowboy boots with a silo-sized Big Gulp in the crook of one arm and in the other a massive tray of ribs and fries from which he sampled as he sauntered; two shining Mormon missionaries; a woman in her 70’s dressed (or undressed) in a bikini, gauze skirt and platform sandals, her terra cotta skin a rippled tribute to several decades of California Dreaming, making her a walking topographical map, it seemed, of the Grand Canyon.
I told my boys not to stare.
I also told them not to stare at the next woman. She was wearing several layers in varying colors and textures of filthiness, and was hunched next to her overloaded shopping cart. She wore no shoes. Her feet looked like cracked animal hide, the toenails long and blackened. From beneath her wildly matted head of colorless hair, her head bobbed back and forth, and from her mouth (she had no teeth) rose her hissing chant like steam from a manhole. In her lap (was I staring?) she clutched a stained yellow Tweetie Bird.
Did the Chens pass by her, too? What might they have thought, given that there is no such thing as “homeless” where they come from?
When they got on the road, I imagine they were floored by another kind of largeness: the wide-open-road-ness. Even I am still drop-jawed every time I visit the States, at the sheer width of the roads. Freeways as wide as entire villages — eight lanes?! — trafficked by every conceivable size and condition of vehicle which might be driven by teenagers, all of whom, I have to conclude, are calling each other on their cell phones. Just holding your cell while driving costs you your driver’s license in Singapore, but these folks are texting and calling and gesticulating into them while weaving around the inevitable snarls. And while throwing trash out the window. In Singapore, you’d be fined and imprisoned and when released, sent to community service where you wear a bright yellow reeducation vest while sweeping up public spaces. Here, texting, like driving, is everyone’s right, I suppose.
Ah, that loose look of freedom.
Cars, in Singapore, can cost as much as a house, and Singaporean houses, meter for square meter, are among the most expensive in the world. (It is an island, after all, and inflated automobile and real estate prices are intended to keep the number of either in check.) To get a Singaporean driver’s license is no easy deal — it is an ordeal, believe me — and of course no one but those 21 and older can even try. License in hand? Good. Until you accumulate enough demerit points (for minor infractions like driving with your signal mistakenly left blinking) and then you have to start the whole license ordeal all over again. I don’t think I would’ve mentioned to the Chens that, in a state called Idaho, a child of 14 can get a license by taking an open-book test. And that, to operate heavy farm equipment.
Only a certain echelon of drivers can operate large vehicles in Singapore, Switzerland, and to my knowledge all of central Europe. What’s more, that equipment, like all vehicles, must be kept in tip-top shape. This means there’s no such thing on Singaporean — or Swiss or French or German or Japanese — roads as rusting bumpers, dragging exhaust pipes, or duct-taped naugahyde Plymouth Duster roofs. Because of this, I never mentioned anything to the Chens about buying freedom for your high school senior in the form of a “beater.”
I also thought it best not to mention a T.V. show called “Pimp Your Ride.”
Out on the freeway, the Chens would have also noticed how those roads, which seem to go on forever, are lined with billboards. Which also go on forever. The landscape would seem restless, even chaotic to them, I think, since it does to me. There are no billboards in Singapore. (Or Switzerland. Or the better part of the world I’ve visited, for that matter.) They might have been puzzled, if not unnerved, by the sheer volume — amount as well as loudness —- of American billboards. Everywhere you turn, in all media read, listened to or watched , it seems someone is screaming for your attention:
REMOVE UNSIGHTLY VEINS!! REMOVE UNSIGHTLY HAIR!! FREE SCALP ANALYSIS WITH CONSULTATION!!
STOP PAYING THRU THE NOSE FOR DECENT RHINOPLASTY!
NEXT EXIT!! ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT TEXMEXITALIAN BUFFET!! $4.99!! KIDS AND SENIORS EAT FREE!! FREE REFILLS!!
GUN SHOW!! FREE GUN GIVE AWAY!! NO LICENSE REQUIRED! $15.99 PISTOL WITH ANY PURCHASE OVER $100!!!
I doubt it would take long for the Chens to make the connection between freedom and free. Bargains, slashed prices, special offers and free gifts seem to be part of our national endowment. And coming from a place where you can’t even use a grocery shopping cart for free, that kind of free-dom probably seems magical to the Chens.
There are acres upon acres of parking lots. And get this: you can park in them for free. If the Chens happen upon one of these lots, they’ve probably also happened upon a Walmart, a Super Target, or the Temple of the Bulk Buy: Costco. I didn’t warn them about these places but probably should have, since I remember well my first time in a Costco after about ten years of shopping in the tiny neighborhood grocers and weekly open markets of our homes in Europe. These were stores where my small rolling caddie, which could hold no more than the essentials for the next couple of days, filled the width of an aisle. These were also neighborhood gathering spots, places where the grocer was someone I knew and who knew my children, and who ordered a specific cheese (or sprout or bread or berry) with me in mind.
That first visit to Costco, I was on assignment to buy refreshments for a large church gathering, and had filled (with 200 obscenely swollen blueberry muffins and several crates of produce) a grocery cart the size of your average French car. As I rounded a bend in the condiments aisle, I spied a can of black pitted olives so large, it could have been a nightstand had you slapped a doily on it.
(The doilies were in Home Furnishings, by the way. Aisle 27.)
Something about that cavernous warehouse lined with towers of abundance, the nightstand-sized can of pitted olives and the 200 toppling muffins made my heart race and breathing grow shallow. I was having an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole moment, so I gripped the handle of the cart, slammed shut my eyes, and tried to get my bearings.
And I did. And I was fine. All good.
Until a voice spoke to me, a spritely voice, “Care for a sample?”, and I, being polite, opened my eyes to the biggest pyramid of tooth-picked cured meats I have ever seen in my life, shoved right under my nose on a plastic platter the circumference of Mercury’s orbit.
It took me years to ever go back.
And it took someone else to go back to Costco to retrieve the muffins I’d left when I ran out for air. And a sanity check on proportions.
I’ve since reformed, I want to tell you that up front. Just yesterday, in fact, I found myself in a Super Target (I had never been there before), and along about aisle 64, I realized I was swooning and growing dry-mouthed with delirium. “I love this country,” I found myself groaning under my breath, “I just love it.” Naturally, I had a whole stadium of non-American friends in mind, and wished-oh-wished I could show them all this phantasmagoria, this epicenter of the Land o’ Plenty. But more than plenty, the easiness and comfort and convenience. This under-one-roof monument to free enterprise. I thought of how many times newly arrived American expatriates in, say, Oslo or Vienna or Paris or Munich, complained to me about how long it took to just “get the basics done,” that they had to adjust their whole body clock and plan so much more strategically than they’d ever done before.
Instead of having those friends with me, I had my daughter Claire with as guide and human shield should we encounter random roving platters of cured meats. We had exactly two hours to move systematically through a list of supplies she and the boys need for the coming year. Moving from left to right through this megastore, we also moved top to bottom right down our list. We started in groceries, rolled on to cosmetics, glided straight through into clothing, (girl’s, boy’s. men’s, teens, women’s maternity, animal’s, sports, nightwear, footwear) then turned a corner for jewelry and other accessories. Aisle by well-stocked aisle, we were plucking our way right down her list. There were shower curtains, backpacks, stuffed animals and leftover July 4th (Patriotic Prices!!) decorations. Another bend and we plowed straight into Nikons, Blu Ray and HDTV’s, Yamaha keyboards, Yakima bike trailers, inflatable backyard pools. There seemed to be 50 of every item offered, 50% Value Added to those 50 things, and 50% off of their ticketed price. There was also a photo developer, passport photo booth, a video rental counter, a corner sit-down deli, a pharmacy, and a giant spread of magazines, some of which offered 50 % More Photos! Or Last Month’s Issue, Free!
It made me giddy. And dizzy. Under a single roof and under two hours, I’d ticked off my list. And then some. Unfathomable.
But it was in the “and then some” that I felt that old slinky clutch tease at my appetites, that powerful seduction of the Extra Large, More is Better, Buy Now, Satisfy Your Whim, $19.99 Hyperconsumerism of the Land of the Free. I empathized better with my Chinese teacher who, during her trip to the U.S., braved a full day in a Greyhound just to get from LAX to Las Vegas. Why? Well, not for Wayne Newton. She’d read there was something called “outlets” on the Vegas fringe. And she’d brought two empty suitcases to fill.
While traveling in the U.S., my Russian friend never hit Vegas or its outlets, and never entered a Super Target. But she did discover a Phoenix Walmart when she needed pain medication at 3:00 a.m. The hotel clerk called her a cab, who waited for her outside the Walmart front entrance while she joined what to her was the surreal world of shopping in the pit of the night. “My mother in Moscow eventually believed Mount Rushmore,” this friend told me later, “But I never got her to believe Walmart.”
That friend, like so many — and like the Chens — would have a hard time believing that not just material conveniences but American kids are so free: free to ride skateboards and bicycles on public roads with neither adult supervision nor helmets; free to sell lemonade on the street corner or to mow their neighbor’s lawns or to set up a car wash fund raiser, all without an official government permit. Free to drive, as I’ve mentioned, so that they can get to something called a “summer job.” Or to not get to a job at all because they are free to spend their summer camping, playing Frisbee, or splashing at a waterpark. (This, as opposed to sitting for hours of daily structured tutoring so they can keep up with their classmates, who are also studying all summer long.) Free to dream big billowing dreams. Free to fail. Free to start over.
Are American adults just as free? And if so, what does that freedom look like? Are we truly “free” the way we have allowed ourselves to be depicted in the media images exported to the world through “Sex in the City”, “Desperate Housewives” and “Jersey Shore”? Free to throw away whatever no longer fills us, be it last year’s fashions, yesterday’s food, a lifetime with a spouse? Are we any worse? Are we much better? Is greed one of the colors on the underbelly of abundance? Is waste?
A concise anecdote to illustrate when I started wondering about these things: When we lived in Norway, the public garbage collectors came once a week to take away our trash. It was just one fifty-liter garbage can. Anything beyond those fifty liters we had to hand carry ourselves many miles away to a public dump, where a guard patrolled how well we separated colored glass from clear glass, paper from cardboard from plastic from metal from compost. Until Norway, I didn’t think twice about waste. If a municipal service was going to come every day to take my junk from my sight, I felt free to throw away whatever I wanted. To waste was normal. My freedoms permitted it.
Another anecdote from Norway that taught me to check what I thought was normal. It was a while ago, in the early-’90’s, but that’s still not so long ago as to make this story irrelevant. Anders Breivik notwithstanding, Norway is still, statistically speaking, one of the least deadly places to live on this earth. So to my final story:
Our friend, Elsie Bakken, was visibly shaken by something she’d read in the Aftenposten, the daily newspaper.
“It was gruesome,” she shuddered, “Just gruesome. Inhuman.” She folded her hands over her heart and patted her own fingers, as if to settle herself.
I was afraid to ask what had happened, what could have been “gruesome” in a country as peaceful — sleepy, even — as Norway.
“What was it? What happened?” I asked, bracing myself by folding both hands in my lap.
Elsie shifted her weight in her chair. “It was in a convenience store.”
“And a man came in. . .”
“Yes. . .”
“A man came in holding a gun under his sweater.”
“Yes. A gun! Can you imagine? Among people? And he was holding it like this.” She pointed from underneath her apron, making a barrel of a small gun with her index finger.
“He held a gun like that?”
“. . .And?”
“He then told the woman behind the counter to lie on the floor. To lie face down. Flat on the floor.”
“Yes?. . .”
“And she lay there on the floor. . .”
“While he had the gun under his sweater, right?. . .”
“And then. . .?”
“And then. . .and then the man emptied out all the money from the register. . .”
“While the woman is lying face down on the floor. . .?”
“Yes. Oh, it is so gruesome!”
“Right. And then. . .?”
“And then. . .and then he took the money and stuffed it in a bag. The whole time she had to lie there.”
“And. . .” Elsie’s eyes searched mine. Then she closed them. “And then. . .then he left.”
“Yes. He just left her there on her face, lying on the floor — the inhumanity — left with all the money. Gruesome, isn’t it? Just gruesome. What is happening to this country?”
Somewhere over the Pacific, and while standing in the dim cabin light, the Chens outlined their elaborate travel route for me. I took only mental, not literal, notes, so I had a general idea of where they would be, without any particulars. When Denver made front page headlines last week, however, I recalled with a full body chill that they had planned on visiting the Mile High City sometime in July. I have thought at length about where the Chens, newcomers in this land of freedom, were when a gunman bearing multiple weapons entered a movie house and open fired. Since that massacre, I’ve wondered daily about that gentle and genteel couple who come from a place where such a thing is impossible, where that kind of random violence points to a profound illness in a civilization, to a lack, really, of one of the basic freedoms: freedom from fear.
I’ll admit to having not pored over the media reports. I’ve avoided them. They are too disheartening, too infuriating and too dissonant with how I want to see my homeland and how I want others the world over to see it.
Lax. Too much so.
And, if there can be such a thing, too devastatingly free.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.