Here is a distinctly incomplete list of things that I miss about the US. Most involve food.
– Salmon and avocados.
Salmon is a cool-weather fish and is not known to congregate in the murky waters of the Mekong. Avocados, too, are a cooler-weather vegetable that whiile sometimes found — and excellent – in Southeast Asia, tend to be both elusive and rather hit and miss. When you combine salmon and avocados into one dish, you are then confronted with a well-nigh-sublime sucker-punch of Good Fats and omega 3s and , wrapped into one delicious, delicious package. Extra points if sold in the format of spicy salmon avocado rolls with brown rice. When I return to the US, I will frequent the Whole Foods prepackaged sushi counter, and lo — I will not be ashamed. And then I will have smoked salmon on toast points for dinner.
– Salads the size of your head
In Asia, you can at times obtain a good salad, but such a dish rarely reaches the behemothic, world-nourishing sizes of the American variant. A salad-bar is largely unknown: you will generally instead receive three or four delicate bites of leafy greens, often lashed with a salad dressing composed largely of sugar if you are particularly unlucky. The concept of the dinner salad has not really hit Asia — probably reasonable in places where greens that won’t immediately give you salmonella are a newish concept — and it remains a dodgy proposition to order one for dinner or lunch if you particularly hungry.
Meanwhile, American salads use a humble bed of mixed leaves to pile on buckets of protein, cheese, nuts, and maybe even the occasional extraneous vegetable. You could theoretically curl up and go to sleep in some American salads. I have no problem with this.
– Mexican Food
Ah, Mexican food. Mexican food is certainly popular in some Asian countries, but that does not mean it is good. The fiery yet subtle flavors of true Mexican cuisine are usually sublimated into something curiously bland and insipid, regardless of the chili-loving proclivities of most Southeast Asian countries.
Tortillas are usually bought at high prices from import stores and treated with the curious reverence afforded the Hope Diamond: cotija cheese is essentially unknown, salsa comes in the Pace Picante variant or something close to it, and a “fajita” is actually just a taco that you make yourself. Hot sauce provided is usually of the Sriracha-variant, while they’ve always just run out of guacamole before you’ve arrived. Ceviche, curiously enough, is essentially unknown.
Phnom Penh happens to have a few decent outlets for Mexican food, but it is the only place I’ve been in Asia where I’d bother expending the calories. Everywhere else appears to be catering to the mutant and sad Mexican food proclivities of German tourists and Chinese visitors eager to expand their horizons — of which as little should be said as possible.
– Even The Podunkest of American Airports
Airports that serve cheaper airlines in Asia sometimes seem to be cleverly designed to produce maximal discomfort — and yes, I am looking at you, Kuala Lumpur Low Cost Terminal, although the current incarnation of the Denpasar outfit in Bali certainly rates a mention.
American airports, while often downright dismal, will at least usually offer a frozen yogurt outlet, a salad bar, free Wifi, and a place to purchase the newest edition of the Economist for less than $20. If you’re lucky, you can even get a Chicago-style hot dog or a surprisingly decent gumbo, depending on your region. Also, they have carpets. For some reason, a carpet in an airport fills me with a deep sense of existential well-being. I cannot explain this, I can only report. (This does not apply to the airport in Singapore, the new terminal in Bangkok, or the surprisingly humane Phnom Penh airport).
The downside is that in America, I can understand every single conversation that is going on around me. That way lies madness.
– Crossing The Street in Peace
In most parts of developing Asia, crossing the street is a dangerous, nerve-wracking affair that can determine whether you will live or die. Further, it is fiendishly full of variables. Is the driver of that public bus in a good mood today, or is he angry about something? Is that man in the SUV drunk? Is that gentleman on the motorbike having a fight with his girlfriend on a cellphone? It is impossible to know, but you cannot realistically spend the entirety of your remaining life waiting on a parking island for something to change. (Although that might make for a good Tom Hanks vehicle).
So you sally forth. You throw your arm up at the oncoming traffic, as if your feeble little weedy limb will convince the owner of a hurtling death machine to stop. You wonder if a vehicle will run over and rip off your toes. You endure. (Or you don’t, in which case you can hope that someone bothers to call the embassy when they relieve you of your wallet – which hey, you won”t be needing, anyway).
The first time I returned to the US after an extended period in India, I flew into San Francisco International Airport, where my parents picked me up for the drive back to Sacramento. We drove out of the airport and into downtown San Francisco, looking for a place to have lunch, and I was immediately confronted with the sinking feeling that must be incumbent upon the final survivors of zombie movies. “But where is everyone?” I asked, half-jokingly — but not really as a joke, because the standard-issue Wednesday afternoon streets of San Francisco resembled a tumbleweed-strewn ghost town to my Bangalore-hewn sensibilities.
Later that day, I went for a walk by the natural river corridor close to our house in the late afternoon, and walked for a good twenty minutes without spotting another human. I was partially convinced that no one had bothered to tell me about a pandemic. I got over it eventually. But the yawning, empty spaces and the quiet of many parts of America is something of a rare commodity in most of Asia.
Further, even if you are enjoying being alone in nature’s immensity for a bit in one of those rare forgotten bits of Asia, it is generally congruent to Asian sensibilities that you will be gifted with company as soon as someone spots you standing around being lonely. For most of Asia, solitude is a problem that needs to be solved immediately, preferably with snacks.
– Not Being Robbed A Lot
I love Cambodia, but it is currently undergoing a street crime wave that makes doing things like wearing a purse and walking around at night rather deeply poorly advised. (Also, you should probably always consider your smartphone a temporary and ephemeral thing, or at least look into a good insurance policy). I have currently donated two smartphones to the Larceny Gods and am not enthused about the prospect of losing another — but it strikes me as inevitable. In the meantime, I’ll continue to abscond with the purse until I leave here, even if I look like a huge nerd.
There is crime and theft and murder in America, of course, but in pleasant California suburbs it is unlikely someone will decide to make off with your purse while you’re waiting in line for Pinkberry with everyone else coming back from soccer practice on Friday evening. I am quite willing to trade a bit of theft-related uncertainty for an easier, cheaper, and more…is the word “authentic”? – life in Asia, but it’s also nice to be able to leave your phone on a table while you read a book without expecting anything untoward to happen to it.
And I really can’t remember the last time anyone I knew in Sacramento was held up at gunpoint for their laptop directly outside their house, although you’re welcome to write in, readers. (Having your house broken into when you’re away on vacation is another story entirely, although as this does not actually involve you at the time, this somehow bothers me less).
– Public libraries
A recent experience with a university library in the Philippines, where the staff were all vastly concerned by the prospect of three Americans walking in wanting to look at books, has concerned me that the great American municipal library is one of more pleasing institutions. I intend to check out a bunch of novels I will read halfway through and then forget about immediately upon returning to California.
– Riding a bicycle
You can ride a bicycle in Asia, but this is a semi-suicidal practice best performed by people who have already lost the will to live. The odds are against you: with a standard bicycle, you are bringing a knife to a gun fight in most Asian cities, and motorbike drivers, car drives, and the owners of SUVs alike are not going to be particularly sympathetic to your plight. Bike lanes are non-existent and are thought to be mythical, and you can also forgot about a sidewalk.
There is a known sequence of events in Phnom Penh wherein the starry-eyed new expat takes a look at the small size of the city and decides to purchase a bicycle: he or she then rides it to work and back a few times, has a few near-death experiences, and quickly begins to make all sorts of excuses about why it would really be better to take a moto or a tuk tuk today. Eventually, the bicycle fades into the background and the expat decides it might be a good idea to buy a motorcycle.
– The Occasional Crisp Morning
Yes, I may be violently allergic to weather not conducive to the survival of pine trees, but even I sometimes like to step outside on a October Saturday to be greeted with the faint promise of winter in the air, and the smell of burning leaves from somewhere down the street. Or perhaps the occasional morning in the upper 50s in Florida, where you can make a morning walk under palm trees with the sunlight just warm enough for shirt-sleeves, promising to intensify into something better as the day wears on.
Sometimes I even like driving up to Lake Tahoe, where I can clump around awkwardly in the snow like a newly minted goat, wearing at least four layers so none of the nasty cold particles can settle upon me. (There was a time when I snowboarded. I have substituted scuba diving, and I have no regrets).
Regardless: I am from California and the South, let’s not go nuts here.