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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Black Man Field Trip

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Sang Sang has big ears and wears huge Woody Allen glasses.  His head is thin, his hair is short, and he laughs every time he speaks English.  I’m not sure why, but I generally laugh when he speaks English too.  Sang Sang is one of the best English speakers at the school and yet it’s an adventure when we try to have a conversation.  Typically, we’re both baffled by what he’s saying.  Unlike other Korean high school students, though, Sang Sang isn’t embarrassed into silence due his (can we say) developing English ability.  He’s amused by it, the same way I might be if you dressed me up in pads and skates and threw me out into the middle of an ice hockey rink.

I know that when Sang Sang cracks up, he’s really just trying to tell me, “Listen, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing right now.  Enjoy it for what it’s worth.”

My most memorable conversation with Sang Sang happened during the English Interview Contest my school had me do about a month ago.  In a nutshell, students signed up to come into a classroom and have me interview them.  After doing the interviews, I would pick a winner.  It sounded easy enough, especially because my superior, Peter Teacher, gave me a brilliant list of questions to use.  It contained such gems as:

“Do you enjoy reading?”

“What is your favorite book?”

“What was your favorite part of the book?”

In dealing with the brilliant but inflexible Peter Teacher, I’ve learned not to question anything.  If he wanted me to ask them these questions, that’s what I would do.  On the day of the contest about fifteen kids showed up, all giggling nervously.  One by one they came into the classroom and I gave them the 3rd degree about their favorite books.  Most stumbled through descriptions of The Alchemist, grabbing their faces in frustration every now and again when they fell into a pit of indecipherable babble.  The agony showed on them like they were players on a football team that had just lost its fourth straight Superbowl (Go Bills!!!).  Somehow their second language had failed them and they blew it.  Peter Teacher glared at them sternly.  For my part, I was very nice.

“Oh,” I’d say, trying to help, “that sounds interesting.  Do you like colors?  What’s your favorite?  Blue?”

It was with a sigh of relief that I greeted Sang Sang, sitting down for his interview, a big goofy smile already on his face.  He talked about reading and his favorite book.  I don’t remember the name, nor do I remember in detail what his favorite part was, but it had something to do with racism.  The book was set in the US, and in the scene, a black man asked a white family for directions and was ignored simply because he was black.

“Why was that your favorite part, Sang Sang?” I asked earnestly.  The other students liked the action scenes, or the parts with the greatest drama.  Why on earth did Sang Sang like a scene in which a white family gave a black dude the Danny Glover taxi treatment?

“Because I like black people,” he said.

This was interesting.  Odd, yes, but interesting.  There are very few black people in South Korea – most are soldiers, either from the US or Ghana.  Koreans typically know nothing about black people other than that they exist, in places other than Korea.  Two years ago, during my first stint in Korea, I asked my class to name as many black people as they could.  Here was their list:

Michael Jackson

Michael Jordan

Obama

George Washington Carver

It’s insane to me that George Washington Carver, of all people, is known across the Pacific.  This is even more interesting when you take into account the fact that Koreans don’t really like peanuts and peanut butter at Homeplus is incredibly overpriced.  (In time, the students would reveal that they knew more than those four – their minds must’ve gone blank when put on the spot.)

Anyways, I digress.  Back to the interview.  Despite the ominous presence of Peter Teacher, I broke from the script.  “Sang Sang,” I said, “have you ever met a black person?”

Sang Sang lit up.  It was like a parent talking about a child or a film director talking about his next movie.  “Yes!” he said excitedly.  “Last year we had a field trip to Itaewon and I talked to a black man!”

Itaewon is the area of Seoul where the US troops are stationed.  “On the street?” I asked Sang Sang.  “Where did you talk to him?”

“He was in a room,” Sang Sang said.  “The school wanted us to meet a black person, so we had a field trip to Itaewon.  We were all able to talk to him and ask questions.”

I really wanted to know more about this.  Who was this black man – was he someone important?  Sang Sang didn’t think so.  He was just a regular guy.  I was dumbfounded.  Had Mansu High School really conducted a field trip to Itaewon – a good two hours from the school – for the sole purpose of having the students talk to a random black person?  I wondered how they approached the dude with the idea for the field trip:

“Say, our students only know who four black people are, and two of them are dead.  If you’re not busy this week, would you mind sitting in a room and having fifty Korean boys stare at you?”

How many students did they really take on this trip?  Did they need permission slips?

“Sang Sang,” I said, “is that the only time you’ve ever spoken to a black person?”

“Yes!” he said, nodding his head enthusiastically.  “I will never forget it.  It was a great experience!”

Koreans must spend a staggering amount of time talking to other Koreans.  Here was a high school full of boys who can’t sustain a simple English conversation even though they’ve taken English class for the last 10 years of their lives and many of them go to hokwons (private tutoring centers) to study English outside of school.  But the English classes in public schools are taught by Korean teachers, and hokwons are expensive.  For my students, English is still a very Korean thing.

I tried to picture, in my head, what the bus must have been like the morning of The Black Man Field Trip.  Were the students excited or were the scared?  Nervous.  Was the bus filled with talking or silence?  I wondered if the students realized that this was the first and maybe last time they would ever talk to a black person.  What went through their minds (in Korean, of course, not English)?  Did they wonder how different he’d be, or did they wonder how much he’d be like them?

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Sorry, Jack (Quotes Provided by The Buddha and Tennille)

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Last week, my friend Deyne posted the following quote on her Facebook page:

 ‎”My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

It just so happened that on the morning she posted this, I was in a terrible and grumpy mood.  My love life was a disaster and I wasn’t up for what I found to be a sappy quote about changing the world.  Deyne posted the quote exactly as it appears above, with no author attributed to it.  In the minutes just before the first bell of the school day – when my bitchiness is at its peak – I commented on her post by writing, “These sound like the words of a naïve fool.”

Turns out that they were the last words said by Jack Layton, the Canadian DNP Party Leader who passed away last Monday.  Deyne responded to my comment by informing me of that, and then went on to talk about how Layton wasn’t only a great figure in Canadian politics, but was also an inspiration to her personally.  Whoops!  Sometimes it’s better to just keep your mouth closed and click “Like.”  Obviously I don’t think Jack Layton is a naïve fool, mostly because I’m ignorant and American and I don’t actually know who Jack Layton is.  But my little Facebook faux pas got me thinking about quotes.  How was I to know an important person said those words?  Reading it out of context, with no speaker credited, it didn’t sound like anything profoundly deep.  It could have been said by anyone, Snooki from Jersey Shore even.  Secretly, I blamed Deyne for manipulating my Jack Layton dis – not identifying the speaker of a quote is like letting someone believe it’s delivery when it is, in fact, DiGiorno’s. 

What if we always took the name off the quote, I started thinking.  Then the quote would have to stand for itself, the words would have to be as strong and independent as female R & B singers (they’re very independent).  It occurred to me that maybe a lot of quotes are really only powerful because of who said them.  Really, someone like Gandhi could say about anything and it would sound profound.  And, by extension, Joey Lawrence, for example, could say the deepest thing in history and nobody, knowing it came from the same mind that produced “Whoa!,” would take it seriously.

Here’s a little example.  Look at the two quotes below.  Think about, just based on the quotes themselves, if one is really that much better than the other.

“Let your heart guide you.  It whispers, so listen closely.”

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”

Both quotes are pretty similar.  The second one was said by Confucius.  He was pretty smart – or at least that’s what some people think – and so, if someone quoted that during a speech, I’m sure most of the audience would find it touching.  But what about the first one?  That was said by a character identified as “Littlefoot’s mother,” from the movie Land Before Time.  Despite its content, it’s not really quotable.  Could you imagine Barrack Obama using it in his State of the Union Address?

“My friends, I’d like to pause for a moment and reflect upon the words of Littlefoot’s mother…”

Um, the country wouldn’t exactly be proud.  Here’s another example.  Down below are two fairly well known quotes.  Imagine, though, what the perception of each quote would be if one flip-flopped the speakers:

“The greatest science in the world, in heaven and earth, is love.” – singer Jackie DeShannon

“Lord, we don’t need another mountain.  There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb.  There are oceans and rivers enough to cross…What the world needs now is love.” – Mother Teresa

Suddenly, Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s corny song lyrics sound pretty good.  Looking through lots of quotations, I began to realize that there’s a thin line between lame song lyrics and the influential words of great leaders.  In fact, if a political or religious leader wrote pop songs, I don’t think the end result would be very different from the songs as they are now.  It doesn’t matter if it’s The Captain and Tennille or The Buddha and Tennille.  Buddha said “love is what makes two people sit in the middle of the bench when there is plenty of room at both ends.”  Captain and Tennille said “love will keep us together.”  Same difference.

When we quote something, are we really choosing to quote those specific words, or are we quoting the words only in relation to the resume and reputation that go with them?  Almost like how we choose to accept one person’s phone call and ignore another’s, we screen the quotes we use based on perception and anticipated outcome.  This quote will have an affect, this one will not.  If you just look at the words and sentiments alone, though, one person’s words generally aren’t much better than another’s.  Language alone doesn’t go very far. 

I could tell Deyne that I’m sorry for accidentally dissing Jack Layton.  Or I could quote Tolstoy and say, “Let us forgive each other, only then will there be peace.”  And I wouldn’t want her to think it would happen again.  For that I would quote another great mind: “We must not reenact the history that divides us, rather we must embrace that which draws us together.”  That’s a pretty good quote.  Words of wisdom.

Thank you for saying it, Spongebob.

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