It's easy to forget the cultural and environmental underpinnings of one's homeland when away for a while. Last week we flew to the States for a short visit, to celebrate our son's university graduation. Following is a list of those things that surprised, delighted, or shocked me:
1. The variety of people in America is stunning. Immediately upon arrival in San Francisco, I was struck by the many shapes and sizes (especially the large sizes) of people in The U.S.! After living pretty much as a giant among a whole lot of short dark-haired people, I blended in right away. No one had a clue that I lived 10,000 miles away in a land where spoken English is an ongoing struggle, even more than it is for many Americans, where shorts are the norm, and shoes an option. I just stood in the airport concourse and stared at everyone, a goofy smile of wonder on my face.
2. Driving isn't scary at all. It was just plain fun driving around streets on which only vehicles travel. No dogs sleeping in the passing lanes, no handcarts to avoid, and no motorcycles weaving through stalled traffic. It was a pleasure humming along the roads in an over-priced rental. I didn't care! It was great!
3. I actually ENJOYED going to a mall. Prior to my return to Bangkok, I avoided them at all costs. But compared to the crazy cacophony of Thai malls, they are convenient and quiet! I could read with no distractions, and get a meal with no rice. Admittedly, I did crave Thai food toward the end of the visit, but it was nice to have western food in something other than a fast food restaurant. In Bangkok, it is difficult to carry on a conversation at a mall due to the madhouse atmosphere of computer games, shouting salespeople, and high-pitched girls in miniskirts sending a sales pitch out into the aisles with the aid of a huge sound system; at a mall in St. Louis, I can shout from one end of the cavernous enclosure to the other and be heard.
4. How nice to sit in the sun and have a drink without dripping sweat down my chest into my waistband. The weather was absolutely perfect, with temperatures lower than Bangkok ever sees. We sat at a corner sidewalk cafe, sipping Long Island Ice Teas and petting a parade of well-behaved pooches who were out walking their owners. Here, I carry a stick the better to keep my ankles free of dog teeth marks. When walking our dogs, Thais smile in an amused sort of way. I know what they're thinking: "What is that strap you have attached to your dog?"
5. I felt like I was eavesdropping all the time. In Thailand, my limited knowledge of the language allows a certain kind of audio veil to envelope me. I hear people talking, but it's just background noise, and I am not distracted. Last week, I couldn't NOT listen to conversations all around me, even though I tried. It was impossible to tune them out because I understood every word. There were times, though, when I wanted to turn to people who were blathering on about inane things and say, "Do you mind? Your moronic discussion is driving me crazy!" The Thais may be saying the same things, but I don't know they are.
6. I could read books in bookstores, and not just look at pictures. That was enjoyable!
Even though I am an American, I still sometimes feel like a stranger when I return. It is kind of nice, though, to be able to be inconspicuous, even though I often feel out of place, because I'm the only one who knows.