I am regularly asked about what I miss about life in the USA. The list usually seems to consist of salmon and avocados in roughly that order: I have realized that more interesting may be what I do not miss. I’ve made an incomplete list.
– Shockingly expensive health care.
Broke your nose? That will be $5,000. Cancer? Prepare to sell your first-born! Better not be kidney cancer, because we might need those, too. Broke a finger or have a persistent cough or got a really bad cut? Ignore it and treat it yourself and hope it goes away — you do have to eat this week and that box of stale Frosted Flakes is running awfully low.
Or, you could always start a Kickstarter for your expenses if you get a brain tumor. Nothing can go wrong with the Kickstarter tactic of covering devastating, life-threatening ailments.
– No Painkillers For You!
Under the age of 40? In serious pain? You’re probably just an addict, you punk asshole! Take two Tylenol PM for your dismembered finger and your dislocated shoulder and never contact me again!
Indeed, insofar as I can determine, doctors are so terrified of being accused of facilitating the massive drug operation of some miscreant with a lot of scabs that actual-in-pain youth are interrogated as if they themselves were the criminal, for having the temerity to be of a certain age and to be in pain. I imagine the scrutiny is even worse if one’s pain is not easily identified by means of either an X-ray or simply peering at the afflicted body part.
Meanwhile, in Asia, most painkillers up to and over Codeine are available at your local corner drug store, sold by a nice 12-year-old who’s manning the store while Mom and Dad are out. I do not necessarily suggest the US adopt this method of total laissez-faire, but it does make it a lot easier to seek relief for the occasional stubbed toe without feeling as if you are a sex offender.
– Flippant Baby Boomers
Flippant baby boomers do roam Asia, but they are not in their native habitat, and are generally alone or in small and unthreatening groups. Further, the type of baby boomers who have decided to pull up sticks and immigrate to the great Oriental unknown are rather unlikely to indulge in long lectures about Making It to their hapless, youthful counterparts. No, a young American is much more likely to be cornered by a somewhat lit and wrathful baby boomer over Thanksgiving dinner or at some sort of alumni function: introduce a bottle of wine or a particularly self-pitying remark by a millennial into the brew, and watch the indignant sentiment bubble inevitably to the surface.
“When I was your age, we worked our way through college by doing hard time at McDonalds over the summer!” might one man dressed in a sports coat say, putting down a tumbler of Maker’s Mark. “Kids your age are just frittering their money away on iPhones and forgetting the value of HARD WORK and FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY.” (He has an iPhone. He has made it, and thus, in his world-view, this is OK).
Or perhaps’ one’s parents – not applicable to my own parents, who might be reading this and have never been prone to buying expensive marine sports equipment, among their other tangible virtues — “No, you can’t move back in with us. We told you last month, we’re losing the house because we couldn’t make our mortgage payment. The Jet-Ski has to go, too.”
Under these conditions, it is sometimes best to simply be absent.
– Shockingly Expensive Alcohol
Unless you’re in one of America’s poor forgotten enclaves – hello, New Orleans! – attempting to get drunk as a good citizen without access to a moonshine distillery on a Saturday night will probably cost you upwards of $50 — a horrifying reality I discovered for myself upon interning in Washington DC for the summer. If you are a lightweight, you may be able to get sloshed for under $30 if you manage to find a dive bar where everything is sticky and the bartender really wants to talk to you about how the Jews are ruining the entertainment industry for everyone else.
All this encourages one to throw more house parties that feature jug-wine and the sort of ridiculously high-proof alcohol that can be used in acts of arson in a pinch. Merely sitting around a bar for the heck of it, downing drink after drink in the interest of an evening’s entertainment, is simply financially out of reach for most but the wealthy in many US cities.
Meanwhile, in Cambodia, you can purchase a liter of Jim Beam for $7, and theoretically draw yourself a delicious bourbon bath for under $100. (I imagine this would sting. And be a fire hazard. But you are welcome to attempt it).
– Completely Unjustified Exceptionalism
“This is the finest country in the world.”
“Just remember, we live in the best country in the world.”
“Aren’t you glad to be back in the best country in the world?”
Curiously, these sentiments — repeated with the fervor of a religious chant that if said enough will somehow come true —are most often expressed to the returning or aspirant traveler by people who have been recently laid off and who lack health insurance, or who are desperately seeking a way to fix their tire after falling into the hundredth gaping pothole to open up on their never-maintained local road. We are indeed the nation of temporarily embarrassed millionaires, to quote Steinbeck, and it is amazing how many people will step in to remind you of this.
Non-Functional Public Transportation
Get a car or walk, pussy.
Cambodia, of course, does not have anything even approximating public transportation, and the idea of a public bus system in Phnom Penh evokes images of graft, mysteriously missing bus parts, and a horrifying body count whenever it rains. But the non-motorcycle owner in Phnom Penh can get a tuk-tuk or a motorcycle taxi for easy point to point access for pleasingly little money. The resident of most urban areas in the US cannot exactly rely upon some teenager with a motorbike to get to work, tuk tuks are probably outlawed by at least five different urban codes, and taxis cost $15 to go around the block. It is no wonder that the people are clamoring for bike lanes.
– Pandering TV and Local News
TV news panders violently to the great polis in Asia, but I happen to have the massive advantage of not speaking the language, and am thus immune to the inane things uttered by Khmer, Thai, or Vietnamese presenters. If I wish to watch TV news, I can merrily flick on the tube and choose from the BBC, Al Jazeera, or CNN’s international edition, all of which do a reasonably good job of focusing on international affairs with a reasonably minimal amount of devotion to either cheap emotional pandering or cat videos.
Then I return to the US, do the same, and am confronted with a CNN that is roughly 50 percent devoted to silly dogs that can surf, the latest Instagram scandal perpetuated by the Rogue Kim Kardashian, and perhaps 10 minutes of attention to some curious camel-ridden country called Egypt. Local newspapers are only a bit better, with a curious penchant for devoting their front page to things like a 5th grader who made, like, a lot of paper cranes and the recent tri-county Japanese animation craft fair. I shall not even speak of Fox News.
Actually, I have a love-hate affair with the great American mall. Asians are absolutely entranced by malls as well, and have merrily turned Singapore, Hong Kong, and much of Bangkok into a giant air conditioned retail space. More power to them I suppose — it gets hot there — but a turn through these enormous Asian mallplexes is at least something of an exotic experience, with a number of stores and restaurants and Shopping Experiences unknown to middle America, and fish spas, and weird fast-food characters, and girls wearing unidentifiable outfits.
And then I came back to the US for a stint in January 2012, and I went to a mall in urban Sacramento for something to do on a rainy day. The culture shock was the most intense I have ever experienced, as I wandered around the high ceilinged confines of a mall I’d been visiting for upwards of a decade: I suddenly saw it anew, deserted at 11:00 AM on a Wednesday, the hat stores and the Hot Topic and the Wet Seal, the echoing halls and the white-washed floor, a man spritzing perfume at passerby with an unclean expression on his face. I had just been writing about the travails of housing-displaced Cambodians and noted that all of the group I’d interviewed could easily reside within a few yards of this space: this struck me as rather horrifying. It was almost too much: I wanted to stay in the shadows where it would be a bit harder to see me. I wanted to leave, and I also wanted to stay: I am conflicted about it to this day.
On the bright side, malls have food courts, Forever 21, and are great places to go when it rains. So I cannot condemn them outright.
– Blithering American Idiots
When living abroad, one tends to encounter rather well-educated and enlightened Westerners, the sort of people who are open to other cultures and ideas and ways of life. If you meet other Americans — in the tiny minority who bother to get passports — they’re usually reasonably interesting individuals who are curious about the outside world.
Then you come back to the US and are invited to a party, where you stand around clutching a warm PBR, watching as everyone attempts to avoid talking to you after you mentioned you just came back from A Certain Third World Country. Your attempts at making conversation are unfortunately peppered with exotica as weird things in fact do comprise most of your recent existence: after some inquiries about whether you got “the SARs,” you are properly consigned to an awkward corner while the merits of the new “How I Met Your Mother Are Discussed.”
Or you’re talking to someone while waiting for the subway to arrive and they start discussing with great animation how immigrants and their lizard men henchmen are summarily ruining America. Or someone wearing a teddy bear sweatshirt attempts to tell you that Abortion is Murder as you’re waiting in line in the sweaty, human-scented confines of the DMV. Or you’re on a red-eye Southwest flight sitting next to a gentleman in a tie-die shirt and sweatpants, who is reading a book by Rush Limbaugh while noisily devouring a tuna-fish sandwich, small bits of which are falling onto your lap.
These are the little things.
To be followed by Things I Miss About the US, just for a smidgen of contrast. It’ll probably involve a lot of pictures of salmon. I regret nothing.