Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Back in the US of A

Well they finally let me out, after five years in Cambodia interrupted by only one night in Ha Tien, Vietnam, the closest border town to Kampot, I’m experiencing the other world, the outside world; in this case: The Indispensable Country, The Exceptional Country, you know the one that gets to make up its own rules and show off its superior weaponry whenever it feels it might be compromised strategically or economically, which seems to happen with regularity. At any rate I’m back in the belly of the beast. It may no longer be my home, but having spent the first fifty years of my life there, it’s something that I’ll never to be able to shake off, besides the US having a lot of good points, in spite of everything.
Meanwhile, I’ve been totally relaxed and complacent in the funky laid-back little Eden of Kampot, to the effect that I’ve had no need or desire to go anywhere else. But I came into a little money from sale of a small piece of land and figured it was now or never since the land money wasn’t going to last all that long under any circumstances and I hadn’t seen my kids and grandkids and lifetime friends for what felt like a long time.
Bought my ticket in June for an early September flight from Phnom Penh to Portland, Oregon. The cheapest flight was on Korean Air - $1,230 – but it would’ve cost $250 more if I’d flown two weeks earlier in August. The trip – Phnom Penh to Seoul to Seattle to Portland – included a 12 hour layover in Seoul but I’ve got a friend there and the visa is free and it’s a relatively cheap ride into downtown Seoul - $4.50 - so I had to check it out and wander around town a bit.
I’d been there for a short time back in 1993. I’d spent the whole of ’92 traveling in Asia and didn’t want to go back home and was running out of money so I was expecting that work teaching English would save me from the dreaded return to America. I’d met lots of teachers on my travels and had pumped them for information with the conclusion that Taiwan and Korea were my best bets for work considering they paid $25 per hour as opposed to teaching in Bangkok which started at a measly $4 per hour. Japan was also a possibility, but it just seemed like a strange place to want to live. The Japanese I met traveling were cool enough but all were also ultimate quirky.
So I’m off to the Taiwan embassy since a visa in advance was required then and applied for a two-month visa, the longest term available. Went in for my interview and the fellow said, “Why you want two months? Taiwan small country, nothing to see.” How do you reply to that? He had sized me up and assumed, correctly, that was intending to work illegally, and refused a visa.
Okay, plan B is Korea, so I’m off, in January, to Seoul. Found a cheap place to stay in a kind of guest house where the rooms were heated from under the floor and there were shared kitchen facilities but they were outdoors, so hardly convenient when the temperature went down to 12°F – minus 13°C. Getting around on the subways was easy but finding a destination was a real bear: Buildings are numbered by whole block (all four sides) but there are no numbers on the buildings themselves, besides very few people spoke English back then. Finally found a school to apply to; couldn’t miss the big sign on the front of the building. The headmaster sized me up and assumed, correctly, that I didn’t know what I was talking about – I had had no experience - and asked me to come back the next day with a lesson plan.
Lesson plan? Well, I knew what the two words meant separately as well as put together, but to actually do one? I was clearly and totally out of my element, besides, I’d spent many hours trying to find thermal underwear to ward off the chill, to no avail whatever. I did get a chance to ride the train down to Pusan at the tip of the peninsula. It’s smaller, prettier, warmer and much preferred but it’s even harder to find work there. Korea back then was impressively formal: half the men on the train were wearing suits and ties… just for the ride. So after 10 days in the hermit nation – most homogeneous country on earth – I’m back to Bangkok. Called a number of an English school, said I needed work. Lady at the other end of the phone said great, I need a teacher, come tomorrow at 10am. No questions were asked but at a paltry $4 per hour they didn’t have a lot of options. Over the next 10 months I earned as much as $8 per hour, which still afforded a life of penury; however, that experience was just enough to give me the confidence when I returned eight years later to know I could find work.
At any rate, I found my way to central Seoul easily enough. The Airport express ends at Seoul Station, a nine level complexity accommodating all manner of transportation options. With the help of a local who saw I was completely flummoxed and a tourist map, which somehow disintegrated within an hour of use (not a great selling point for tourists) I found my way out and in the right direction for a little walk to my friend’s place not far from the transit hub. Hung out with her a bit, wandered around the nearby park for about an hour and headed back to the airport. Made my way back to Seoul Station and found a subway to Incheon, which happens to be the name of the airport. Except that Incheon is 15 miles across the water from the airport Incheon and way too far to swim, especially for someone who can barely make 15 meters before he begins to sink. Fortunately, I’d left myself plenty of time to get there so had no need to get stressed out.
The place is wired, with the highest penetration of broadband anywhere. At least 2/3rds of the people on the train were playing with their smartphones. (In fact, they shouldn’t be called telephones, because they really are small computers, which also can be used to make phone calls.) The center city is crisscrossed with giant boulevards, but in between are these personable, interesting little alleys. The Korean people have a distinctive look, very unlike the nearby ethnic groups. As I understand it, they are a combination of yellow and red races. As the reds were being pushed out of Asia by the ever expanding yellows and across the land bridge through the Bering Strait into the Americas, a remnant was left in Korea. It’s a very interesting place, certainly worth a 12 hour visit.
Okay, now I have a 6 hour layover in Seattle. Across from me in the waiting area a oldtimer a little further down the line than yours truly sits down and says to the middle-aged African guy (he was speaking his native language) who was sporting a kid’s backpack and telephone, “Don’t get old, it’s not worth it, it’s only trouble”. The African guy was either ignoring him or didn’t understand or hear him, but I couldn’t help responding that I was also old and didn’t think it was all that bad. He then recounted how his body was falling apart, everything was going wrong, he was spending a fortune trying to stay alive, he didn’t have any family and thought it might be time to die. I agreed, saying, if life is all pain and problems, then might as well move on.
He then went on to tell his story. He was fine until a year before when his kidneys and lots of other internal organs started failing… except he’d weighed 380 pounds – 175 kilos – even though he was only my height, 5’6” – about 168cm. Seems he’d had a stomach bypass fifteen years earlier. That allows you to eat as much as you want without gaining weight, since everything just passes through without being digested. He said he ate 90 pills a day, mostly supplements to make up for getting nothing from the food he ate. What got to me was the idea that he could think all was okay while being grossly overweight and eating mountains of pills everyday. The fact that he made it to 74 under those conditions is quite amazing. When you’re obese everything you do puts extra strain on your body, all of your joints and organs have a lot of extra work to do. Fat people in wheelchairs and electric scooters who can no longer get around on their own two feet is a common sight in America. Not everyone is fat, but the typical mountain of lard is nearly ubiquitous. (If you’re one of the lardasses referred to, forgive me, I mean no harm, everybody has their challenges, yours is just a lot more visible.)
So then I asked him how he felt about his life. He said that he’d had a full and rewarding life, had accomplished a lot and been very successful in business. All the more reason to wrap it up, I responded, knowing you hadn’t missed out or been insufficient or lacking in this life. If you’re going to go out, I suggested, do it with a smile; if you’re going to hang around, might as well try to make the best of it.
My mother tried to make it clear as her end was in view that she didn’t want heroic measures taken to keep her alive, she’d even made a video to that effect; still, when the time came, the doctors were unaware of her wishes and spent tens of thousands of dollars in the last couple of days in a futile and wasted effort. At the same time, millions of people die every year from lack of health insurance. Futility and Waste, along with Inequality and Unfairness, the hallmarks of America.
When I first get to Portland, it usually takes a few days to get some wheels together. In the meantime, I ride the buses and trains. I actually like public transportation; you are relieved of the stress of driving and get to witness a cross-section of America in your fellow passengers. The problem is that it takes god-awful long to go anywhere and you’ve got a curfew since transit is rare at night. So I have to have a car if I’m going to accomplish anything. The buses are full of characters; a couple of times early on I’d be waiting for a bus and I’d see a guy chattering away to himself a few feet away. A couple minutes later he’d stop by to talk. The first guy led off with how he had high blood pressure, but he really like salt, he wasn’t going to give up his salt. Well, why don’t you try using just a little, I suggested. He then pulled a package of sliced salami out of his pocket. Salami, as we know is half fat. What’s your cholesterol, I asked. Two hundred is average, he says, while his is 260. Wait… a… second… 200 is not average, it’s the limit of relative safety. Anything over that is asking for trouble.
Americans are hardly the only people who eat unconsciously, but the attitude here epitomizes self-destructive eating habits. A very large part of that is marketing. The root of all evil hews much closer to marketing than money itself. That is exemplified by a study done some time ago in which 3- to 5-year-old children were given McDonald’s burgers in a company wrapper and a plain wrapper. They were also give fries in the two wrappers. Three quarters thought the offerings in the corporate wrappers tasted better. Children are being taught to like trash. The children were also given baby carrots in both wrappers, which McDonalds doesn’t serve, to the same results. What if equal time on the airwaves was given to advertising veggies and a healthy diet? Clearly a far healthier population would result.
An hour after I arrived on September 5, Portland was hit with a cold, windy, sideways rain. The weather report said there was a 1% chance of that happening on that day and just a week later it was 90° to 95° F  - 32 to 35° C. Whenever it gets down to the mid 60s – around 18 C – I go for the thermals, and still feel cold. In fact, it isn’t that bad, I could manage if I needed to, but I’m sure glad I don’t need to, I much prefer it hot to cold. (Besides, it’s still summer!) It’s especially disconcerting and dismaying therefore to go from a perfect 84° outside into a freezing (relatively speaking) bus. And that’s besides the fact that air-con costs money. Of course, part of the reason for setting the air-con down so low is the number of fat people riding the bus… all that extra insulation, you know.
September 21
This is already a bit dated, more soon...