Going Home to a Wounded America
Reading some of the “going home” posts made me remember my own feelings when I returned home to America after a 2-year stint in Asia. My feelings were similar but in a very different way. Instead of returning from Thailand, I was returning from Singapore, a former British colony adopted by America and on the verge of eclipsing their aging parents. When I was there, from 2000 to 2002, the American oil industry was being replaced by banking and computer technology as their leading industries. It was a heady time to live there, and I still remember every detail of every moment, like your first day at university. You know it will change your life forever.
My story begins with a death of one life and the birth of another. The old life was college, marriage, children, work in the emerging IT industry. America at the time was a stable place with a smart, but catty president who mastered his political opponents to do good for America. Money was flowing but my wife was slowly changing to someone I didn’t recognize. After 5 years of marriage counselors and 3 years of no intimacy, I called it quits. I could not have been lower when I suddenly got an offer from my company to move to Singapore. It was not really unexpected, as I was the Asia go-to guy on my worldwide team. The offer was a full ex-pat deal, which included my immediate family, so I asked my wife to start life over in a new world. She said pound sand, but actually it was a much more vulgar answer. So, off I went hoping to return when tempers had cooled and I could resume my former happy life.
My new life was all hard work at first. But the culture shock of Asia and later, the irresistible women, started to produce a profound change in me. I started to have boundless energy and each new trip, especially to Thailand, became an eye-opening experience. Then, 6 months before I had to leave, I received a frantic phone call from my sister in Arizona. “Are you watching TV” she almost screamed into the phone.
“No. Why?” I replied.
“Turn on CNN right now.” She demanded.
I did and saw the large, burning hole in the first building of the World Trade Center. It was like something from a movie and I literally could not believe my eyes. My sister said it was a plane that flew into it, so I was sure I was watching the aftermath of a horrible accident. Then I saw the second plane, with it’s deliberate steering for the next building, and I knew this was something very much different. As much as I was affected by these pictures, I still felt very much detached from this terrible tragedy. Like watching fighting fish in a bowl. Although I was watching my countrymen being murdered, the horror seemed to be very far away.
I stayed watching and talking to my sister late into the Singapore night. Eventually, the commentators speculated this could be the work of terrorists from the Middle East. My sister said all air travel had been cancelled in America. What was it like in Singapore she asked. I logged into the Singapore Airlines web site and found my flight to Jakarta was still scheduled for the next day. My sister was aghast.
“Are you visiting a Muslim country?”
“Yeah, it’s my job. We have a big deal we have to close.”
My flight took off on time the next day and I landed in Jakarta with some misgiving. The company driver met me in the waiting area and said everything was perfectly normal. And indeed it was normal all day through several business meetings. It wasn’t until I left the building and walked to the corner to find a taxi that something abnormal happened. An older Indonesian man stopped me, looked at me with sad eyes, and asked if I was an American. I hesitated for a moment and said yes, He grabbed my hand and said, “If Muslims have done this terrible thing, then they are not Muslims. They are animals. Muslims are a peaceful people.” Then he walked away.
I was very much taken aback by this, but every day that I walked the streets of Jakarta or sat in restaurants, this scene repeated itself almost word for word. On my return flight to Singapore, I was almost buoyant. Yes, a terrible tragedy had happened to my country, but the world was with us and we would soon rise above this tragedy and become a newly united and empowered country. And I believed this for the next few months as my time is Asia dwindled, right up until the time I arrived back home, Then reality hit me like a baseball bat to the face.
While I was in Asia, my company was taken over by a larger one, and major changes were made, including the elimination of my old job. I was offered another in San Francisco, take it or leave it. The dot.com bust was in full swing so I took it. Lucky for me it was a rare time a normal person could afford to live close to this beautiful city. But I was far away from family and friends. So, I became determined to make new ones and survive this exile.
SanFran is really an easy place to meet new friends, as it is very likely the person you’re talking to is fairly new to the area as well. These people were nice, middle-income, sensible folks with good jobs. My kind of crowd, that is until the subject of 9/11 came up. Then the fear and anger started to emerge, which shocked me because it had happened months ago by this time. I was really confused by these reactions. Didn’t we invade Afghanistan and we were slowly rounding up these murderers and bringing them to justice? Wasn’t it time to rebuild, become stronger and get on with life. Where was the spirit of unity and “let’s move on and win” attitude shown after the Pearl Harbor attack?
Where was this fear coming from? It didn’t take long to find the source. Cable TV was staring to emerge as the prime source of news. I started to watch a channel I had never watched before called Foxnews. It seemed engaging and in your face, but I soon realized it was pushing headlines and stories of new and more dangerous threats people needed to be afraid of. Including fear of their fellow Americans. These messages seemed to sync with the Republican party which really seemed odd. When Reagan was leading them, they had been strong and confident against Soviet aggression. I had even voted for a few of their candidates before I left for Asia. Now I watched a president and party, with help from a cable news network, pushing fear into the public and winning elections
The main fear they pushed was fear of Muslims, everywhere, even those who have lived in America for generations. I tried to regale my friends with the kindness shown to me in Indonesia, but all it produced was blank stares, like I was some kind of idiot. I kept my mouth shut after that.
I started to retreat from these new friends to the friendly confines of my neighborhood Thai restaurant. Here, I gave the staff, including the manager, free license to practice their English while I stuffed myself with curry chicken and rice, and washing it down with Singha beer. It was a very pleasant way to relax and get away from the fear mongers a few hours a week. The manager and I even became friends, meeting at the gym or having coffee.
Then one day the manager invited me to meet his ex-sister-in-law who was visiting from Thailand. She gave me one her big smiles and I knew I was a dead duck. Six months later we were happily married. And 15 years later we are still happily married. Yet, even today after this much time back in my native land and having a good life with a good wife, I still feel the same alienation I did when I first returned. Indeed, using fear to win elections has gotten worse. Our current president is the master of this technique. Even today, he decided not to promote our good economy in the mid-term elections, deciding to scream fear of a scraggily bunch of asylum seekers heading for our southern border. Hopefully, his fear mongering will backfire.
Anyway, this isn’t a political screed. I guess I’m nostalgic for the America I left in 2000, that was bold, confident, and able to unite on important issues to help all Americans. My trips to Thailand with my wife have been wonderful escapes from fear to the bright smiles of gentle people. Sure, Bangkok can be challenging but we spend our time mostly out of the city and away from the tourist traps. The visits to her family in southern Thailand are like stepping back in time. As much as I am concerned about the military government in charge of the country, my wife assures me any bad governance rarely reaches this far south. Indeed, in over 10 years of visiting there, it has changed very little through different political regimes. Their incredibly beautiful coastline has been discovered and moderately developed. Otherwise, the local farm market remains the town’s meeting place, where fresh vegetables and fruits are bought and friendly gossip exchanged. These are my kind of people.
Is this really where I want to live the rest of my life? A peaceful community, where kind strangers are welcomed, children feel safe, life is jai yen, and foxnews and Trump are a world away? You betcha.
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