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


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.



The Jesus Napkin


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.


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


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.

A Man, A Dog, A Nose


Jeff was in his late 40s and lived in a group home for Jewish men with mental disabilities. He was the kind of person that everyone tries to diagnose, his weirdness being irresistible, as though just seeing him brought out the amateur psychologist in a person. The scary thing was that everyone came up with the same diagnosis – schizophrenia. If the whole world thinks you’re schizophrenic, or anything for that matter, even if you’re not, well, you might as well be. I know I thought Jeff was schizophrenic. He’d put his right hand over his ear and talk to himself; he was constantly talking, chattering, about nothing that made sense to any of us and probably not to him either. His house staff would catch him sneaking into the kitchen in the middle of the night to make sandwiches. Not to eat, just to make.  They’d send him back to his room. Jeff had a small amount of wispy blonde hair on his otherwise bald head and was the kind of bald man that reminded one of a baby. Thinking back, the best way I can describe him is to say that he looked like a combination of Richard Dreyfuss and a Kewpie doll.

“Tanack!  Tanack!” Jeff would shout, making up noises, pacing the hallway up and down. I met him at the non-profit agency I worked for. I’d never been around people with mental disabilities before, and Jeff frightened me a little bit. Maybe it was all the nonsense sounds he’d make, or the reports in his file about him getting physically aggressive with staff members, or how everyone said he was schizophrenic, or maybe it was the way he would scream at the top of his lungs when he’d get upset.

“Tomorrow is Saturday!” he’d holler.  He’d bite his wrist. “It’s Saturday!”

I tried taking a logical approach. “Jeff,” I’d say, “tomorrow is Thursday. It isn’t Saturday. Relax, buddy.”

“It’s Saturday! Tomorrow’s Saturday!”

My attempts were futile. He was in sheer panic mode and I wasn’t helping. Jeff normally shook with nervous energy, anxious and fidgety, but was generally able to compose himself. About once a week, though, he’d blow his lid. And when he did, he was always upset about tomorrow being Saturday, which was strange, because I thought that was a day everybody looked forward to.

As with all the people in our program, Jeff had a big file in the main office stuffed with papers written by psychiatrists, behavioral therapists, and other care givers. I pulled it off the shelf, sat down with it like I was back in a college lit course or something, and started reading, hoping that there would be some insight or nugget of wisdom. There was.

“Jeff can get upset at times,” it said. “When he does, staff should ask him, ‘Jeff, what color is the dog’s nose?’ This phrase has a calming effect on Jeff, and he will answer, ‘It’s black.’”

What color is the dog’s nose?” I thought, bewildered. I went to the room where my coworker, Billy, was.  Billy worked closely with Jeff and knew him better.

“Yo, Billy,” I said, “what color is the dog’s nose?”

He nodded. “Yeah, that’s what you got to say to Jeff to chill him out.” Then Billy reached over to a shelf and grabbed a magazine with a dog on the cover. “Sometimes, when he’s really worked up, I stick this in his face and have him touch the dog’s nose.”

“That works?”

“It works perfectly,” he said, shrugging.

In the days that followed, I waited for Jeff to get upset again. It was almost like I had my fingers crossed, hoping he would. Eventually he did, walking to the end of a hallway and screaming out the doors at the world outside.

“Tomorrow’s Saturday! Tomorrow’s Saturday!”

I approached him and got his attention. “That’s nice, Jeff,” I said, “but listen, more importantly…what color is the dog’s nose?”

He stopped, as though I’d flipped a switch on his back. He turned and looked me straight in the eye, and with a perfectly neutral voice, he said, “It’s black.”

Then he went back into one of the rooms, sat off in a corner away from the others, and looked out the window, seeming quiet and sad.

Every week, Billy took Jeff to a pound to see the dogs. Jeff was afraid of them and wouldn’t pet them, but he loved to go anyways and always anxiously volunteered to go on the dog trip. I secretly wished that I could take Jeff to see the dogs, just to observe him, to see him full of excitement and fear, watching the animals and still, just as he did with basically every person that tried to talk to him, keeping his distance.

I’d like to think there’s an internal logic to how human beings work. There must’ve been something to Jeff, some explanation. Saturday. There had to be a reason he dreaded it so much. And the dog’s nose. That had to have significance. A memory from when he was a kid, or a phrase some person he cared for used to say to him. Or it could’ve been that he simply liked dogs, and one time a dog touched his hand and he felt its wet nose on his skin. Maybe that was the only time he’d ever been touched by anything.

Then I realized that I could invent a whole life for him. His entire history, written by me in my head. I wondered if that would make me feel better, safer. It was sort of like how people guessed he was schizophrenic. If a visitor were to ask, “What’s wrong with him,” I guess it’s more comforting to make something up than to just say “I don’t know.”


Things I Didn’t Do In Vietnam


“In Cambodia,” Perkins said, “you can pay $150 to shoot a bazooka.”  He said that as we looked down at a rusty old RPG sitting in a glass case in Vietnam’s Army Museum.  RPG stands for Rocket Propelled Grenade; an RPG sits on the shoulder of the person that fires it and was designed during WWII so foot soldiers would have something to shoot at tanks. 

“What do you fire the bazooka at?” I asked him.  If one was going to shoot a rocket, it seemed to make sense that there should be something there to stop it.

Perkins didn’t know.  “A house,” he finally said. 

I didn’t think about firing an RPG again until we met a strange character named Santiago while slurping down bowls of pho in a small restaurant near St. Joseph’s Cathedral.  Santiago had heard that a person could fire an RPG in Vietnam if that person had the right connections.  Since Santiago seemed to have looked into this, I asked him the same question I’d asked Perkins.

“What do you fire it at?”

“A cow,” he said, not missing a beat.  “I’ve seen videos of it on YouTube.”

The videos Santiago referred to show men in large open fields firing rocket launchers into the distance.  The videos stop short of showing exploding cows, which is what I’d pictured in my head.  I’d seen a cow detonate into a mushroom cloud of blood and bones, letting out a pained “mooo!” as it burst like a bubble, leaving behind nothing but a pool of pink milk. 

“I don’t think I could shoot a cow with a bazooka,” I said.  It seemed cruel.

“What animal could you shoot?” Perkins asked.

I thought for a second.  “Maybe a bear.”

Both Perkins and Santiago seemed appalled.  “Oh no, not a bear,” they said, showing disapproval.  “I could never shoot a bear for fun.”

Shooting a bear, obviously, is not fun.  Not as fun as eating a snake.  In the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, Perkins and I signed up for a live snake dinner.  I was quick to tell anyone I came across about it.

“They take the snake,” I’d say, “and they cut its heart out.  Then you eat the heart while it’s still beating.  And after that, you down it with a shot of blood!”

This wasn’t the only strange thing we found that involved snakes.  The Vietnamese also put snakes in jars.  They then pour alcohol in the jar and let it sit for two weeks to pickle.  At that time, the lid is removed and what you’re left with is some sort of potent drink that apparently, due to the mixture of alcohol and poison, has psychedelic effects.  I saw a woman on Monkey Island dropping limp snakes into jars, preparing the drink on the beach while a group of people huddled around her to watch.

Yet by the time I left Vietnam, I hadn’t shot anything with a rocket launcher.  Our beating heart dinner was canceled, and I never tried the snake wine.

When I came back, I found myself telling people more about the things I didn’t do in Vietnam than the things I actually did.  It was as if I had a whole imaginary trip to go along with my real one.  The exploding cow.  The snake’s heart about the size of a kidney bean, beating and hopping around in the palm of someone’s hand.  The way things would look after drinking the wine, like how a snake would see the world, through a thick window of clear liquid and glass, watching everything from inside a jar.