Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Welcome to the USA, @%#$*!

I wanted to write about first impressions of the US after a summer abroad, which inevitably becomes a commentary on airports, which continue to fascinate me: their utopian yearnings muddied by the haste and frustration if not despair intrinsic to people herded around like rats through an overlit, candy-strewn maze. But I've done this so many times now, the shock of American shores has dulled to a few puzzlements and chuckles: the prevalence of guns; the vast expanses of space; the abundance yet non-clarity of signs; the weariness and brusqueness of workers; the speed and rigidity of procedures (Customs, Immigration); the bathroom with one handicapped stall and one regular, clogged.

But I'm compelled to write about a different airport experience I had a few days later, picking up two Chinese students. Naturally, they had a lot of luggage, piled onto one cart apiece. I led them to the elevator, but before they could maneuver their carts in, a young white girl and a young black guy (not together, no luggage) rushed in, leaving room only for me and one of the Chinese students (a girl). Looking understandably nervous, the other student (boy) tried to squirm his way into the elevator, at which point everyone in the elevator except me began to grumble and get physically antsy. After what couldn't have been more than 20 seconds, the American girl called out, "Dude, just fuckin' wait!"

I wasn't sure the Chinese boy had heard, much less understood, but I couldn't help saying, "Watch your language, would you?" to which she replied, seething, "Mind your own business!"

At that point I let it drop, because I didn't know where to begin if I were to continue. My mind was ablaze with images of the Russians who'd negotiated my way onto the train against an angry conductor; the Chinese girl who'd all but insisted on carrying my bag for me after a chance meeting on the street; the Chinese family that took me all around Dunhuang; the Kazakh guy who'd bought me a beer and smoothed my way across the border; the other Kazakhs who'd given me an unsolicited lift; the Uzbeks in various markets who'd given me free samples of apricots and walnuts and cheese; the Kyrgyz nomads who'd waited until 10 or 11 pm for their own dinner to make sure we foreigners ate at leisure; the British steward who'd held a woman's baby, and heated milk and special meals for her; the passengers who'd invited me to jump the queue after I'd had to sit on the floor of the waiting area; and on and on and on. I really have to struggle to remember a time people in other countries didn't go out of their way for me. And here I was back home, and far from helping the foreigners--minors at that--my fellow Americans, citizens of "the greatest nation on earth," couldn't even be civil.

I guess I'm old-fashioned. I don't even take the elevator unless I'm collapsing with luggage. Heck, I don't even take the escalator unless I'm in a hurry: remember that thing called exercise? But if I do, I always let others on first, even if they don't seem to be in a hurry, or have a lot to carry, or look lost or scared or young or old or foreign.

In a way the worst of it wasn't how the Chinese students might have felt; it was the physical revulsion with which the American girl regarded the Chinese guy for daring to infringe on "her" space, and how put-upon the guy looked, as if living in the richest country in the world is some terrible, terrible burden. So I can't help asking where we've gone wrong: how can we be so prosperous and yet so miserable?