After ten years abroad, most of it spent in Tokyo, I recently visited Tampa, Florida. The trip was many things: some positive, some negative, some surprising and some par-for-the-course with an overall all resounding sentiment of “Why was I away for so long and did I find what I was looking for?” This question will take time to wade through and an answer is by no means forth coming in the near future. However, I have returned from my journey with a good deal of reverse culture shock. Some is good, some is bad but all is, by definition and without apology (from them, not me, I wasn’t even there), American.
7. The TSA
When I flew away into a future full of adventure and conflict punctuated but mediocre choices and women I didn’t deserve, the TSA did not exist in its current incarnation. Arriving in Washington D.C. and then walking into a security check point for “enhanced screening procedures” was something I was expecting only due to the ever-present dull roar of hatred the internet constantly produces about TSA and it’s associated horror stories. The list is long and the imagery uncomfortable: A war veteran made to stand for a pat down and being forced to remove his prosthetic leg for inspection. A three-year old daughter frisked by an agent who looks like Suge Night. A Grandmother is humiliated when her discountenance catches up to her during an X-ray.
You’ve heard them all before and so had I.
One can imagine my surprise when I entered the security check point and instead of a group of hard-nosed and jaded cop types I was staring and a collection of late-teeny-somethings in silly blue uniforms that complemented the color of the zits they were popping.
The scene was bizarrely comical and it took effort not to ask the dopey looking boy band reject leaning on a partition next to the X-ray if “TSA agent” was all he could get after “Kids Incorporated” went of the air.
It was surreal and assured of my safety I was not. In fact, I felt as if any self-respecting villain might easily pull one over on the Goonies here and slip right past the crack security barricade with his/her cosmetics NOT in the REQUIRED clear resealable plastic bag. The ramifications were terrifying.
And all this with a constant flow of bad attitude and poorly worded and often mumbled directions to a group of people who had just come off a 16 hour international flight.
The TSA: All this security for just a couple billion a year.
And onto more mumbling…
6. Customer Service an Elective
In Japan, as the world has heard over and over, customer service is a big deal. This will not be harped upon here but I will say that in Tokyo when I go someplace and order something: a coffee, a pair of socks, some fermented soy beans or a severed head, I get the same polite customer service oriented response every time, on time. This is not an indication of competence, often the opposite, but it is polite.
What I found during my stay in the USA this time is that “customer service”, first of all, is an elective. By this I mean a business or employee seems to be able to decide on their own whether actually serving a customer, you know: person who allows the business to actually run by purchasing goods or services, is something they feel like doing or not. At the cafe for lunch the waitress acted as if it was I who date raped her that time in Daytona but then an hour later at a gas station I made a life long friend in the station attendant who turned me on to some really avant garde sort of Jazz that I am listening to as I write this; That reminds me, I need to send Julio those Japanese post cards he seemed so interested in. I think his aunts address is still in my coat pocket.
*Note to self: Burn photos from Daytona
It all seems utterly random and up to the individual with two very clear exceptions. These two points, which I am calling the “Customer Bisector Theorem proofs” are as follows:
The closer one approaches to a major airport the lack of customer service exponentially increases until finally one reaches the event horizon and it becomes customer Dis-service. This latter reality is usually experienced within the airport terminal and usually involves minorities who loath your existence for purchasing a tuna sandwich for a 300% market write-up. But you don’t know because none of these people are speaking English anyway and you don’t speak…that.
The corresponding Theorem is as follows:
PUBLIX super market exists in an alternate dimension in which, customer service, in fact, customer love, is the reality, whether you like it or not.
Those two nicely tie it all up.
5. Tattoos are the new Fat
I left the USA in 2003 from California and people were fat. That’s just America: Lot of fat people living over there. So what? We all know it and the world knows it and Americans know it and we all talk about how it’s “Really not healthy” and “We have to save the children” but in reality it’s this simple: Americans like to eat and we like to eat lots of the shit we want at any given moment. Period.
So after 10 years of friends going home and coming back and telling me how grotesquely obese everyone was, I was a little let down when I was back a view days and realized it was all really just the same as before.
What I did notice and I found abhorrent, however, were the waves and waves of Tattoos. Tattoos absolutely every where. Yosomono has mentioned this himself in one of his rants, but to see it first hand, and on the beach…it was horror show.
Sure, it’s all self-expression. Yes, it’s all body art. Of course it’s really about identity. None of these things stop it from making a girl who would have been really cute drop dramatically into the “buddy to smoke crack with when I finally decide to give up on life” category. It wasn’t just women of course, and I in fact have a few tattoos from 15 years ago, but I found the prevalence of them not shocking per se, simply unaesthetic.
If one adds Tattoos in odd places with offensive designs to clinical obesity on the beach, well, now America being fat again gets some legs back and can offend effectively. But nothing was as offensive on that beach as that French Canadian dude in his speedo and magnificent gut hanging low and hyper masculine. Thank you America for at least, not being that guy.
*Publishers note: There is no proof this man was French-Canadian. The writer simply likes to believe this is so.
4. Nobody has a clue what’s going on in the world
The US media machine is constant, ever-present and it is total. I was frankly shocked by the general opinions I heard while in the USA. America has adopted the same “victim” complex that Japan revels in: Everyone is out to get us! This has been internalized while paradoxically, in some intricate catch 22, people still have not figured out why “They hate us for our freedoms”.
It seems that Americans, inexplicably think everyone is out to kill them. Everyone is going to nuke them. Everyone hates America for all it’s goodies. The reality that the world dislikes America not for some intangible concept but because we have been “accidentally” killing civilians, stealing everyone’s shit, bullying weaker nations (which is everyone) and spying on everyone, has simply not caught on AT ALL. Nope, it’s not that stuff at all.
A popular radio talk show I was listening to by a popular political commentator left me reeling with sound bits like…
These rights in the constitution are ones given to us by god.
We are on the brink of WW3 with Russia! It’s WW3!
Iran is a nest of vipers who live in a society devoted to one thing: The destruction of America.
I was shell-shocked at first and then finally mildly embarrassed. America, is this really the best we have to offer? I should hope not.
What’s next? “We have to make all the mountain bikes here in the USA because foreign bikes can’t ride on our American trails and rocks properly.”
Japan and the new America should consider starting a club.
“The World hates us and we are all Victims Support Group”
Clearly not the America I remember.
3. Drugs everywhere
Everywhere I looked I saw drugs. Drugs drugs and more drugs. Clearly, the “War on Drugs” is well and over. Because these days Americans cannot sit through thirty minutes of mind numbing television without hearing at least two or three drug commercials.
When I was a kid it was “This is your brain on drugs” and that was over the top but it made me think. It made me think streams like “Hmmm, that herion sure seems fun, but do I want to die in a gutter? No! (Smile, thumbs up!)” Today, everyone can be on drugs. Drugs for weight loss, drugs for Diabetes. Drugs for depression and drugs for erectile malfunction. Drugs for heart disease and drugs for hair loss. Drugs for sleeping and drugs for waking up. ADHD, Herpes, Gonorrhea, HIV and general lethargy; there are drugs for it all.
It is a never-ending stream of drugs and what you can do to get them. All day, all the time even with billboards on the street. It has been calculated that there are 80 pharmaceutical ads on TV at any given time every hour.
All this, and people are still cynical about the legalization of Marijuana. The double think is so extraordinarily powerful it’s worth a hat tip to big Pharma.
2. Bread and Circuses
I like sports and America has liked sports for a long, long time. But it seemed to me while I was back that both sports and the personal activities of prized players are everywhere and take up a ludicrous amount of the nations brain power.
Not only do these things often monopolize conversation, but they are generally sports that to the rest of the world, are simply not that important. Aside from Japan, baseball finds it’s only real home in the USA. Basketball is largely an American obsession with the Chinese joining in when nature goes horribly wrong and American football? Well, the Super Bowl is the second or third largest sporting event of the year GLOBALLY (depending on the Olympics) and only one country watches it at all.
Not only is it the obsession with the sport but also with its participants. The scandals are endless and they dominate headlines and discourse. I have friends from England who consider themselves “football heads” and they don’t babble this much about the game and I assure you, they babble quite a lot.
47.6 million Americans are on food stamps.
Good luck with the revolution.
1. Americans like to talk
Judging by the colossal amount of media available to help men and women meet each other and to help people get over the death like hurdles of social interaction, one might assume that Americans are incredibly stand offish and generally cold and hard to warm up to. I surely had a vague feeling that matched this when I left in 2003. But for whatever reason, be it some life experience, confidence with age or a lack of interest in any particular outcome, I found it incredibly easy to talk to just about everyone in America.
In fact, I think that Americans in general enjoy talking to and even feel compelled to talk to other people who are physically in close proximity to them. Unlike the Japanese and often Europeans, who are constantly in close proximity to someone be it on the train, in the office or even at home, many Americans spend a fair amount of time isolated: in cars on the highway and in bigger homes with more space. Not to mention that America itself is physically much bigger, spread out and disconnected, much like it’s cities.
This seems to mean there is almost a kind of hard-wired desire to need to converse with people when they are close to you. Americans on airplanes, in shops, at sporting events, on buses and just walking around town greet each other and chit-chat with each other for no apparent reason.
After ten years away I have lost this impulse and am perfectly content to sit next to someone for sixteen hours straight and never say a word to them and it feels utterly natural. However, I seemed to be the only English speaker on the plane who felt this way. Then in America, when I entered into some kind of exchange, I found myself being absolutely me, 100% I was doing nothing in the way of chit-chat or small talk but simply talking how I would to a good friend with anyone who approached me in conversation. To some it seemed off-putting but to others it seemed very natural. Although difficult to articulate, this was the most shocking element of my trip. Any fear of talking to or dealing with strangers has utterly disappeared.
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