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.

 

Mush

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At some point in time during the evolution of food marketing, a special niche must’ve developed for people with a knack for naming food.  Take a look at any well-done restaurant menu and you’ll see a wealth of rare words put together to dress any particular dish in the most delicious adjectives a linguist can cook up.  Over at TGI Friday’s, there’s the “Ultimate Sicilian Chicken Sandwich” and the “California Club.”  Le Bernardin’s in New York City offers a full description of each item on the menu, such as the “Poached Halibut and Braised Artichoke Chestnuts in Bacon, Persian Lime-Scented Truffle Broth.”  Even fast food gets in on the act, with choices like the “Junior Bacon Cheeseburger” or the “Pacific Shrimp Taco.”  Somewhere, I imagine, there’s a man with a large palate and an even larger thesaurus, paid great amounts of money to christen each new culinary creation with a name that’s tastier than a microwaved pretzel with snow-white salt cubes and keen yellow mustard.

But back in time, and in the deep South, years ago, such a man did not exist.  Hence, certain dishes have had to stagger through the years saddled with names that sound as appetizing as phrases like “road kill” or “toenail fungus.”  Perhaps the biggest victim of this, the not-so-enticing edible with the worst name of all, is the Southern favorite known as “livermush.”  There is nothing even remotely mouth-watering about that name.  We start with “liver,” a word that brings to mind the image of a bloated and spotted gland sitting in a metal dish and being photographed for a “what drinking does to you” poster.  That word is followed by “mush,” which is possibly the only word less appealing than “liver.”  Put them together, and one is left with a phrase that seems to function as both a disturbing verb and its apocalyptic aftermath.

Almost two years ago, recently single and searching for meaning in life, I hopped in my car and drove down to Shelby, North Carolina, where the annual Shelby Livermush Exposition was being held.  I’d never eaten livermush in my life, but the idea that there was an entire expo being held in its honor intrigued me.  Doing some homework beforehand, I learned that livermush is made from pig liver, spare parts from the pig’s head, and cornmeal.  It is apparently good with eggs and grits, and is sometimes smothered in grape jelly.  In other words, it’s sort of the food equivalent of a Damien Hirst exhibit or a retro-dish inspired by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.  It’s strange and horrifying, and as a person of intellect, I was fascinated by it.

Shelby turned out to be a lovely Southern city, filled with the kind of hokey nonsense Northerners think The Nashville Network makes up.  The festival was small but colorful, with “I Got Mushed” t-shirts for sale and one livermush grill powered by a John Deer lawnmower engine.  The festival flew into high gear with a “husband call,” where old Southern ladies got on a microphone and called their husbands like they were calling a pig.  “Soo-eee!  Richard get over here!  Your dinner is a gettin’ mighty cold!  Soo-eee!”  This was followed by an enchanting cultural explosion when two white people dressed up like Native Americans got on a stage and sang Indian songs.  “Hey-Ya-Hey-Ya-Hey-Ya!”  I later learned that Shelby was once inhabited by Cherokee Indians, long before the white man came, stole their land, and replaced their lovely corn and berries with disgusting livermush.

The question that hung heavy, as I stood in the town square by myself, lonely and confused, quickly became, “Am I really going to eat the livermush?”  Since I had driven about two hours, and it was, after all, a livermush festival, it seemed that the deed had to be done.  So I went to what I thought looked like the least hygienic grill (if I was going to do it, it had to be done properly) and ordered a heaping portion of livermush, combined with eggs and coated in mustard, wrapped in pita bread.  I brought it to the steps of the town hall, where I sat and ate it.  I ate it little by little, chewing it thoroughly, sitting in the sun and enjoying a taste that teetered somewhere between greasy sausage and sewage sludge.

I had moved to the South to be with a woman, and here I was alone.  No fancy title could re-invent that chapter of my life, not the way one could make a cheap taco sound like a fine dining experience.  Some things just are what they are.  Like “mush,” as its fans call it.  There was an appeal to the South, but by the time that festival was over, I hadn’t spoken to a single person.  I wasn’t a part of that appeal; I was someone from the outside looking in.  Sitting there on the steps of the Shelby Town Hall, I glanced at my livermush sandwich, almost finished with mustard and grease coming out of it and getting on my fingers.  I dropped it on the steps and left.  It was interesting in its way.  Maybe a part of me would miss it.

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The Place Where Elvis Stood

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On one of our first dates, two years before we married, Betty and I talked about the places we’d been.

“I’ve never been out of the country,” she said.  “I went to school in Ohio for a little bit.”

“I went to Florida once with my parents when I was a kid,” I said, thumbing through all of my life experiences.  “Oh, and I’ve been to Ohio too.  And I’ve driven through Pennsylvania.”

It was clear that neither of us had really been anywhere outside of New York state.  Pitifully clear.  Having read On the Road and The Sun Also Rises and a few Henry Miller books (like an English major is supposed to), I was ashamed.  Kerouac had Mexico, Hemingway Spain, Miller Paris, and we had…Ohio.  Betty and I continued to date.  Eventually we decided that it was necessary that the two of us embark on some form of journey, and one that didn’t involve flying because we were broke.  We would have to settle on a youthful exploration of our great big country.

We wanted someplace that would really symbolize America.  But not the faces-in-a-mountain, cracked bell, remember-the-Alamo America.  That was an America found in textbooks.  We didn’t want to go anywhere colonial, or, God forbid, anyplace with the world “fort” in its name.  No, we wanted an America found in novels, the Big America, with burgers and fries and people who sing on street corners.  An America alive, ready to be consumed, one full of pop culture and irony, almost a mockery of itself.  Betty and I were living in an age of sarcasm, after all.  We wanted to see an America we could be proud of and, simultaneously, laugh at.

So we chose to go to Graceland.  It seemed like a good decision.  Elvis had to be the perfect representation of America’s split personality.  He was larger than life, a superstar of stamps, collecting cars and planes and filling out every inch of his stars-and-stripes jumpsuit.  And at the same time, there was Elvis the country gent, with old-fashioned values, cherishing mom, loving his wife, singing songs to his daughter in their dream home.  As quickly as an inkjet cartridge can spit out a set of MapQuest directions, we were in my car and on the road.

We would go on to spend exactly one week in Memphis.  This was our grand voyage.  It turned out to be a pretty run down place, full of beat-up old cars and panhandlers.  We kept ourselves busy.  I remember looking out on the balcony where Martin Luther King was shot, eating at B.B. King’s restaurant, and seeing all things Elvis – the King of Rock and Roll. There are Kings everywhere you look in Memphis.  The place is full of ’em.

Then we went to Sun Studio.  In the basement, there was a tall microphone sitting on the floor by a huge picture of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash.

“That microphone was used by Elvis himself,” the tour guide said.  “He made some of his earliest recordings in this very room.”  Betty had me go stand by it and she took a picture of me and the Elvis microphone.   In it, I look nervous, clutching the mic stand with my right hand with a forced smile on my face.

Betty and I held hands on our stroll through Graceland.  We saw Elvis’ gold records and later his grave.  She took pictures so we could remember it all.  Around that time, we realized that we were only half-interested; that we didn’t really like Elvis much to begin with.  We left Memphis unsure of why we’d gone there in the first place.  It was good, though, because we had a week in a strange place to spend together.  We had danced on Beale Street and made love in the Best Western Benchmark Hotel, right across the street from the Peabody where the ducks come out of an elevator in the morning and waddle around like ugly babies.

Betty framed the picture of me holding the Elvis microphone.  It was on the wall all through our marriage.  Now she’s in America and I’m in South Korea, and that time in Memphis has sunk deep into the past.  I can still see that one photograph, though, in my head when I think of it.  I wonder if Betty kept it or threw it away.  There I am, standing in the place where Elvis stood, back when I was young, waiting for my future, so very much in love.

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