America: The Land of Milk and Honey and Paperwork and Really Big Pizzas

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usa13599872_10205017958448416_7142705830357970127_nWhen you spend six years living in Asia, coming back to the USA becomes both an exciting and a frightening proposition. Yes, I felt amped up thinking about the things I missed. Decent live music and Applebee’s and Taco Bell. Things like that. There’s also the worry that everyone will be armed and dangerous and your Chinese fiance will get elbowed in the face by an angry Trump supporter who heard her say ‘ni hao’ and flipped. What you find is that things are pretty good here, somewhere in the middle of what you anticipated.

In other words, Applebee’s isn’t that great, and no one is threatening to shoot or elbow your girlfriend.

But a lot of my friends have asked me what adjustments I’ve had to make. So I thought I’d write a quick blog post, where I’ll briefly touch on a few things that have surprised me since I’ve come back to The States.

talkative-people1) People Like to Talk to Each Other – The other day, I was in Walmart, waiting in line, and the lady behind just started talking to me. Struck up a random conversation. It was nice, and it got me thinking about the people in South Korea and China. I started to ask myself, did I ever see people talking to each other while in line? I don’t mean to me – I didn’t speak the language – but to each other? I don’t believe I ever did. Likewise, at the bus stop here in Vegas, someone ALWAYS starts talking to me. But at the bus stops in Asia, everyone always stood in silence and waited solemnly.

Personally, I like the perception that a stranger is your friend, and I like the frequent little conversations I’m having. I’ve concluded that the USA is chatty, and it’s kind of fun.

512oyetfnpl-_sx258_bo1204203200_2) The USA is Obsessed with Sports – Man, there are sports everywhere here. The NFL, the NBA, college football, college basketball, high school sports, fantasy sports. I turn on my TV during the weekend and I’m bound to find sports on. It’s amazing how Asia isn’t like that at all. Sure, Korea had it’s baseball league and that was popular. But other than the KBO, there wasn’t really much, and I don’t recall seeing many people dressed up in the jersey of their favorite team. Not like here, where half the men I see apparently still have fantasies about playing for the Cowboys. Thinking back to China, I don’t believe anyone cared at all about sports, apart from, I guess, their rampant love for playing ping-pong. The emphasis on athletics is amazing in the USA; whereas in Asia teenage boys and adult men seem to get their excitement from video games and drinking large amounts of alcohol.

064aeb7d5bbaad36e818e90cec3c25033) Advertising is Ingrained in our Souls – Jingles. I only remember one in Asia, which was for HomePlus in Korea. Otherwise, commercials consisted mostly of attractive people using the product and looking attractive. Here, commercials are inescapable and far more sly. They play brain tricks, and people seem to love them. Hanging out with some friends, a commercial for Jeep Grand Cherokee came on and everybody started happily signing Cat Stevens’ song “Free to Be.” In my classroom at a middle school in Vegas, we were about to start watching something on YouTube when a Capital One advert starting playing; when I went to skip the ad, the students all cried “no!” like their hearts were breaking and then sat transfixed while Samuel L. Jackson talked about interest rates. Our programming is apparent and kind of sad. Whereas in Asia, you just buy what the sexy person tells you to buy.

USBULA United States Bureau of Unnecessarily Long Acronyms4) Bureaucracy Is Everywhere and Is Expensive – A few months ago, I sauntered into Lens Crafters with my glasses. I told them I wanted to buy some contacts and I handed the lady my glasses to scan. That’s how I did it in Asia. Hand over the glasses, they scan it with some machine, then they sell me contacts that match the strength of the glasses lenses. Takes five minutes. But here, not so much – I was told I needed a doctor’s perscription in order to buy my contacts. The vision test would take 2-3 hours and cost $110.

This is America. Everything needs a document, every document costs money. To get fingerprinted for my new job, I had to 1) pay a fee online 2) go to fingerprint place with receipt from the online fee and get printed 3) go to office of employer with form from fingerprint place saying I was printed in order to get another form giving the fingerprint place permission to share the fingerprints 4) go back to fingerprint place to give them the permission to share form. It took forever and, of course, cost money. But that’s the procedure. There are battles from wars that have less documentation than my fingerprinting did.

lilipizza13686597_10205087521987461_41481060401218504_n5)  The Grocery Store is Great – In Asia, about 50% of the grocery store is comprised of cheap sausages. There are sausages all over the place, and the chicken breasts sit out in the open and are as warm as urine by the time you get them home. Meanwhile, the grocery stores in America are true examples of American greatness. Want a giant pizza that will feed your entire apartment building? You got it. Want tomatoes? We’ve got six different kinds of tomatoes. Feeling in the mood for some Middle Eastern food? Well we’ve got Falafel and pita break and tahini sauce. In Asia, I couldn’t even find olives.

Okay, that’s enough for now. Need to stop writing. Got a big day ahead of me here in America: gonna watch some football, enjoy the advertisements, and eat a pizza the size of an ice skating rink.

 

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The Jesus Napkin

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jesus-main-626779There are a lot of crazy people living in Las Vegas. If you’d like to verify this, the easiest way of doing so would be to ride the public bus during the daytime. I’ve heard people say “the freaks come out at night,” and that might be true. But the real freaks come out around noon, and they’re all riding the Las Vegas public transportation system.

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The Fiance 

Back in late August, my fiance and I had a memorable run-in with one of these colorful characters. Yes, that’s right, I have a fiance now. Her name is Fang Deng and she is a little Chinese woman. I brought her over here with me, packed her in my suitcase hidden inside a Chinese lantern, and later when we got off the plane she popped out of it like an Asian version of the Trojan Horse. Actually, none of that is true. Fang Deng just came over to the States with me on a tourist visa, met an eccentric man at a bus stop, and now she’s back in China.

Anyways, I digress. Fang Deng and I had to catch the bus going north on Boulder Highway that day. We walked over to the bus stop and there was this dude sitting there wearing black sweatpants with a long-sleeve black sweat shirt. This was odd, because it was 110 degrees outside. Sometimes it’s hard to describe a person, but the guy sitting at the bus stop was very easy to describe because he looked exactly like Neil deGrasse Tyson. So just imagine that after filming an episode of Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson is exhausted and disheveled and that he dresses down into a sweatsuit and sits on a bench outside in the sweltering heat, and that would pretty much paint the picture of what Fang Deng and I discovered at the bus stop.

neil-degrasse-tyson-today-151123-tease-01_3f81ad672979df8eb616d15515636051-today-inline-large“Hey,” the guy said to me. “Hey, you.”

I pretended I didn’t hear him. In my head, I started praying that the bus would just materialize out of nothing and we wouldn’t be alone with this guy anymore. But my fantasies would not come true, and the man called out to me again.

“You! Come here!”

Fine. I walked over to him. “What’s up?”

He didn’t say anything. Instead, he reached his hand out and gave me a brown napkin. It was folded up as though he’d been carrying it around for awhile.

I opened it. On the napkin, he had written the name “Jesus” maybe two billion times. I’m not exaggerating. The napkin was litterally covered in Jesus, like this:

Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus

why-did-jesus-fold-the-naptkinI wasn’t sure how to react. I nodded knowingly and handed the napkin back to him.

“I gotta catch the bus to Michigan,” he said. “Can you give me five bucks?”

“Um, let me see what I have,” I said. I opened my wallet and gave him two dollars.

“All right,” he said.

“It’s all I got,” I told him apologetically.

When we got on the bus, Fang Deng was livid. She looked at me like I was the crazy person.

“Why the hell did you give him money? What’s wrong with you?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “He had this Jesus napkin. It freaked me out.”

“That’s ridiculous! You should’ve told him you have no money!”

“But…you always say we should give money to the homeless.”

Fang Deng shook her head, her black hair bouncing against her shoulders. “Not homeless people like him. Crazy guy with a napkin.”

For the rest of the ride, we watched as the man would walk over to the other people on the bus, one by one, tap them on the shoulder, and hand them the napkin. They would all open it and stare at it for a second, and then hand it back to him. No one else gave him anything. He eventually got off at the same stop that we did, with only his napkin and my two dollars to show for it.

“God bless you,” he said to me as we parted ways.

“God bless you too,” I said.

And then he walked away into the suffocating heat.

I wondered if he thought this was Michigan.

 

 

The Passenger Seat of a Stranger’s Car

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NEW YEARS FIREWORKS OVER LAS VEGAS STRIPThe fireworks have just ended and I’m standing by the side of the road with my hand out. It’s only fifteen minutes into the new year and already I feel hopeless. Cabs zip past me without stopping, people slumped over drunk in their back seats. I’m on the Vegas Strip with literally thousands of other people, all of us trying to flee for our homes. Apparently as soon as the clock struck midnight the Strip stopped being the place to be, and everybody just wanted to go to bed.

A black truck pulls up in front of me. The window rolls down and the dude driving it sticks his head out.

“Where you going, man?”

“Twain and Arville.”

“Twain and Arville?” he repeats, as though he’s asking himself if he wants to drive there. “Okay, I’ll take you there. Forty dollars.”

nye2012-07I look around the place. There are so many people and the streets are mostly empty, only a few cabs around. My phone (Samsung G4, a total piece of shit) is dead and it wouldn’t even matter if it wasn’t, because the guy at the Uber tent (yes, there’s an Uber tent, with a bar and loud dance music and a bunch of Uber drivers parked outside) told me that T-Mobile (my carrier, totally shitty) isn’t connecting to Uber for some reason. And since they won’t drive you if you don’t request on the app, I’m out of luck. But I do have exactly forty-two dollars in my wallet, which means I can afford a ride from this random stranger.

“Forty bucks?” I say to him. “Let’s do it.”

He motions towards the passenger seat and I get in. We make a quick u-turn and almost immediately get stuck in traffic.

“Fucking New Year,” the guy says. “Everything is gonna be like this. Let’s see if we get around it.”

He drives the truck into the lane next to us – you know, the one for oncoming traffic – and bypasses about fifty cars stuck at a red light. We reach the light and he butts his way in, cuts off the car in front, and now we’re leading the pack. After a minute or two, we get stuck again.

“Forty bucks,” he says. “I should charge you two hundred.”

We start to talk. His name is Isaac and he’s from Eritrea, a small country located in Northern Africa. His hair is black and puffy; he looks middle-eastern, wears glasses and has stubble all over his face. He tells me that he’s lived in Vegas for almost twenty years. Has a wife and a three-year-old kid. He constantly mentions how English is his second language and he doesn’t speak it well, even though I think he sounds perfectly fluent.

“What about you?” he asks. “Where are you from?”

Oh, where to begin. I tell him I’ve lived in Asia the last six years. First South Korea, then in China. I tell him that I’ve just moved to Vegas to start a new life. It sounds corny, and I worry that he might see this as an opportunity – I’m new and I don’t know anybody and he could easily kill me without anyone figuring it out for at least a few days. But that doesn’t seem to occur to him. He asks me why I came back to the States.

“I don’t know, man,” I tell him. “Just felt like it was time to come back.”

web1_photoeditor-1483288501023-1-_7700234Isaac drives like a madman. He weaves in and out of traffic, cuts down back alleys, honks his horn at any cars in his way. It’s a lot like being back in China, actually. It takes a half-an-hour to get onto the highway, and from there we’re set. The drive from the Strip to my place is actually only ten minutes or so, but most of the roads are closed for the holiday, which means we have to circle around. And so Isaac and I end up taking a little tour of Vegas, talking about language and culture and what it’s like to live in a country that isn’t your own.

“Do you think you’ll ever go back to Eritrea?” I ask him.

“No, no, no,” he says. “This is where I want to be.”

He drops me off at the apartment complex where I’ve been living the past three months. I open my wallet and give him the forty-two bucks. We shake hands. It’s after one in the morning and my apartment complex is dark and quiet. Isaac turns the truck around, gets onto the road and takes off. Maybe he goes home, maybe he goes back to the Strip to make more money. I just walk through the buildings until I reach mine, and after I get inside, I go out onto the balcony and smoke a cigarette.

It turned out okay. This is what I tell myself. I’m home and I’m safe, and it’s 2017 and everything is going to be fine. I realize that a lot has worked out so far, a lot has gone right, and that’s why I’m standing here on this balcony in Vegas. Looking at the bright lights in the distance, ready to start the brand new year.

I can see the Palms Casino, the neon glow of its colorful sign. I wonder if the lights ever go out there? Something tells me they never do.