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The Musty Man - Hating America
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Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 09:06 am
Hating America

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.

Current Mood: ecstatic humpy
Current Music: Dolly Parton - My Tennessee Mountain Home

202CommentReplyShare

shmivejournal
shmivejournal
hello
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 03:21 pm (UTC)

that was good.


ReplyThread
inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 03:32 pm (UTC)

Well, it was long. The more time elapses between posts, the more trouble I have with editing.

But thanks, regardless.


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asphalteden
asphalteden
Asphalt Eden
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 03:26 pm (UTC)
are you through with that burg already

EPIC.


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 03:33 pm (UTC)
Hard to tell when you're pitching down the middle

September 20th - tentative return date.

But return to where?


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nibot
nibot
tobo
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 03:44 pm (UTC)

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.

Hell yeah. I definitely experience something like this in Rochester—it's a putative cultural void, and, yet, it isn't actually. All of the resources are here to do great things, and besides that, there's plenty to "do" and to "see". But here it requires initiative and creativity, while in some other cities, you can get by as a spectator and yet come away with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. You can definitely not be satisfied as a spectator in Rochester. Oddly enough I find this realization depressing rather than liberating, because anytime I am not Having A Good Time, I know it's not the fault of the city but my fault for not making something of it, for doing it wrong. Or so goes one line of thinking.


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 04:31 pm (UTC)
The Coban Advantage

I agree that it does create an incredible amount of pressure. From here, it seems abundantly clear that in my old life, there was a surplusage of things to see and do and think about, and again, from here, that seems like a decadent thing, something you have no right to complain about.

This is all quite a lateral shift from my memories of sitting around in Portland, equally convinced that there is absolutely nothing worth doing or thinking about and trying to avoid suspecting that the root of that philosophy could not be placed on the town.

But still, all of this "How can anyone ever be bored in the U.S. when there are streetlights to marvel at" rhapsodizing is wonderful, right now...

... but will be totally emphemeral when I get back and need something new to whine about.


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sp0rk0
sp0rk0
nothing to see here
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 03:52 pm (UTC)
write more, you sonofabitch

Posts like this make me fall in love with your brain, dude.


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 04:34 pm (UTC)
And not my famously perky behind?

Tell that to yer husband. Hell, tell him the next time he sees me coming, he'd better run.

Then hug him for me. I like to keep him guessing.

And I'm trying to write more often, but the posts are getting longer and longer and eventually I'm going to hit some terminal volume where only you, me and switchduck have the fortitude to make it all the way through.

Seriously, I need to start investing in some brevity. This whole thing is getting out of control.


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montanajen
montanajen
Fun with Numbers
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 04:10 pm (UTC)
No Milk for Cocktails, Indeed

I haven't processed the post enough to reply in the thorough, digested, and outlined manner I'd like to, but allow me to say, in my hick way, I get it. I think I get it.

It's nowhere near the environ in which you live currently, but I drove through two reservations last week and had to remind myself that it was cute for tourists but knotty in my stomach when a gaggle of second-grade Blackfeet Indians were posing roadside in their pow-wow costumes, selling Cokes from a cooler to the couple from Bemidji.


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 04:36 pm (UTC)
Re: No Milk for Cocktails, Indeed

First: You're not a hick.

Second: Reservations are, in their own way, a whole fucking lot harder to deal with than Guatemala. Sure, Guatemala has to be explained in terms of macroeconomics, but everything down here is the same. They know about America and they get pissed off at all of the inequality, but the idea of a mini-Guatemala that people commute through on their way from Fargo to Boise is... I dunno. For me, it's worse.

Three: I will wait for your thorough digestion.


ReplyThread Parent
switchduck
switchduck
Quote my ironic laugh.
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 04:22 pm (UTC)

I used to dream about travelling abroad, because how exotic, romantic, lifechanging. Then I did and it blew chunks and what it made me realise was that I really only enjoy travelling in Minnesota.

But I like vicarious travel, so hooray for blogs.

And I sent you something today, though sadly not Sam Cassell's nut dance. I'm sorry, it's gone. My computer was finally reformatted (with backups!), but it is no longer there. I will hunt for it on and off and maybe one day you will have a delightful surprise.


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 04:37 pm (UTC)
Just tell me where you found the nutdance, PLEASE

Where did you go, when you left? Your third-world scarring seems to run pretty deep, but for all I know, you went to Milwaukie.

You don't like blowing chunks, do you? I mean, I treat blowing chunks like scratching in pool. No matter how careful you are, if you play with any creativity at all, you're gonna scratch eventually.

And by scratch I mean vomit.


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wring
wring
Vanelda Bonqueesha! Excuse my beauty...IN ASIA!
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 04:30 pm (UTC)

you're the smartest lj-er I've ever had the pleasure to encounter. I'm so pleased that you wrote about the stop sign. Here's my naive take on it.

I dont know why I've always been a fan of 20th Century White Boy Coming of Age In A Foreign (Poor) Country novels/stories (Alex Garland's "The Beach", Hugh Gallagher's "Teeth"), but I think I've found the perfect story. Thank you very much.


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 04:42 pm (UTC)
I can see a shoe in there, and is that a boob?

you're the smartest lj-er I've ever had the pleasure to encounter.

I can't believe you just said that! How silly! Thanks, but really, I should give you some recommendations in re: lj smartness.

And I can't make heads or tails of your icon. I even turned the computer upside-down, which made the Guatemalans happy.

As for "coming of age in a foreign country"... I'm a sucker for that too (it's made The Poisonwood Bible more interesting than it otherwise would be, I think), and I've got two recs for ya:

First, read "Waiting for the Barbarians" by... something Coatzee, I think. It's got nothing to do with being a young white boy, but it's strangely on point.

Secondly, I've put in an order for a book called "The Village of Waiting"... I'm actually having it shipped down here. It's famous in Peace Corps' circles... basically about a Peace Corps worker who ends up alone in the middle of fucking nowhere - its' rumored to be the definitive attack on the whole idea of "going abroad" as something good for anyone, for you OR for the people you're visiting.

But thanks again for the kind words.


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dreamword
dreamword
Joe
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 04:35 pm (UTC)

I'm going to be living some of this soon -- backpacking around the world for two and a half months starting at the end of this month. (No Guatemala, sad to say.) It's gonna be a hell of a re-entry crash, transitioning from shitty-hostel to law-firm pretty damn quick.

Thanks for the early field guide to irritating backpacker kids. ("The overdemonstrative decadence of voluntary poverty" is a perfect phrasing. It'll be running through my head throughout the third-world bits of my trip.)


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 04:44 pm (UTC)
Maybe BP is hiring

Whoa! Where are you going? When are you going? I think I might just need an E-Mail from you, buster.

Gulzar and I still have the occasional conversation about me doing some sort of legal work in Baku, by the way, though after this "ostensibly self-sacrificing NGO poverty wage" thing I think I might be all about the baksheesh.


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hooper_x
hooper_x
a perennial favorite among the collector community
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 04:50 pm (UTC)
* * * * *

-hx


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 04:59 pm (UTC)
Re: * * * * *

I interpret this as "fell asleep three lines in, dreamt happily, thanx dude".


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trixiefirecat
trixiefirecat
trijita del fuego
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 04:58 pm (UTC)

i was starting to wonder if i would be able to muster one single comment that would even seem relevant, because this is largely speaking to an experience i have not had. but then i read this:

I'm amazed how little McDonalds or Coke really has to do with my life, unless I invite them to the table.

and i realized, yes that's it exactly. it's the one-line embodiment of my own frustration with people who are uncreative and utterly unmotivated to live life beyond their bubble. the escapists become just as bad as any other superlative group in this country, just as set on living only among their own values, just as staunch about not contributing anything but their own views. sorry to sound like a brat, but it's fucking annoying!

i think the re-crash is hard on 2 levels. there's the animal instinct level that is obviously jarred by recalibrating to new surroundings, but there is also the psychic explosion that happens when you try to concieve of all you learned, all the outer-lying reasons for why things are the way they are, and it's just so big. i'd suggest therapy for someone feeling the way your sister feels. i imagine the weight of some of these thoughts are far beyond overwhelming and it would be a shame if she were shellshocked and left without guidance as to how to make sense of things, how to allocate appropriate time to the big world ideas and how to come out of it and focus on herself and her own life. is she doing any better now?


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 05:09 pm (UTC)

Interesting thought, that returning from another country is so destructive to your basic systems of understanding as to justify therapy. That makes some sense, but I don't think I'd ever undertaken to think of it in those terms before now. Thinking back on my own experience, while I still regard my first (1997) foray into Guatemala as a very formative experience, I was about as depressed as I'd ever been for about a year after I got back. True, this couldn't all be laid squarely at the feet of the big Goobermelon, but it didn't help, either.

As for my darling sister? Well... the information is all anecdotal, what with me being here and her being there, but nothing I've heard has been much in teh way of good news.

On the other hand, she's only been back a month - that's not even enough time to get over the diarrhea.


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micahvellian
micahvellian
Cull Me Nation
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 05:23 pm (UTC)
word

excellent entry.

so what's next for you?

i kind of had a similar revelation, at a younger age, having immigrated over here at the tender age of 10. difference is, i came here loving America, idolizing it even. Summer Olympics in the Philippines meant my immediate family rooted for America.

This is why I never had the urge to travel out of America to find some mystical truth about life. I do regret not having that itch to study abroad when I was younger. But I plan to make up for it. And not because of some agenda. I have no illusions about it. I just want to see beyond these borders.


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 05:33 pm (UTC)
Re: word

What's next for me?

I have no idea, man. No idea at all. I bounce all over the place on that one. Sometimes I want to go slingshot out on some other gringo adventure and sometimes I just want to get some stability, you know? Stop having to commute internationally to see my girlfriend, who will probably not be my girlfriend indefinitely if I keep wandering around.

Part of this will be a matter of figuring out why I felt compelled to leave in the first place - whether I was trying to find something or trying to escape something, and whether I pulled it off, in either case.

Where you gonna go and are you takin the woman?


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boilingbabies
boilingbabies
Tastes like infant
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 05:53 pm (UTC)
y'know ... you can get paid to write like that.

a lot of this explains my utter disappointment upon first glimpse of the countryside in Europe. It looked exactly the same as the view on the way to grandma's house in southern minnesota. i don't know what the hell i was expecting. nude beaches instead of grassy fields? animal-skin warriors instead of bored, fat cows?

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.

Yes. Being poor here just doesn't seem to cut it. Having done both in the past two months, I can say with certainty that I perfer begging for money from my parents while halfway across the world.

I enjoyed reading this post. A+


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 05:59 pm (UTC)
Yes, when I write at work, technically, I *am* getting paid to write like this

animal-skin warriors instead of bored, fat cows?

I love the idea of you fawning for animal skin warriors in some place like England. You and Mel Gibson, anyhow.

But yes, every ocuntry has its own disappointing lack of display. "Why aren't all the swiss girls blonde? Where are the pigtails? WHY AREN'T THEY SINGING?!? I WANT MY HOT CHOCOLATE!!!"

It also occurs to me that being a bored, fat cow might be the peak of cowness.

And yes, begging from your parents is an important part of living abroad. I do it too. But then you get home, and instead of paying for your own CULTURAL EDUCATION, you're suddenly just feckless and lazy.

And how unfair is THAT?


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ohsnap
ohsnap
trouble
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 06:59 pm (UTC)

That mind-altering experience is addictive. It's what makes people permanent and expatriates and social scientists. It's been years since my last hit, and vacations are just little tastes. What I've been craving is to go - really go for a year and not come back until my Spanish is fluent and seeing a the mass transit of NYC as something new and amazing instead of part of the daily grind.


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 07:49 pm (UTC)

I'm on the fence. When I'm in the U.S., I have a tendency to glamourize the experience of leaving. When I'm back in field, I tend to thinkabout what I'm giving up... not materially, but in the way of security and setting myself up for an actual, rooted sort of future. I know I don't want to live in Coban forever, or even for much longer. But yeah, I know that as soon as I get back, the timer will start running again.


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disorganization
disorganization
stay still
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 07:03 pm (UTC)

well, I haven't been much of anywhere in this wide world that is not inhabited by whitey, but CONSUMERISM. I can relate to your thoughts on that. as much as America is a culture of disposable goods, we're also a culture of hoarders ... lookit us filling our little houses with limitess and vast amounts of pure uncut crap. and yeah, this excess is so great that it's trickling down everywhere, it's homogenizing the planet. there's just too much cheap shit everywhere; nothing is special anymore.

but, you know, for all this excess, there are still pockets that remain untouched. we're not without a little Guatemala here in the great United States. in the far-flung hills of West Virginia, there are illiterate kids with dirty faces no shoes in November, somehow making it to school every day, I've seen it with my own two eyes (although this was around 10 years ago; however, I suspect that not much has changed).


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 07:52 pm (UTC)
West Virginia as cultural anthropology, Jurassic Park, hell.

Yeah, but this is something I have a hard time with. Yes, there are pockets of the world where THERE IS NO COCACOLA (albeit, almost none) and things really are as they were, but those places tend to be squalid, and the people who live there often wish things were different, and I am careful when I catch myself taking a "place as living museum" attitude towards travel, though too many daily betrayals of your own idea of exoticism (and I really am living in the sort of backwater departmental capital where you'd expect things to be a lot slower) makes it hard to avoid yearning for something "authentic", even if what you're rooting for is sort of horrible for the people who live there.


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ex_hotlavamo352
dorky parker.
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 07:44 pm (UTC)

Hooray!


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 07:54 pm (UTC)

What!


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eightoclock
eightoclock
Your favorite rapper's idol
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 07:48 pm (UTC)

My #1 most asked question while traveling is, "What the fuck am I doing here?" - in reference to both "Why am I wandering in circles" situations and "Why did I come here for 3 months?" moments. No question backpackers generally have good intentions - cultural exchange, personal growth - even if it's short-sighted in terms of what's actually possible as a middle-class white kid from America.

A problem, I think, with picking up and moving abroad is a lack of a shared history with anyone in your new country. The depth and intensity of our friendships from ages 18-22 can't be replicated. A good backpacker solution is to travel regularly and try to bring the abroad mindset back home, and apply it to real life - but it's tough (as your sister saw) because Dad is complaining about not having enough money to pay for the new Lexus, and none of that sentence makes sense in your head.

As much as you say you've moved past demonizing America, it sounds like your conversations veer in that direction often enough that it's still an important and unsettled topic for you. I keep finding my conversations veer back to work/life patterns (should one own a small business or work for a corporation or live off the land, etc). But for a long time I thought it was the world that was obsessed with work patterns. The topic just kept coming up! Turns out I'm the one most interested in it, and I keep talking about it even after I think I'm past my issues.

Good post.


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 08:15 pm (UTC)

I think backpacking is even helpful. Like i said in the post, it's something I think we should all do. But since you're relatively new (I'm thinking you came over here on an Evan recommendation), I'll give a little context of what I'm reacting against... my prior experience in Guatemala was archetypical backpacker stuff, in Xela in 1997. This time, in Coban, I'm working as a human rights lawyer, and everything is much more complicated. I spend almost no time with the gringos (and I'm often grateful when I do), and the "backpacking abroad" mindset of free living and keeping an open mind is just as hard to maintain as it is in a homespun office environment, with many of the same problems.

But I definitely still spend a lot of time in those "what am I doing here?" moments. Those haven't stopped yet.

But yes, I agree that backpacking regularly is good for perspective. The risk grows, however, of going native.

And I still don't know quite what I think of those people or that option, to the extent that generalization is really possible.

It sounds like you're speaking from a reservoir of personal history, here... ever done Guatemala?


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calamityjake
calamityjake
rich tasty courage
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 08:22 pm (UTC)

There's a lot to chew on in this post, but it matches a lot of thoughts I've had when travelling. The world is too complicated for there to be right and wrong answers to these questions, and I wonder whether it was this complicated all along and I just didn't notice.


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 08:32 pm (UTC)

It's an easy thing to not notice. When I was backpacking, I tended to make "mental discoveries" about the world, because I was dying to put everything in some sort of order and claim some sort of understanding: Guatemala is like this, America is like this. That's half of where the hating America reflex comes from, I think.

Then I got older, and now I'm just happy to squeeze it out as an LJ post, but I'm not laying claim to any sort of understanding.


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lostcosmonaut
lostcosmonaut
Couldn't Get A Head
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 08:25 pm (UTC)
ain t finished reading yet

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.

this sentence won't unpack. Receded from what to what?--mza.


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 08:37 pm (UTC)
Re: ain t finished reading yet

Okay:

IN THE BEGINNING I had lots of good ideas about how the world worked and how I would do my part to help the world, and what sustainable development meant and the role of NGOs in a post-statist world order and etc... me, and the world, and many layers of complexity.

NOW I think the reason I am in Guatemala has less to do with all those BIG IDEAS about the world and more to do with NOT WANTING TO WEAR A TIE.

Dig? Not me at my clearest.


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lostcosmonaut
lostcosmonaut
Couldn't Get A Head
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 08:40 pm (UTC)
this is our fault

>Divebars. Jukeboxes. Allen Iverson. Beerball. Super Mario Kart. NetFlix. LiveFuckingJournal. The way my girl looks in that skirt.

i love America, too, and in th same way you do, I think--unromantically, and stuck in th details.--mza.


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 08:43 pm (UTC)
Is that Stremph? Why ain't I added him yet?

There is nothing unromantic about the way my girl looks in that skirt.


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kirinqueen
kirinqueen
Erin O'Connor
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 08:44 pm (UTC)

Hi, here via evan's recommendation. I haven't really lived abroad, but I've interacted with enough people who have to know that you're on to something here.


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 08:47 pm (UTC)
Go West!

Thanks for that, though again, I think it lives better than it reads, if that makes sense.


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huckfinn
huckfinn
Blind Willie McTell
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 08:46 pm (UTC)

Your posts are so fun to read -- lots to think about, yet written well.

I only wish I had some feedback, but I'm always at a loss for things to say after reading some of your posts.


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 08:49 pm (UTC)
Strategem

I've got a theory about this: See, the trick is to treat your posts like holidays.. not that there's anything good about my LJ like Halloween or Thanksgiving can be good, but they have the similar quality of coming around so rarely that they are hard to view objectively.


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chocolatebark
chocolatebark
Barcosa
Wed, Aug. 2nd, 2006 11:42 pm (UTC)
For some reason, I didn't think that you WERE coming back from Guatamala

It's going to take a while to digest this post---one question though, is it possible to think both America (U.S) and Guatamala are pretty great? I mean, to avoid hating on either country after visiting both?


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Thu, Aug. 3rd, 2006 07:04 pm (UTC)
Finally the Rock HAS COME BACK to Guatemala

**shouted, fulltilt, at 7:30 AM in the Guatemala City Holiday Inn**

Yes, but I think that in order to do that you have to avoid getting too caught up in the game of comparing them, which may just mean that you have to give up on the idea of saying anything more sophisticated than "Man, that was some weird stuff" until you've actually gotten your brain around it, and that takes self-control I just don't have.


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ratkrycek
ratkrycek
True Neutral Elf Ranger Cleric
Thu, Aug. 3rd, 2006 01:02 am (UTC)

I had a similar thing happen to me when I returned from New Orleans.

And I was only there a week.

I feel like I should be back there gutting homes, not sitting here in my cozmfy AC reading LJ.

And I had a very jard time reconnecting. Still do, a bit.


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Thu, Aug. 3rd, 2006 07:13 pm (UTC)
Figure that one out.

Somebody else nailed this riddle already:

When you're at home, you fantasize about getting out in the field.

When you're out in the field, you fantasize about going home.


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trevitron
trevitron
Sipho
Thu, Aug. 3rd, 2006 01:27 am (UTC)
One thing I get out of this entry is that I just really need a girlfriend

First of all, I just got back from a day out of the house with my mom, so I just read this now.

Well, maybe you didn't mean it this way, but because of all our exchanges, I feel like this entry is specifically addressed to me, making me somewhat feeling like I need to respond to all its points with a rebuttal of sorts.

What this entry makes me think I realize is that we have had two very different sets of experiences, in both America and abroad, but this is only normal for two different people.

For one, the way you describe the wasted potential of many Guatemalans sounds exactly like how I feel about my hometown of Milwaukee, and I'm sure I've used the phrase "wasted potential" to describe Milwaukee. And let me tell you, I fuckin' hate it here for that very reason. Now, I do think the wasted potential of Milwaukeeans and that of Guatemalans is probably very different, but I have nothing with which to follow that up.

And also, I had a really different experience in SA than you did in Guatemala. I don't think I went there with an exotic image in my head. When I arrived in the township and people asked me how it was compared to how I expected it to be, I usually responded, "I imagined it pretty much like this but with the houses a little more spaced out." And my conclusion from living there for a month is that I never felt like the people there were really all that different from me. Your friend Patrick/lj_jawsoflife asked me what the strangest thing about SA was, and I evaded the question somewhat by saying that the strangest thing was how not strange it was. And even though I came into the experience thinking that neither I nor the Afrikaners would ever really be able to find a place for ourselves within the story of SA with any facility, I was surprised by how much I felt like I could have moved there easily and not have really felt out of place. But maybe this is me being a little naive and overly trusting of people, but then again, most other people seemed to have roughly the same reaction.

So on that level, I think it's somewhat more difficult for us to talk with each other when it seems like we can only talk at each other, our experiences seemingly being really different. But the real issue of this entry is about the act of hating America, and I agree with you very much up to a point.


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Thu, Aug. 3rd, 2006 07:18 pm (UTC)
Patrick is cool but he cries after sex

First of all, this wasn't written as an attack on you and it doesn't call for a rebuttal. That isn't how this dynamic works, man. You say something, and I think "Huh, that's interesting, and not what I think". I don't think "Huh, fuck that guy, I'm gonna write something to trip him up."

I figure our experiences are different, and largely because SA and Guate ain't at all the same. That's something I've occasionally caught myself doing, and it's a very American thing to do. Even with the best of intentions, it's possible to create dichotomies that conflate Guatemala and South Africa, even though Guatemala is MUCH more connected to America than to SA.

But I din't go to Guatemala with an exotic image in my head, dude. Keep in mind, this ain't my first trip down this trail. And the first time, I was pie - in - the - sky about it. EVERYTHING seemed profound. Now, everything seems sort of neutral.

But yes, the primary contention of this entry (and the part I'm curious about what you think about, really) was about the necessity of turning on America to like it somewhere else... why that phenomenon is so widespread, what it means.

And yes, our experiences are very, very different. So it's probably more important that we keep talking, right?


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trevitron
trevitron
Sipho
Thu, Aug. 3rd, 2006 01:28 am (UTC)
Part 2: I also really want to go to Houston, by the way, and it's mostly because of the rap music

Anyone who knows me knows that I hate when people complain about life in America all the time just to seem all cool and "liberal," which is about the least cool thing to be in the world. I also hate how people complain about life in America and really do nothing about it, nor do they sometimes even have real reason to complain. And as soon as I read "America sucks, man," I knew exactly what you were saying, and I was feelin' you. Furthermore, I hate when people say "Americans are this" or "Americans are that," without the love to back up the hate. I am all for hate, but the kind of hate I value is the kind that develops out of or leads to a sort of love. I mean, I can criticize my friends pretty easily for a few things, but it's because I care about them, love them, and am unafraid of saying bad things about them if those bad things are a reality.

So that leads me to where I differ from you: I am all for hating America if the goal is to see America more clearly and understand what we don't like about ourselves and the way we live. It would be utterly ridiculous to say, "You shouldn't ever criticize America; you should just lie back and enjoy the ride." It's as foolish to do that as it is to go to SA and only say positive things. If I seem guilty of the latter, I assure you it's only an internet thing, as I've said plenty of things I dislike about SA to people in person.

And to be honest with you, as much as I hate things about America and sometimes really want to live elsewhere, because let's face it, other places are different in important ways, I still have lots of good things to say about America. I love rap music, I love sexually suggestive girl pop, I love the seemingly-American fascination with gratuitous depictions of violence and tits, and moreover, I fuckin' hate the way SA cooks hamburgers.

So if you are arguing, and I don't think you are, that America is the best place to live so quit complaining, then I'm going to have to respectfully disagree, but if you are saying that for some people, America is the best place to live and that even for those for whom it isn't, it's still a really great place with much to offer, then I'm with you all the way. And if you say that people should man up and quit complaining about what America does wrong, I'm almost with you. I just think that people should at least attempt to create positive social change, whatever such an abstract and nebulous term means, stop acting like assholes to people, and maybe try and stop like they deserve their feelings of entitlement. I'm not saying anything about you specifically, because it's obvious that you have done more than nothing, but let's not bullshit ourselves and say that Americans should kick back and grow even fatter just because we can and because, for some, it's enjoyable. I don't even think this is idealistic; I just think it makes sense to me. And it's really all about being a better person, no?


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inertiacrept
inertiacrept
The Musty Man
Thu, Aug. 3rd, 2006 07:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Part 2: I also really want to go to Houston, by the way, and it's mostly because of the rap musi

Well... letsee. This is interesting, because it points to a deficiency in this whole structure, and I think I agree with what you're getting at... I don't like knee-jerky exaltations of not America and I don't like America bashing as a method of social identification... but I guess I can only take it as far as how America gets conceptualized... but that even bashing the country seems partial. I don't like what Coke does in Colombia, I don't like what Bush does anywhere, I don't like frat boys, I don't like bluetooth mobile technology, and I bash on all of that shit, but I don't think of any of it as "American" in a way that means that I need to bash on "America".

But no, I haven't charted any port in the storm, man. This is more just about how I see it from here and less about crafting any sort of a defensible philosophy. I'm about 90% of the way to just giving up on the idea that I can ever tell anyone else what to do.


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