Return to Oz: What It’s Like Living Outside the U.S. for 7 Years
For the past month, I’ve felt like the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
You see, I’ve returned to the U.S. of A. after living on Guam for seven years. I have much to catch up on… like the appearance of touch screens in restaurants and the disappearance of long distance charges. My ignorance leads to puzzling looks from cashiers because, well, I look and talk like an American. Yet, living on Guam is a bit like living in a bunker. (If you haven’t seen Kimmy Schmidt, you might be living in a bunker.)
I am constantly being corrected in stores and restaurants about how or what to buy and order. I get a lot of blank stares from said employees when I don’t know the basics about their establishment. The U.S. is feeling a bit cultish, but like a cult I was born into, escaped from, and returned to at will (continuing the Kimmy analogy). Each state feels like its own little country in that people talk as if its the whole world. I don’t know their landmarks or abbreviations or combo meals. Heck, I don’t even know their football team. My friends are having a field day with my silly ignorance of such things.
It’s not that Guam doesn’t have many modern amenities — it’s not exactly a developing nation, after all. It’s just that even the most modern Asian cities aren’t like the States, so how could this tiny U.S. territory compete with its 210 square miles? Hashbrown, no filter.
In Oz — I mean, the U.S. — in 2016, you no longer “try to get the good seats” at a movie theatre, you select them on a touch screen when you purchase tickets. And these touch screens are everywhere — on my table at Olive Garden, at the drink fountain at every fast food chain… Do I sound old? ‘Cuz I feel it.
Unfortunately, the U.S. is still the only country that charges for luggage carts in the airport ($4 is outrageous).
It’s also increasingly violent and volatile, which I knew well from living in Dallas where even road rage could end with fatalities. I’m glad to have learned patience in Guam because virtually no line can really upset me anymore (wish I could say the same for crappy cell service).
It is upsetting, however, to see how much waste the U.S. still generates. I am sick of disposing of a whole trash bag of food containers every week, so I’ve decided to carry my own around every time I eat out. Yes, I’m the bag lady, but I don’t care.
Race relations are another disturbing norm in the U.S.
Directing a documentary about the impact of colonization on an indigenous culture in the Pacific certainly opened my eyes to the psychological effects. There is multi-generational damage done by imperialism and racism. There’s even a movement for trans-generational collective healing on the part of indigenous cultures. Having started therapy this year, I can see the benefit.
Living outside the U.S. allowed me to better understand just how indoctrinated a student in the American school system becomes over the course of 12-14 years. I grew up in a multi-racial neighborhood and went to a very mixed school and was not taught racial superiority by my parents even in the smallest ways. My mom’s friends were Rastafarians and I counted black and Asian kids among my best friends. I loved a black man and had black roommates and friends. I have black family members and they are also loved. It’s not that I don’t see color, it’s that I am attracted to people who are different from me. I very much see color and I love it. This explains why I love travel so much. I need diversity in my life or I go a little mad.
The irony is that, yes, I was raised to be accepting of all races and cultures, but that no, I didn’t really understand that racism is still a problem. So while my upbringing helped me love people for who they are, it didn’t help me understand the plight of many minorities. I don’t mean that every American is racist, obviously, but that the U.S. history taught in schools is painfully long on tales of American ingenuity and freedom and democracy, but quite short on the long-term effects of slavery and legislature biased against non-whites.
It’s confusing coming back here.
Much like Oz, I feel the curtain has been drawn and there’s just a scared little white man pulling the levers (no, I don’t mean Bernie Sanders). I’m talking about our policymakers and law enforcement, but also the general public who seems poised to react violently both for and against minorities. I was never much of a patriot (I’m anti-war), but I feel a new disillusionment setting in.
I saw a little girl with a beautiful afro and I didn’t know if it would be offensive to tell her mother so. (Hey, I’ve seen Good Hair and I’m not going there.)
I don’t really know where I fit in to this society.
I know that every time I see a muslim woman in a hijab, I wonder how she feels living in this country with public opinion so volatile when it comes to Islamic immigrants and refugees. I was walking into Target (okay, for this I love America) behind a Muslim mom and her toddler. The little girl stopped and smiled at me and I heard the mom say, “No, that’s not so-and-so but she looks like her.” I assumed she was talking about a family member. I thought for a minute what it would be like to pass as a Muslim woman for a day. (I saw a lot of my “cousins” in Dubai.) I honestly think I’d feel afraid.
I don’t feel this racial tension when I travel abroad.
It’s not that there isn’t racism in other countries. It’s partly that I am not fully immersed in the culture on a daily basis, but also because white tourists are mostly, 1) tolerated, 2) treated as superiors, or 3) treated as intriguing oddities. Turns out I don’t mind being treated as an oddity (hello, China!).
It’s obvious that minorities in this country are treated far worse than as oddities. I feel pretty powerless against it and very sensitive about speaking out since I am not a minority, in this country anyway. However, I lived on an island where I was a minority. Seven years later, I know what it feels like to face racial discrimination, hate speech, and cyber bullying. Most people treated me kindly and showed hospitality, but a few bad apples did indeed spoil the whole bunch at times.
This racism towards me affected the way I spoke, did business, and projected myself online. I felt oversensitized at times. I lost sleep. I may even have lost business. I know my husband faced a ton of discrimination when he applied for jobs. I haven’t spoken publicly about it until now for fear of making enemies. Still, my life was never in danger, so I can’t say I’ve experienced what minorities in the U.S. must be feeling right now.
The fact is, I never feared for my life as a minority in any country.
I don’t naively believe hate crimes, unjust shootings, etc. will decrease. In fact, I fully expect this country will become more of a war zone. It is certainly ripe for civil war now.
But, I’m learning to do what Americans do best and that’s numb myself with all the amenities (albeit, blunderingly). Why else would I be eating at Olive Garden?