Category Archives: USA

Convergence

Source: ArtStation

One of the many ways in which the once-great United States is converging to the norms of its more authoritarian counterparts in the East:

How are we supposed to take the myriad leaks coming from Robert Mueller’s special investigation of what I guess we could call “The Russian Matter”?

You would think that on the day Rep. Steve Scalise was shot the lava-like flow of illegal and frequently inaccurate leaked information being promulgated ad infinitum by the Washington Post, the New York Times, and CNN (among others) would stop for a moment’s respectful pause, but no — at least not at the Washington Post.

That very day they were “reporting” [scare quotes deliberate] that five, count ’em five, needless-to-say unnamed “officials” [scare quotes again deliberate] were saying Donald Trump is under investigation for obstruction of justice by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. […]

That is a big story, bigger even than Trump/Russia (well, that wouldn’t be hard). Whether or not Trump obstructed justice we have no way of knowing (though Alan Dershowitz and Jonathan Turley are skeptical), but we do know that illegal leakers are all over our government from intelligence agencies to the FBI. This is quite simply totalitarianism on the march, the subversion of the rule of law in a democratic republic.

Liberty, representative government and the rule of law are fast becoming as obsolete in America as VCRs and $14.99 special edition Time magazines. What difference does it make where in the world you live anymore?

The prodigal expat returns to Asia

Realizes the inviting bosom of the motherland is in fact a graveyard of all hope

He had had enough. It was time. Time to flee the hell-matrix of the West, the spiritual tundra of America. Time to reboot, course-correct, go back to square one. To admit utter, crushing defeat and failure in regard to the past six months of his life, a blur of suffering, signifying nothing. To shrug off said humiliating defeat and the colossal waste of time and life it represented, accept that he had gained literally nothing from it, not even a “learning experience” that would somehow enable him to make better decisions in future, not even a new relationship that he valued – it had really been completely pointless from start to finish – and just charge it to the game and move on.

Yep, it was time to go the fuck back to Asia.

ASIA. It was funny, because during his whole ordeal in Indianapolis, whenever he thought about moving back to Asia his pulse would quicken and he felt as if he were waking up from a deep, cold slumber. Almost as if the true orientation of his life were towards the East. As if, by LARPing as a working stiff in corporate America, he was fooling himself and others and doing violence to his true nature.

Was it possible that he belonged in Asia, that his destiny was to remain an expat forever? Because he would never, ever belong to any Asian nation – as long as he lived out there, he would always be a stranger in a strange land.

Mike pondered this, but the answer eluded him. How much of his hideous experience in America could be blamed on his job, versus the nature of the country itself? He had to admit that life in the US hadn’t really been that bad – quite the opposite, in fact, from a material standpoint. He had lived in a large, comfortable dwelling. He had enjoyed healthy, palatable food every day. He had never had an appetite or want that he could not rapidly satiate.

And it wasn’t like America was lacking in arts and culture, or people who shared Mike’s interests and priorities. There was always the internet for whatever conversation and community he couldn’t get in real life – and unlike in China, you didn’t need a VPN because the good stuff was hidden behind a great firewall erected by tyrants. Not yet.

Mike’s social and romantic life had hit a nadir during his agonized months in Indianapolis, but that was his fault, it stemmed from the anarchic state of his personality. There was no shortage of people he could have met, women he could have dated and/or fucked. He had just never tried. His few lame efforts in that direction had promptly smashed against the rocks of his massive indifference.

“I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention,” said Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. No, neither did Mike. But between believing and doing, a great gulf was fixed. The truth was that Mike had achieved, during his wintry exile in Indianapolis, levels of morbid introversion that shouldn’t even be possible.

Could he have learned to love the motherland? Perhaps. And there would be more chances for that in the future. But what most bothered him about America, he suspected, what really made it impossible for him to settle down and get with the program, was boredom – that most underestimated of human emotions.

Life in America in the current year was just indescribably dull. It was hard to explain, but he felt that the absence of real hardship or large-scale adventure had reduced human life to a series of pointless chores, a mindless rearrangement of matter on the surface of the earth, followed by death. You didn’t get that sense in Asia. There was something different in the air. History was moving there, titanic forces had been unleashed. Asia was a continent-wide adrenaline rush. Life was interesting. And maybe that was just an illusion produced by his borderline mental illness, but it felt real, and that was all that mattered.

“These people have got something that we’ve lost. … There’s a velocity and density of life there that you don’t get in the West, and that I found oxygenating.” -David Mitchell

And then there was his job, that florescent-lit hell. That chain gang of Excel and performance reviews. Every second a micro-death.

Did he exaggerate? No, he did not. It really was that bad. And when he realized it would only get worse – that the climb would only get steeper from here on out, that working his ass off would only bring more responsibility, which meant the torture would be increased, intensified – they would bring in the real professionals for this, oh yes, the instruments were being readied in Uday Hussein’s private dungeon – then he understood it was time. He had to go back.

No more feminized corporate cuckspeak. No more pretending to be “excited” by bullshit. No more fake joviality with people he would pay money to avoid. No more shuffling to his cube in the eunuch uniform of a wageserf.

It was over. He was going to Asia.

His first serious attempt at repatriation had ended in total disaster, and now he would become an ex-ex-expat. A re-expat, perhaps. Whatever. He had bought his ticket. Fuck this place, he was going back.

Adaptation

Mike was floundering after several months back in the US. It wasn’t that he wanted to throw in the towel and move back to China, per se. But something wasn’t clicking; something about his new life didn’t “take.” An important part of him had missed the flight from Chengdu.

He walked aimlessly around the capital of Indiana, as exotic-seeming to him now as the sloppy villages of rural China or the Beijing subway at rush hour, choked with black-haired humanity. Mike had left the US as a kid, for all intents and purposes – a dumbass with a diploma – and had spent most of his twenties in Asia. Coming back home now, he felt immeasurably older, more seasoned, and also more detached, a stranger in America, like an anthropologist studying the folkways of a remote Papuan tribe.

It was the little things: Everyone drank their water cold here, even in winter. Like the Chinese, he found it bizarre. Americans treated business cards with a nonchalance bordering on contempt. It was harder to send money to people – nobody used WeChat Wallet here. Tipping and being asked for donations all the time. A major difference: Large white people everywhere, hot white women commonplace. His people. The Chinese were again a minority, albeit a significant and growing one.

Mike felt vaguely dazed all the time. Unable or maybe just unwilling to shed his Chinese life, to “move on.” He still talked to his expat friends in China every day. He posted photos and funny memes on his WeChat account so cute girls on the other side of the planet would “heart” them. He ordered the occasional batch of dress shirts from his tailor in Chengdu – sent her the money and had the shirts shipped to his apartment in Indianapolis. Received visitors from China, girls he fucked. Hell, he was still chasing Chinese girls *here*, or perhaps more accurately, they were chasing him. What was it about him that they found so fascinating? In any case, he had come back to the US to fuck white chicks, not East Asians, and he was failing even at that simple task.

His moral standards had collapsed in Asia; there was no question about that. Even the degenerate moral climate of post-modern America seemed prudish and uptight compared to China. Or maybe it was just easier to get laid over there. Everyone was more easygoing, less coked up on stress. American girls were much nicer than he had remembered, but he was always turned off by them in the office. They reminded him of schoolmarms. Few things in this world were more boner-killing than an attractive woman spitting out phrases like “implementation specialist” and “success-based team” briskly and without irony.

Mike felt constantly outsmarted and outclassed by his hard-working Midwestern colleagues. His inadequacies gnawed at him, but that was not his immediate problem. His immediate problem was his job. He was overwhelmed on a daily basis by his job, the hideous and unrelenting pointlessness of it. Layer upon layer of mindless process that withered the human spirit. He was bad (slow, error-prone) at the tedious stuff, and the rest of it, the parts that required “soft skills,” made him want to sell all his possessions and go on a vision quest.

He had to persist, though. If he went back to Asia he would never be hired by anyone again, ever. Destitution would await him. He would have to go on food stamps; a slow spiral of despair, alcoholism, and petty crime would ensue; he would ultimately be murdered in a back alley. No, he had to stay in the US. More than that, he had to stay useful to his company long enough to save up some money, get a side business going with a reliable income stream, before the machines took his job. That was his quest, and it gave some semblance of a purpose and structure to his life.

Mike flew to New York and met a couple of American friends he had known in China. They both worked for the same consulting firm, which had relocated them back to the US, several months apart. He couldn’t believe how happy they were. They gushed about their new jobs, how exciting it was to be back, all the cultural adaptations they had to make, which bemused them. They joked about how chaotic things were back in China, the kids pissing and crapping in the streets. The toxic air and the tap water you couldn’t drink, even if you boiled it.

“I always drank boiled water,” said Mike. “I had one of those kettles.”

“No, that doesn’t work,” said Joe, who had brought his Chinese-American wife and three kids back to New York. “You’re just heating up the heavy metals in the water. You’re drinking hot pollution. In fact, you’re concentrating the pollutants because a lot of the actual water evaporates.”

“Fuck.” Mike felt reasonably healthy, though, after all those years of drinking lead and cadmium by the gallon. Or did he? Maybe that explained his malaise, his persistent mental fog.

Joe had become a full-blown China-hater before he escaped. The other friend, Sandra, spoke fluent Mandarin and was much more ambivalent about the superiority of Anglo-American culture. Nevertheless, Mike had never seen her so excited. Normally cool and reserved, she laughed with delight at their China anecdotes and rambled on about her fancy new position in New York. She gestured extravagantly as she spoke, tossing her blonde hair. She was getting married in a few months.

Mike’s heart went out to them both. Joe and Sandra had lived abroad longer than he had, and they had moved back successfully. They were happy and well-adjusted. Mike was not. But had he ever been?

No doubt Mike had left a lot of loose ends in China. His transition back was “unresolved,” like the end of the Korean War. It was about as far from a clean break as humanly possible; but then again, that was classic Mike – he was the still the same dumbass kid who had refused to attend his own college graduation ceremony. Stubborn, myopic, and fixated on the past. Nothing ever, ever changed.

He wasn’t suffering reverse culture shock. The problem wasn’t America; the problem was him.

I can see how that would be disorienting

It’s weird coming back to the late-imperial dystopia of America, especially if you’ve been overseas for as long as Thomas Fuller has:

AFTER more than 27 years abroad, mostly as a foreign correspondent in Asia covering civil unrest and poverty, I wander the streets of this city, my new home, like an enchanted tourist.

The people who share sidewalks with me must wonder why I sometimes laugh out loud. The advertisements for sustainably grown marijuana on the sides of San Francisco buses. (“That’s cannabis, the California way.”) The comfort dogs on public transport and the woman who brought her dog to the Easter Sunday service. Blindingly white teeth. The burrito that was so huge it felt as if it would break my wrist. Police officers covered in tattoos.

[…]

I spend hours in supermarket aisles. Organic ice cream sandwiches! Vegan shoes! A “Bluetooth compatible” electric toothbrush!

The America of 2016 is so much more specialized than the one I left in 1988. It almost seems that we have created needs so that we can cater to them.

I stop and stare at the giant trucks in San Francisco designed for the specific purpose of shredding and hauling documents. What a luxury as a society to produce tons of confidential documents and then deploy specialized trucks to destroy them. I knew yoga was big in California and ditto for cannabis. But it was still a surprise to discover “ganja yoga.”

[…]

Greater Bangkok, a sprawling metropolis with more than 10 million people, has 1,300 homeless people, a survey this year found.

San Francisco has less than one-tenth Bangkok’s population but six times as many homeless people.

The special loopiness of San Francisco, I would imagine, only heightened the contrast with Asia. The author seems to have taken it well — bemusement is a powerful mindset.

Home sweet home

Hessler on coming back from China

Insightful essay by Peter Hessler, author and formerly The New Yorker‘s China correspondent, on the complex process of moving home:

The first thing I learned while living abroad is that if you’re lost you have to ask for directions. The last thing I learned is that it’s possible to ship a hundred and forty-three boxes from Beijing across the Pacific Ocean without a final destination. I’ve never been good at planning ahead, and this quality became worse after years in China, where everybody seems to live in the moment. And in a country like that it’s easy to find a moving agent who’s willing to improvise. He went by the English name Wayne, and he wore his hair long, the way Chinese artists often do. When we arranged the contract, Wayne asked my wife, Leslie, if she had any idea where we were going. “It will be a small town, probably in Colorado,” she said. “But we haven’t decided which one.”

“Can you decide within the next few weeks?”

“I think so.”

Wayne explained that the shipping container would be on the ocean for much of a month, and there the address wouldn’t matter. But after it arrived in the U.S. the American partner would need to know where to deliver it by truck. That was Wayne’s deadline: we had to find a home in less than five weeks.

[…]

Neither of us had much experience as adults in the United States. I had left after college, to attend graduate school in England, and then I travelled to China; before I knew it I had been gone for a decade and a half. I had never held an American job, or owned an American house, or even rented an American apartment. The last time I bought a car, I filled it with leaded gas. My parents still lived in the Missouri town where I grew up, but otherwise nothing tied me to any particular part of the country. Leslie [Hessler’s wife] had even fewer American roots: she had been born and brought up in New York, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and she had made her career as a writer in Shanghai and Beijing.

That was 2010. America must not have offered what Hessler was looking for, because he moved to Cairo with his family the following year, and is apparently still there.

Attitude adjustment

From the US State Department’s guide to reverse culture shock:

Myths & Misconceptions About the United States

Many people [i.e. Americans returning home after a long sojourn abroad] have misconceptions concerning life in the United States. Some of these myths include:

  • Everything works better back home.
  • People are more efficient.
  • Everything is clean.
  • Things are basically the same as when I left.
  • Personal relationships can be resumed easily.
  • I can cope easily in my own culture.

New Attitudes & Values of Sojourners

Americans often develop new attitudes, values and perceptions as a result of their travels. These can often cause stress on reentry.

  • I see America through a sharper lens, both its strengths and weaknesses. I no longer take this country for granted and I really resent unbalanced criticism by Americans who haven’t experienced the rest of the world.
  • I see the validity of at least one other culture. That makes me realize that the American way is not always “right” or “best.” I am impatient with people who criticize other countries and blindly accept everything American causing them to never question anything.
  • I have an unclear concept of home now.
  • I place more value on relationships than other Americans seem to. People here are too busy for one another.
  • Everyone in America is always so stressed and frantic. They never relax. I feel like I can’t relate to others.

This is so true, in particular the last two points. After several years of living abroad, I was shocked at how intense and stressed-out most Americans are. No more leisurely hour-long lunches with colleagues… everyone eats at their desks or goes downstairs to “grab something.” Once you’ve lived the good life, it’s hard to go back.

Civilization and its discontents