I'm coming to believe that while living in another country is alienating and strange, coming home is often even more so.
From what my father tells me, when my sister returned from her six month junior year abroad
stint in Ecuador a few weeks ago, she stumbled through the door to her bedroom, dropped her bags, looked at her old things and started crying inconsolably. When my stepmother tried to comfort her, all she said was "It's too big, I don't need all of this stuff, I don't want all of this stuff." Since then, from what I'm hearing, she sits around the house, writhing and frustrated, not able to connect with her old friends or engage with her old life and wanting impossibly to head back to Ecuador, although intellectually she understands that there's no real life for her there, either, and at the same time feeling bad about the very state of feeling bad... after all, how can it be okay to sit around a huge house, feeling sorry for yourself, when you know all too well how lucky you are?
This is the transformative power of living abroad - backpacking wouldn't be so popular among the mind-altering drugs crowd if it was not itself incredibly mind-altering.
And that's the backside of backpacking. You can't stay - going native is its own sort of non-solution, and most backpackers are smart enough to know that they don't really belong in the place they've been in a permanent way, no matter how they feel about it while they're there, but it does have a way of temporarily, overwhelmingly reordering your sense of the "haves" and "have nots" in such a way that your own problems seem embarrassingly small. When you feel shitty, you apologize for it. When other people express worry about their relationships or their jobs or their parents or anything else, you resent them, because you feel like they don't have real
problems. But you hate that behavior in yourself, so you resent yourself.
I understand that sort of self-cannibalization because I indulged it for months after the last
time I came back from Guatemala, infected with some delayed-action stomach bug that rejected all that wholesome American food, languishing on the couch, staring at my girlfriend like a stranger as she fussed over my conspicuous ribs and sunken cheeks.
There is no way to avoid seeing the USA differently when you come back, I'm afraid. But there are less self-cannibalizing ideas of differently.
So while I've been in Coban, I've gone on two vacations. The second of the two, the weekend before last, was back to the United States in the form of Houston. I'd never been to Houston and, uncharitably, I've never said anything nice about Houston (this is a hang-up for a lot of people who don't like Bush, but it's ultimately pretty stupid). Houston took me by surprise. Houston is good, though it doesn't feel anything like the 4th largest city in the US, and I came away with more the sort of low-key benevolence that I came away with in, say... Minneapolis. But then, that analogy to Minneapolis might've had a lot to do with who I was with.
From the second I stepped off of the plane, everything seemed different. The airplane terminal seemed clean and empty, everything smelled better. But the real revelation started with my girlfriend
Sara is a pretty lady under all circumstances, but after 2 months among four foot Mayan women with load bearing hips, she was a vision, impossibly articulate, and the first time we were alone together, I was nervous like a twelve year old. I clearly like Sara, but we've been dating for years. After the 200th go round, any body loses some of its power to shock and confound, no matter how well put together or oh-la-la physically compatible, but two months in Guatemala was enough to knock me totally out of my cool, HOLYSHIT style, and this was with her clothes on.
And it went on a lot like that, not just with her but with everything I saw.
I remember standing outside of a bookstore, waiting to cross the street, and thinking "The light will change, they will stop. There is a light, first of all, and it works, and it is not broken, but more importantly, people will stop when the light is red, and go when it is green, and they won't honk or swerve around eachother or stop in the middle of the intersection to buy a phonecard."
I remember reading in law school a study on legal compliance where a camera was set up in the bushes, way out in the middle of absolute nowhere, at a four-way stop. Usually, when a car pulled up to the stopsign, there was no one else around, and, given the lack of topography, only the faintest spectre of being observed unseen. Yet, almost without exception, people stopped.
This became suddenly profound, some high-water mark of civilization, something real and demonstrative of something really great and important about America. And the bookstore
! I might occasionally rail against choice as an abstract concept (mostly because I get tired of making them... there's something horribly imposing about being asked to differentiate between 200 types of toothpaste), but the absence
of choice is no better. And in Guatemala, choice is sporadic. There are 50 different kinds of soda, for sure, but only one guy who can fix your refrigerator... and he's rich.
Anyhow, before I went to Houston, I took a long weekend from work and made a solitary trip up to Guatemala's small and trashy strip of Caribbean coast as a backpacker.
The two trips now seem to have their own weird sort of connection - people in the States tend to glorify backpacking around Caribbean beaches, whereas the backpackers on the Caribbean beaches have nothing but shit to talk about places like Houston. Houston represents exactly what they claim to have rejected by slapping on a backpack and ceasing to wash their pits.
Ten years ago, my sympathies were all with those healthy sunburnt types with the burgeoning dreadlocks and leghair bleached white by salt and sun, and there's still a lot to be said for living cheap and getting naked without too much critical reflection or hesitation. Those people are having FUN, and they're learning all sorts of important lessons about any number of things, and I don't doubt that most of them will be better people because of the time they've spent in places like the Coban. Now that I'm older and grumpier, however, I find that I can only really hang with them until that inevitable first bit of geographical comparison, the jabbing aimlessly in midair with a joint or cig, eyes half closed and staring off at some impossible, unreal ocean sunset and declaring that this, and not America, is the good life, the life worth having. "America sucks, man. All that noise, all that dishonesty, all those people too busy to really talk to each other."
I packed around that baggage for a long time, and sometimes I think the circumstances that landed me in international human rights law have long since receded from their original sincere highwater of post-adolescent big ideas to some sort of reflex globalism, some limbic system level preference for that easy living, nonintrospective rejection of skyscrapers and the need for clean clothes.
And I still think backpacking is something we should all have the chance to do, even if it does run the risk of turning our idea of the third world into a sort of playground for personal/psychological growth, a phenomenon that I generally find conjoined with all the overdemonstrative decadence of voluntary poverty. That was a mean chunk of sentence, but I hope you know what I'm getting at - the willing assumption of the trappings of poverty doesn't constitute an understanding of poverty any more than dipping your toe in the pool constitutes swimming. This isn't to say that the experience lacks merit, but it's important to eventually figure out that you ain't even looking to take a swim so much as stare at your reflection in the water. And there are real lessons to be learned from backpacking around, in things like being tolerant and flexible and getting along with people and maybe having sex with them, but what people are really trying to do is figure their own shit out
. And I'm behind that.
It's the hating America part that I've lost. I didn't even much think about it, when I still used to do it. People would say things like "Man, I'm so happy to get away from that culture, all that MARKETING, all that commerce and the buying of all of that CRAP." And when they went to buy lunch, they'd weave around McDonalds and eat at the comedor
, because that's what Guatemalans do, dig?
When I got back from Houston, I walked into the school where I have been teaching English on nights and weekends and everyone clamored around to see if I'd had a good time in America and brought them back any food (I did, and I had). When they asked me how it went, somebody pre-emptively interjected with a joke about Houston and fatties and everyone laughed, and I laughed too, but the undercurrent was legitimately nasty.
Houston is great, and not for any reason particular to Houston. When you come back from another country, everything hits you in impressions. Stuff seems new. That's half of where the antipathy can come from. You see a noisy asshole whitehat at the airport and think "AHA! I HAVE FOUND THE TRUTH OF AMERICA WRIT LARGE!", or you go into a Chinese Buffet and think "I CAN EAT AS MUCH AS I WANT AND NONE OF IT WILL GIVE ME DYSENTARY I HAVE NEVER BEEN SO HAPPY!" Whether you receive this suddenly new data as a cause for joy or disdain says very little about America and a lot about you, parallel to the sort of observations one makes when they're abroad. I find that my cultural observations about Guatemala are usually really about me. "These people are mean" means "I am lonely." "Those people are loud" means "I feel excluded." "This country is great" means "I love being unemployed and drunk." When I start talking about AMERICA on the return, I'm usually still just talking about myself.
But what I fell straight in love with were the particularities of America, the things that AREN'T writ large. I watched Monster House in a Beer Theater with my American Girlfriend and we drove back to our Large Hotel to do Nasty American Things to eachother after we played Boggle and got Drunk. With the possible exception of Monster House, which is gonna hit Guatemala in a week or so, all of those things are what I think of as "American" in a way that means "not just made in America but peculiar to
America." The big, multinational corporations might come from America, sure, but they certainly don't have a controlling share in how the life of Americans must go forward. I'm amazed how little McDonalds or Coke really has to do with my life, unless I invite them to the table. There are things that are compulsory and awful in America, but the ones we get blamed for are usually the furthest off the mark.
Only once have I let loose with this theory, because it's generally not my business. In Livingston, in a bar, one of my cobackpackers started up with the whole "I'm so glad to be away from all that shit, all that wholesale corporate shit, all that unthinking consumption, all that overly aggressive American culture, all that Bible thumping and fast food and 9-5" routine, and I was drunk and talky.
I set down my beer, and gestured for the guy to lean over.
"I've got a hunch about America, dude..."
"What's that?""...You're doing it wrong."
Divebars. Jukeboxes. Allen Iverson. Beerball. Super Mario Kart. NetFlix. LiveFuckingJournal. The way my girl looks in that skirt.
An aversion to whitehats and fast food might be a reason to leave the country, but it's no reason to bash it. To fail to find a place for yourself in the USA might be a failure of fucking imagination
, but it ain't a failure of the culture to provide. I dunno... I've given up on thinking that I can really tell anyone else what should be going on in their head - but when I go from America to Guatemala to America to Guatemala, the virtues of our ways of doing things are pretty self-evident. Guatemala is a sucky place to be born. Without qualifiers. A lot of people come down here and backpack around and go back to the U.S. or Europe talking about what a great place Guatemala is, how nice the people are, whatever. They're wrong. I think they're even objectively
wrong. I've had a couple good Guatemalan friends in my life, and they've all followed about the same trajectory:
Grow up, demonstrate potential, work hard in school, try to learn everything you can, hit your teens, get blindsided by your hormones, impregnate or be impregnated by someone you don't particularly like, get married when you're three months pregnant, abandon your long-term plans in favor of addressing your suddenly multiplying short-term needs, hate your life, fuck around on your spouse, realize that the stuff you deferred has become unattainable and that your obligations will never release you, hate your life even more, live in daily realization of what you could have done but didn't, try to make up for it by loving your fourteen grandchildren.
This isn't everyone, of course, but walking around Guatemala is as much a lesson on squandered potential as anything else, and this almost always triggers some resurgence of First World Guilt/Realization of Entitlement that I've been wading through for so long that I think it's completely fucking boring, on me or anyone else, but it took me years to arrive at this point. I don't even debate the idealists anymore. I think everyone who has an opinion about whether poor people are just lazy, whether they're for or against, should spend a little time in Guatemala. You'll come away convinced of both, all at once, and you'll never be able to explain how that simultaneity of opinion is even possible.
But I could never convince myself that I wanted to be born here, that I really wanted this
to be a legitimate reality for me. And that makes it playtime - make believe. The real action, ladies and gents, the peergroup that I will ultimately find myself with, is still back there in the U.S., drinking good beer and talking about interesting shit. No reason to hate on the motherland. And if I can't really go through with that "me as them" rhetoric on a level that means something - marry a local, get a job, buy a house - I'm talking out of my ass. Guatemala has a lot to recommend it, but I can't even begin to put it into any sort of a hierarchical relationship with anywhere else where it comes out ahead in a way that isn't superficial - talking about things like papayas and long siestas up against getting an education and living past 50.
What makes it all worse is that they're wrong
, at least about "escaping". "Escaping" takes a lot more innovation than it used to. I remember two days after I landed in Guatemala, I called Sara on the cellphone I'd bought at the mall the day before, and she expressed a little disappointment that it was all so unexotic
, that a cheap cellphone and broadband internet access was enough to transfigure her idea of a leafy, drippy banana republic to something essentially modern and, in an important way, uninterestingly indistinguishable from what we have back home. I've experienced the same thing. I've had some moments of looking around some ass-backwards village with naked kids playing in puddles and cows eating trash and thinking "where the fuck am I?
" And those pockets of squalid antiquity are still out there, though I don't know that I'd wish that sort of ass-backwardness on anybody in the name of "authenticity". And every year you have to go further out to escape running the risk of hearing Gwen Stefani and being brought out of your reverie. It helps to go to places without electricity, but that's how deep the countermeasures really have to go. As fucked up as it is and as much as it calls attention to my contamination with any number of Conrad novels, it's still a little disappointing, to me and the backpackers, that there ain't nobody running around with bones in their hair. The Mayan lady selling porno CDs might make for good photography, but on some level she still dashes a dream. I think, maybe, the backpackers are angry at America because of what is being lost with our exports - how much more the same everything is. It's cute that illiterate Bolivian kids are sitting around playing Starcraft on the shores of Lake Titicaca, but that internet line runs right next to the sewer and it's hard, even now, to squint back and forth between the turds and the tykes and the computers and not think, in some undirected and esoteric but no less urgent way, this is our fault.
So I understand the hate, and I don't begrudge anyone the re-entry crash, and it probably says bad things about me that I seem to have outgrown it... but if you need me, I'll be at work, filing documents in my MADE IN USA filing cabinet and daydreaming about stoplights and buffets where the jello never stops coming.