Ten years back in the USA, and some things still shock
Updated: August 3, 2012 5:41PM
An ambulance or fire truck siren wails, and the cars obediently slow and pull to the side of the road. Our awe over this mundane example of American orderliness is just one continuing vestige of culture shock 10 years after returning to the United States from nine years of living in the Asian tropics.
Ten years ago this month, I was in Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International airport at 5 a.m., the children clinging to my legs crying. We had one-way tickets to the United States and were surrounded by our massive, overstuffed pieces of luggage. While I was returning to live, virtually nothing with me in that airport, including my children, had come with me or my husband those years before. We were coming home with a variety of accumulations which included not just the children and a household’s worth of furniture and rugs and knick knacks but an enormous range of experiences.
The kids’ messy and noisy sobbing attested to that. Their tears were for their “ya ya” (Filipino nanny), our drivers, our beautiful putting green lawn with banana trees and pool. They were sad to leave the International School of Manila where they had friends who were American and Filipino as well as South African, British, Japanese and Korean, though they were not necessarily apprehensive about living in the United States having visited extensively and frequently.
As those clinging children and I worked our way through the various stations of the Philippine airport for the last time, checking bags going through customs and security, heading through duty free and another security and passport check, I thought about the younger me arriving in Asia those years ago with two pieces of luggage and some furniture and heading back now with an entire household worth of goods and a family that had doubled in size.
I gave birth to both children in Bangkok, Thailand — easy to find them in the nursery with their blond hair — a fact which impresses me more today than it did then as I fearfully prepare to send one of those babies off to college. Back then, I shrugged and said that childbirth was a common condition, why worry. Today I’m up at night fretting about whether my son is going to be able to do his own laundry and whether he will pursue any vegetables in the next few months. Back then I wrote weekly five-page letters to my parents and went to the post office to mail them. I stood in line and bought stamps bearing the Thai king’s portrait. To affix the stamp to the envelope I carefully ran it over a moistened sponge rather than licking the sovereign’s image and offending the Thai people.
In August, 2002 I was looking forward to having four distinct seasons again as the places we had lived — Bangkok in Thailand, Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in India and Manila in the Philippines — each had the three tropical seasons of hot, monsoon and “cool,” which we generally referred to as hot, hotter and hot and rainy. Every Valentine’s Day in Asia was spent in 95 degree heat with humidity as thick as at Atlanta afternoon in July. Every Thanksgiving was spent cooking in shorts and a tank top, and I attended Christmas Eve church services wearing a red linen dress instead of wool or velvet.
Now the many dark and seemingly endless Chicago winters and “springs” have cured this romantic notion about the beauty of four separate seasons and their hallmark qualities.
I have come to realize that I waste a lot of time pining for something missing in the current moment. I expect the thing I lack will somehow make me feel better and live better, whether it is four unique seasons or a better car or children who score both on the field and in the classroom. I look around and see other Americans who act the same way, looking for the thing that will make them feel better and live better, wanting what they don’t have instead of enjoying what they do. They don’t seem to understand that happiness and satisfaction are a choice not the results of some confluence of ideal conditions.
Many people in Asia are deprived of basic resources like clean running water and affordable food and the chance to learn to read and write. They spend an inordinate amount of their days trying to acquire some of these basics. Yet they endure, they laugh, they smile, they shrug.
In the United States where so many are unemployed and underemployed perhaps we can start, just start, to understand why overpopulation is such a destructive force to not only natural resources but economic ones as well. Most people want to work, and they want to work and live near their families instead of having to seek work elsewhere. In some places, that too is a privilege.
People often pity us for having spent years in “hardship” postings but having the opportunity to experience such radically different places first-hand means that we truly do appreciate the mundanely American as a the luxury that it is.
Readers may contact Sara Clarkson by leaving a message at (630) 320-5448 or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.