Archive for the 'Being American' Category

Born Into This: Inheriting War in SE Asia

It was really not the time to be thinking of Charles Bukowski.

I stood staring at a display of UXO casings at a Phonsavan tour company. I was thinking of the documentary I’d seen the night before (see previous post), which followed a group of impoverished Lao children as they harvested UXOs for scrap metal.

Something panged in me, and I thought of the poem.

It was the same something I’d felt at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. I stood before pictures of children born with mutations from Agent Orange—small and crippled and bubble-skinned—children who’d been born after the war, hadn’t lived through the war, but who had it in them, possessed it in their DNA. If the images hadn’t been so brutal, I’d thought, they’d have been a metaphor for the intergenerational transmission of trauma.

I’d been surprised in Vietnam, to discover how much of the war I’d carried in me, without knowing it. I hadn’t realized how much a part of American culture the Vietnam War is—in our books, our films, our movies and our freeway exits, cardboard signs and thousand-yard stares. I’d remembered, suddenly, visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC as a teenager—muggy-skied and sweating, watching the grown-ups trace hands along the reflective stone, place flowers and cry—not understanding it. I’d turned; my mom had been one of them, the name of her cousin under her fingers.

And I’d suddenly remembered the poem.

It’s more muddled in Cambodia and Laos, places were the American activity was “secret”—it’s less a part of your consciousness, more a part of something else that you can’t quite name.

“People from my province,” the Cambodian boy looked sheepish as he told me, “they still hate Americans. For the bombings.”

I nodded one, two, three times. “And you know what? America bombed Cambodia in secret. And most Americans still don’t know about those bombings.”

We sat beside each other waiting for our numbers to be called at the cell phone shop. Neither of us had been alive during the 70s.

I’d wondered, as I looked at bomb ponds beside pre-Angkorian temples in Cambodia, how one goes about being American in all this. “‘I wasn’t born yet,'” I wrote, “doesn’t seem good enough.”

And looking at the pile of UXOs in Phonsavan, I had the same thought rise. Because the kids out there harvesting these bombs, they weren’t born yet either. Neither of us asked for this, did this, witnessed this, lived through this. We were born into this, are left to figure out what to do with this, dig through the dirt of this.

And that’s when I thought of the poem again.

I’ve been composing some kind of essay in the back of my head about all this. I don’t know exactly what I have to say about it yet, or if there is anything to say about it. But in the meantime, I’m thinking of a poem that seems fitting. And, in the light of the recent string of natural and political disasters, doesn’t seem so dramatic or fanciful as it once did. It doesn’t feel so hopeless either—it just feels accurate.

The Lucky Ones at the War Museum

Instruments of death don’t die. They rust.

Fifteen minutes from the happy pizza restaurants and nibbling-fish pedicure tanks of Siem Reap’s Old Market area is the War Museum. It’s not much of a museum, per se—it’s a grassy field filled with mango trees and the skeletal carcasses of tanks, missiles and planes used during the Cambodian civil war (the 1960s Lon Nol era through the fighting of the mid-90s). The “exhibits” sit exhausted and silent in the heat of the field. They’ve been striped for parts, all that’s left of them slowly turning brown, the same brown as the the earth.

“The memorials in Cambodia are so raw,” Anna’d remarked. “At Auschwitz, everything is behind glass or protected. You felt more separated. But in Cambodia, at the Killing Fields or S-21, there’s less between you and the stuff you’re seeing.”

I thought of Anna’s comment as I walked into the War Museum, past the massive helicopters that slept like corpses in the entrance. I’ve never been to Auschwitz or any similar genocide memorials, so I don’t have anything to compare the ones in Cambodia to. But there’s definitely a rawness. And it’s a rawness you feel in the whole country, not just at the memorials, but that the memorials seem to capture, to be the pure essence of, in a way that reminds me of whiskey distillation—too pure, the uncut soul of the thing, that if’s not diluted could kill you.

A guide approached us, a young man in a fake Lacoste shirt, frayed stitching and tell-tale grin on the alligator’s face. He was missing an arm; a nub extended beneath the sleeve, a little past his shoulder, and you could see it move around in there as he walked.

A sign announced that guides were free, so we went along with him, assuming a small tip would be expected. He spoke English well and was knowledgeable about the artifacts, mute metal that sat, refusing to decompose. Small wooden signs had explanations penned in a haphazard English.

“What is your nationality?”

“USA,” I replied. A pause. “We’re American.”

“Ah. America is rich country. Cambodia is poor. So if a pilot not fight well, if a soldier not hit target, he get killed—it a waste of ammunition. The pilot, they cannot eject from the plane, they trapped. The soldier get locked inside the tank, and if he don’t fight good, he stay in and die. We find still the bodies in many of these tanks.”

We stared at the machines; they reminded me of dinosaur bones or the great cranes at the Port of Oakland—metal with so much power, sitting still.

As we walked, he told us the story of how he lost his arm: when he was 14, his dad brought home a landmine. He was trying to dismantle it; we couldn’t make sense of why. The bomb exploded, killing his parents and two siblings, and leaving him with a belly full of shrapnel and one less arm.

“I’m lucky I’m okay,” he told us. “But I am very lonely, I have no family.” He went on to explain the difficulties of life as an amputee in Cambodia, with discrimination and lack of healthcare. He paused, looked at us. “You are very lucky, you have family.”

Types of landmines

We kept moving. He pointed out common types of landmines, explaining which countries they’d been made in: Russia, Bulgaria, the US. He told us 1-2 people a day in Cambodia are still injured by unexploded ordinances. “You are very lucky, your country no have landmines.”

As he stood talking, I slid a modest note into the “Donations for Landmine Victims” box. He watched me. When he finished explaining the table of empty shells, he pointed to the box. “This money go to the government first, then the people. The government take a lot.” I squinted my eyes, nodding slowly. It’s true—there’s a lot of corruption in Cambodia. But I could also sense where this was going. “It better you give to the people.”

I cocked my head as he lead us away. Everything I’ve read in every country I’ve been to—including the sign at the guesthouse I’d just left (that among other things encouraged me to not have sex with children)—tells you not to give directly to people but to worthy, legitimate organizations. It was unsubtle foreshadowing.

He kept us moving at a steady pace. I thought of my guide at the pre-Angkorian temples a week earlier—also missing an arm but older, darker, a man who only spoke Khmer. I thought of the way he’d clasped his phantom hands behind his back, and the way it made something in me pound, then sink.

This guide didn’t clasp his hands. He was wearing short sleeves.

We paused under the hot breath of the sun. “How many sibling you have?” he asked each of us and we each responded.

“That good. You lucky. I have no brother or sister now.”

We came to a row of wooden shacks, displays of exploded bombs. They looked like peeled fruit, like some modern-art interpretation of peeled fruit that you’d see in some chic lounge, that was trying to make some sort of terribly deep and obvious statement. But this wasn’t art and it wasn’t a lounge—it was a shack and twisted metal.

They’d sawed the blown bits of his arm off with a wire. Because he was young and still growing, he had to go back every four years, to have the bone re-sawed. He couldn’t afford to get the shrapnel from his belly removed; at $100-200 a pop, he said he’d had to leave it to float around in there.

“In America I hear they make a machine arm.” He looked around at all the dead, rusted machines. “Maybe soon they make it in China. It will be cheaper there, and if I work enough, one day I can get. This is my dream: you come back and I can give you a hug with my robot arms.”

We got to the end of the tour. “It is good if you give a tip,” he told us flatly, “so I can pay for my surgery. Many people give $20-30 each person.”

Suki and Alicia looked at me. They’d each been in the country less than 24 hours. I considered the fact that a construction worker makes $3 a day, your average tuk-tuk driver $5. I considered the fact that my daily budget was $30.

He stood a few steps back, staring at us, waiting. “Can you give us just two minutes?” Suki asked.

We whispered, gathered bills. We gave him a fair tip, said thank you.

Then he walked back to our tuk-tuk, heavy with sweat, our ankles covered in dirt the color of rust.

Good Lord, That’s A Lotta Money: A Trip to the US Embassy

The culprit

Damn these full-page visas.

When I started traveling, I loved getting passport stamps. They were like tattoos—when you first starting getting tattooed, all you want is more, more, and you stare at the ones you have, and you look at the remaining blankness and fantasize about the ones you’ll get. Western Europe, I thought, was a real bummer—you got only one (extremely boring) stamp for entry into any of the Schengen Zone countries. Lame.

Enter SE Asia—the land of senseless beauracracy and full-page visas. They hungrily consume your passport, taking up space that could easily fit five to six entry stamps to more modest, reasonable countries. Two of these, and I realized I was quickly running out of room in my passport.

It was time for a trip to my Embassy.

Here I should interject—for the non-Americans and the non-traveling Americans, which is most Americans—that filling up my passport does not make me a world traveler of epic proportions. It simply means that the US issues the skimpiest passports you’ve ever seen.

“Look at this thing!” I exclaimed, holding my passport up sideways, showing Anna its anorexic profile.

“Aw, that’s the cutest little passport I’ve ever seen.”

“And guess how long it’s good for?” I paused, preparing her for the indignity. “Ten years! Ten fucking years! What am I supposed to do with this—go to Canada once a year?” And I flung it on the cafe table like the mildly offensive thing it is.

American passports have improved; they now come with 24 pages. But when mine was issued, they still came with a measly 14 pages. Which is annoying, but serves as yet more evidence that Americans don’t travel like the rest of their Western counterparts.

But we recently hit a record high: a whopping 30% of Americans hold passports. (Tell this to a person of any other Western nationality and they laugh heartily.) And, I’d soon find out, there’s evidence of that too.

So it was off to the US Embassy. I’ve never had a reason to visit an Embassy before, and it felt a little like a field trip. I was mildly excited. I queued up under a shady awning at 1pm, eager to be one of the first in line for the two daily hours allotted for walk-in services.

The door opened at 1pm exactly (ah, American punctuality) and a grim-faced guard waved me in. I passed through a metal detector, was told I need to check my bag. I left that room, walking through a manicured courtyard (ah, the American affection for well-groomed lawns) and into another room, where another man examined my passport, wrote down my info, handed me a visitors badge and waved to enter the next room.

It was like a little air-conditioned slice of America. Posters on the wall: “From Sea to Shining Sea,” portraying different landscape shots; pictures of smiling, racially diverse faces; a sign suggesting that I like the US Embassy on Facebook (now, why on earth…). There was a drinking fountain—not a water cooler, but a drinking fountain—and I took a sip just for the novelty of it. A picture of Uncle Sam pointed down at me, and I smiled.

I lined up at a service window, fenced off with red partitions. I’d heard that they’d recently started charging for additional passport pages. I’d assumed that, now flooded with an influx of traveling Americans, this would be some sort of modest administrative fee; I had $30 in my wallet. I got to the window and told the clerk I needed more passport pages, and asked how much it would be.

She handed me a form. “It’s $82.”

I blinked. “$82?” I repeated. Maybe I heard her wrong.

She nodded. “$82.”

I briefly considered quoting the old Chris Rock skit from I’m Gonna Get You Sucka: “$82? Good lord, that’s a lotta money. How much for one page? How bout I photocopy a page and staple it in myself?”

Apparently the original skit doesn’t have the tag line. But you know what I mean…

Something told me this would not be an effective bargaining technique. Besides, this was the little slice of America, and in America, we don’t bargain.

“Um, okay,” I said slowly. “Well, I didn’t think it would be that much. Do you take credit cards?”

“No,” she smiled. “Cash only.” So it wasn’t totally a slice of America.

I asked the clerk’s opinion on whether I’d actually need more pages. I showed what I had left—two unstamped pages, plus the back amendment pages. I told her the countries I’d be going to. Did she think the customs agents will be able to squeeze the stamps in? (If it were Mexico or Italy, it’d be no problem; those fools will stamp right over of other stamps.)

“I think it’ll be okay for this trip. But it’s the same price here as in the States. So if you think you’ll need more pages anyway, you may as well get them while you’re here.”

Ah, American customer service: she was right. I don’t even know where the Consulate is in San Francisco. Right now I’m living a 5 minute walk from the US Embassy; in Phnom Penh, the task would only chew up an hour or so, as opposed to a whole day.

I nodded. “Okay, thank you. I’ll be back.”

And so I went back yesterday, went through the whole process again. And I must say that there’s something vaguely comforting about the whole thing—even though I don’t feel myself missing the States at all, there’s something sweet and reassuring about being surrounded by the Americana images, the American accents.

The funny thing about the Embassy here—and I’ve been told this is particular to this Embassy—is that services for Americans and services for Cambodians are done in one room. You sit in little chairs and wait for your number to be called, which sounds boring (and it is) but you’re provided with some pretty keen people-watching. Conversations between clerks and customers are done through a glass window, over a small speaker, and that provides for some pretty keen eaves-dropping.

A Cambodian man was trying to secure visas for his family to come to the States. He’d failed to follow the correct procedures and was stumbling to answer questions. He didn’t seem to understand the concept of needing to provide DNA-test results for his kids. I felt embarrassed for him.

I also saw the most Mexican Khmer man in, well, perhaps anywhere: cowboy boots, cowboy hat, big belt buckle and blue jeans, one of those air-brushed Cholo shirts with a picture of a foxy lady on the back, saying something “Por Vida.” I was ravenously curious to find out his story, but he left before I had a chance to sit down next to him and get nosy. Sometimes Khmer people with especially round faces look vaguely Mayan, and in my mind I imagined him having resettled in Texas or California and one day deciding: “Fuck it, if everyone thinks I’m Mexican, I’m rolling with it—por vida.”

A man next to me struck up conversation. He was Cambodian; having lived in the US for 10 years, he’d recently returned and was hoping to get a job at the Embassy. He asked why I was there, and we shared a laugh about how ghastly expensive my simple task was.

“I think it’s because more Americans have passports now—they’re milking it.” I leaned in, lowered my voice, “They found a new way to rip us off, you know?”

He nodded. “Maybe the pages be made of gold.”

I chuckled. “We can only hope.”

I got my passport back and the new pages were not, in fact, made of gold. They were made of paper. Very smartly decorated paper, with fanciful American images—totem poles and majestic eagles and buffalo so darkly colored I don’t know how a stamp is supposed to be readable over it. There are quotes from famous Americans about democracy and freedom and something from Ronald Reagan about living in a world “lit by lightning” that I’ve been unable to make sense of.

The new pages are insultingly over-priced, audaciously gaudy and not entirely practical—in short, very very American. And what can I do but shake my head, both annoyed and amused, with the vague affection one feels for their native land, their home country, their home.

My new plump passport

The Anti-Irony of Cambodian Fashion: The English-Language T-Shirt Edition

“I like how cheesy it is, you know?” Mathilde said this morning, ashing her anorexic cigarette and looking across the street, at the teenagers hanging out at the Best Friend Cafe. Fake acid-wash skinny jeans, emo sideswiped hair-dos, bedazzled trucker hats positioned atop boys’ heads in a perch reminiscent of Abe Lincoln—the styles donned so earnestly by Cambodian youth would be only be seen on the most ironic of Western hipsters. And even then…

“It’s not so serious as in Europe,” she continued. “We would think this was so cheesy, but why not? If they like it, if they think it looks good, why not?”

One of the things I love most about Cambodian fashion—and it isn’t the stripper shoes or cutesy pajama prints or polka-dot pants—is the utter sincerity with which ridiculous clothing is worn. Ridiculous to Western eyes, I should say. And tonight this was exemplified by the t-shirts for sale at Phnom Penh’s Night Market.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, along the riverside, tents are erected and a fair-style stage put up; vendors set up booths, teenagers with mediocre voices and sleep-walk-y dance moves perform on stage, mobile phone companies set up opposing stands with megaphones blasting promotions at one another, food stalls sell skewers of myserious deep-fried meat products, and diners take off their shoes and sit on straw mats, eating off thin wooden sticks. It’s nice. It’s a good mix of foreigners and Khmers, the riverside breeze is sweet, and until the mosquitoes drive you away, it’s pretty fucking luxurious to sit out and enjoy the night.

So we’ve been making a habit of grabbing some food and sitting out under the stars—or what would be the stars, might be the stars, behind the haze of city lights and smog. You can’t really be sure anymore. You don’t really go there to buy things—some tourist trinkets, fake floral arrangements (okay, I bought one of those for my apartment), and clothing. Clothing for local teenagers, I should say.

Tonight I took to photographing some of the t-shirts I felt best exemplified the Cambodian fashion spirit within the particular sub-category of Putting English Words On A Shirt Immediately Makes It Cool.

Rule #1: It doesn’t really matter if what’s on a shirt makes sense or not—as long as there are English letters, you’re half-way there.

Rule #2: It really doesn’t matter.

Rule #3: Product placement is a key component of English-language t-shirt fashion. It doesn’t matter if it’s the actual logo of a product, as long as it refers a Western, and preferably American, product.

Hey Apple marketing masterminds: you should really think about doing a Cambodian edition of those PC vs Apple guys ads. Do you see any PC t-shirts out here? I don’t think so…

Rule (?) #4: It also doesn’t seem to matter if the senseless phrases evoke repulsive imagery of, say, spoiled food products.

“Punk Rock Tonight Love Me”: I almost bought this one. It was too small.

“Power Over Pimples”: Fuck yeah! As someone who endured 12 years of acne, I wanted to high-five this t-shirt and jump joyously in the air like… the people on this t-shirt. The text was also English, singing the praises of an acne-fighting cleansing solution.

So, um, in a country where a shitton of kids get strung out on glue sniffing and paint huffing, I didn’t know what to make of this. Was it supposed to be funny? One thing’s for sure: I don’t think the affected demographic is perusing for new shirts at the Night Market though…

Rule #5: Content Over Accuracy

“Joy, Look For It Evert Day”: This shirt says it all. There’s a certain sweetness to it all, what would be convenient to call an innocence, but I think it’s something other than that, less simple or more simple or in any case different.

“Cambodia’s not a post-modern culture,” someone was explaining to me. “So there’s not a lot of irony. There’s a playfulness for sure—but more of a sincerity to the work.”

She was talking about contemporary art, but I thought about her comment looking at the shirts tonight. And I think it’s true for the fashion as well. And I agree with Mathilde—I like it. Coming from a world of ironic everything—ironic moustaches, ironic wolf-howling-at-the-moon shirts, ironic gangsta rap listening and ghetto blasting, ironic malt liquor drinking and crack smoking (yes, really)—it’s pretty fucking refreshing to enter a world of sweetness and anti-irony. It’s not any less self-conscious, it’s just self-conscious in a different way. It makes you feel like we’ve missed something in the Western world, that we’ve lost something, gotten away from something, something I can’t quite name but that makes me horribly sad, in the smallest way, heavy like a pebble.

But I’m Western. And I can’t switch worlds, switch roles, ease myself into a different way of thinking. The t-shirts are, to me, ironic.

Yawning teenager working the teddy bear stand

A Morsel of Americanness, Here in Cambodia

If you look deep, deep into my center of my American soul, you will find that it’s not composed of car owning or monolingualism or even rock n roll.

It’s filled with peanut butter.

Australians have their Vegemite and the Swedes have their Muesli and the whole of Europe has their Nutella. But I am American, and my heart pumps, not red blood like yours but thick, chunky, light-brown swirls of peanut butter.

In previous posts, I’ve claimed that this love of the ground peanut is my number one American qualifier. I’ve gone so far as to consider a peanut butter tattoo, which I envision coming complete with a traditional-style banner that reads: “From my cold dead hands.” I effing love the stuff, and I miss it dearly when I travel. Usually, when homesickness and the craving for healthy fat gets the better of me, I search and search for a jar to no avail.

So imagine my sheer delight when I found this little gem of patriotism staring out from the shelf at me:

Not only is it delicious and nutritious, it comes with a prominent display of national pride. Now that’s what I call proper marketing.

Not Your Normal Expat Scene: Khmer Kids Coming Back to Cambodia

“This not your normal expat scene.”

That’s all I kept thinking last night, as I stood sweating and stomach-sore in the crowd. I’d dragged myself out to a show, what was described to me as an all-girl indie rock band that sang in Khmer. Killer. No traveler’s flu would make me miss this.

It was a funny mix—local men in dress shirts and slacks, women in those super foofy sparkly dresses; kids, some just in the crowd, others wearing matching shirts for some organization I couldn’t quite make out.

And there were your typical expats—Western, mostly white. Some of them were extremely well-groomed, reeking of cologne and hair spray and kissing their friends on both cheeks. Some of them wore that aren’t-I-so-cool-for-being-here look. Some tried to dance along or move to the beat, and it was sad and cute in the way it’s always sad and cute. And others just seemed to be there, watching, enjoying the show, because that’s what there was to do that night.

But the kids putting on the show—the kids on stage and holding the cameras and checking the sound—they were not your normal expats.

Your typical expat does not drop their “to be” verb (“She crazy”), doesn’t say “y’all” or “aight.” They don’t wear baggy jeans and puffy sneakers. They don’t start NGOs called Tiny Toones or hip-hop groups called Klap Ya Handz, written in Godfather font. They don’t breakdance or freestyle or bust—and they don’t do it in the language native to their new homes.

I’d heard about the show from Bel, a girl I’d found on Couchsurfing. We had plans to meet up for coffee and even though my stomach was already getting wonky, something told me not to flake.

She was a cool girl and we talked for awhile. Her boyfriend was a Khmer-American who’d moved back to Cambodia, with no intention of ever leaving again. “He’s the most patriotic Khmer you’ll ever meet,” she said, and later he showed me the tattoo of a famous Wat across his back.

“There’s a lot of foreign-born Khmers moving back,” Bel told me. “Lots of artists and young people. And they’re really motivated to do something here.”

I wanted to see this; I wanted to glimpse what this was. Sure, I knew of people going back to their parents’ countries for a visit, but to live? To give up everything they know to fight for something better in a country they hadn’t grown up in? This was something different.

And it was. The show place was buried deep inside the maze of a mall, shuttered shops and a blinking arcade, bowling alley and bumper cars. I got there earlyish, paid a $10 cover—normal for the US, but exorbitant for here.

On stage was a DJ, two turntables and a MacBook glowing. Two artists were on stage, doing ad hoc graffiti art on a make-shift wall. “Empire State of Mind” came on. It was like being at any hip-hop show at home—except a hell of a lot hotter.

The first act was a hip-hop group called Klap Ya Handz. They spoke in a working-class English, like kids that grow up in Oakland. But in the songs, they flowed in Khmer. For one song, they brought out traditional Khmer drummers that were, well, bad-ass. During another song, the lead girl did what she later called “Khmer hands,” a hip-hop take-off on the hand movements of traditional Khmer dancers.

Cambodia lost a whole generation of artists during the Khmer Rouge. Traditional dance was virtually erased and, after Pol Pot, there wasn’t anyone left to pass it on. I’d read accounts of the few survivors left trying to teach the next generation, and it being hard—they were more interested, as teenagers usually are, in contemporary things. Like hip-hop.

The headliner was Laura Mam and the Like Me’s. They’re a bluesy, all-girl rock band from San Jose, California (local love). They’re Khmer-American and sing in Khmer. The crowd obviously loved them, singing along and snapping photos and waving their arms. I was told that they came to play in Cambodia relatively often. Either way, they showed the same kind of passionate pride in their Khmer culture that the kids in Klap Ya Handz did.

They played a song called “Diaspora”: “for all the refugees living in diaspora around the world—and missing Cambodia.” The crowd went crazy.

No, this wasn’t your normal expat scene.

Your typical expat is someone of relative priviledge; they have, say, a university degree and the social mobility to pick up and move around the world. Maybe they studied abroad, or spent time backpacking around. In any event, it occurred to them to leave their home countries in the first place and they had the means, however meager, to do it. The ones I encounter are largely middle-class; the uber wealthy ones exist on another plane, and I only see them in passing—the immaculate girls on the streets of Hong Kong.

These kids were categorically Not That. They’re the kind of kids, in the kind of scene, that I miss when I leave the US; when I think about moving abroad, I think, “Man, there’s so much shit I’d be missing” and this is part of what I mean.

And they bring their Americanness—their very, very Americanness—back here. But they’re making something new with it; there’s that frenetic energy, that spark you feel when cultures collide and you see people that are so intensely passionate about what they’re doing, you can’t help but feel it too.

Of course, not all of them are coming back by choice. The US opted to deport foreign-born convicts, regardless of whether they’d served their time, and nearly 200 people who were, for all intents and purposes, American were sent “back” to Cambodia. They brought their culture, a street culture, and they brought their art. And they’re doing shit; they’re bringing this to the kids of Cambodia, the next generation (ie: Tiny Toones).

So basically, watch the fuck out for these kids.

There was a shirt I kept seeing in the crowd, tons of kids wearing it. Its design was a take-off on the Star Wars logo, and it read: “The Khmer Empire Strikes Back.”

This was my first glimpse into this, my looking-through-the-peep-hole into this. I fully intend on investigating this more during my time here. But last night, sickness was calling, and I had to head back to the hotel.

Americanness on the Road, Part II: It Ain’t All Bad

Yes, really: George W Bush Street, in Tirana

“America is the best country for a person with a disability to visit.”

This was Rob, sitting cross-legged on the roof terrace of the Tirana hostel. He continued, “For deaf people, it’s like a dream. It’s like going to Disneyland. Actually,” he ashed his cigarette, “Disneyland is great for people with disabilities too. Wheelchair accessibility and all.”

Chad looked confused. You could see the information smacking up against the wall of prejudice, his brow wincing from the pressure.

Chad didn’t like the US, and Chad was American.

Rob continued on, citing the revolutionary wonders of Civil Rights legislation and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in his English accent. Rob was in Tirana doing NGO work in the deaf community; Zhujeta, Rob’s girlfriend who helped run the hostel, also did work with the same NGO. Rob rattled off the comprehensive services available to deaf people in the US—from resources in public schools to telephone interpreters—vastly different from any other country in the world, including his native England.

Chad nodded, soaking it all in. “Wow,” he said thoughtfully. “I guess that’s one thing we didn’t fuck up.”

It’s easy for Americans to be jaded about our own country. There’s a lot of fucked-up shit going on in it, and we’ve caused a lot of suffering, both abroad and at home. It’s easy to fall into a sort of naive cynicism: our country is completely fucked. As young travelers, little ambassadors on hostel terraces, we feel it our duty to decry our country and lament its shortcomings, its sins, its unforgivable and deplorable acts. And there’s a lot to decry.

But it’s something like the Guilty White Person syndrome, the Bleeding Heart Liberal. This perspective—and God knows I fell prey to it for several years in my early traveling—lacks complexity, nuance. The US isn’t the evil empire, as easy and convenient as it’d be to think that. Just when you want to write it off, there’s something like the ADA to remind you of the revolutionary notion of equality written into the fabric, the very law of the land, that you can’t get away from—that, no matter how far we sway into the other side, keeps showing up and shaking things down.

It was funny to watch that information try to sort itself in the mind of someone who thought they’d neatly washed their hands of the issue: US = bad. Because the fact is, we only have ADA legislation as a product of Civil Rights legislation, and we only have that because of that little blip written into our constitution that declared all the men equal. Sure, it’s not what a bunch of rich white dudes in powdered wigs meant at the time, but too bad. And this is what, in my mind, makes our country such a complex, contradictory and ultimately fascinating place: this space for change, this tension built into it. That, and the incredible cultural cocktail that keep colliding, exploding, bubbling over and making something new.

It was even funnier to watch Chad struggle with the information that Bush Senior was the man who signed the ADA into effect.

Because things as big as people or countries are never that simple, never all one thing (“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes”—when in doubt, always quote Walt Whitman). It reminded me of a Middle Eastern friend of mine, an ethnic minority from Iraq, who told me her mother still thinks of Saddam Hussein as a great man, because he didn’t persecute Assyrians.

And there’s more than the ADA on the list of “things we didn’t fuck up.” But it wasn’t my job to teach or explain that to Chad; he’d have to figure it out for himself. I just sat back and watched the lightbulb turn on, a small flicker of awareness.

Later on, we sat playing music from someone’s iPod. “Welcome to the Jungle” came on, and I indulged in a moment of cheesiness. “To me,” I said, absently, not really thinking about it, “this is the epitome of America. This is what the US sounds like.”

Chad looked slightly taken aback. “What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s rock, good ole’ 80s hard rock. Which came out of rock n roll, which came out of the blues, which is about as fucking American as it gets. It comes from the core, you know, the soul of the country. And I fucking love it,” I added. “American music is my favorite music. In all its permutations—folk, country, soul, hip hop, grunge…”

“I guess I never thought of it that way,” Chad said. “I think of American music as, you know, the corporate Britney Spears shit.”

“Well, yeah, it’s that too. But that’s only a small bit of it.” I lowered my voice and leaned in. “No one can deny it: our music is pretty bad-ass.”

Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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