Thursday, June 24, 2010
Tom's America: LAX, Part Two
Peter Medak's execrable 1999 horror movie, Species 2, concerns a spaceman who comes back to Earth and brings with him an unseen contagion that soon goes to work on changing the world around him. The alien in question mainly changes the world by making alive people not-alive, but I'm sure there's scope for more variety in such a premise; my secret expectation (or fear, depending on the specifics) is that I'll get back to New Zealand and somehow America will have followed me home. Light switches will flick down to turn on; pennies will exist; people will put the month before the day when writing down the date; those terrifying accordion-buses will roam New Zealand's streets like Hungry Hungry Caterpillars, and people will speak derisively of anyone who rides them, because riding the bus, why don't you just go lick a hobo's asshole?!
Sometimes the contagion I imagine myself carrying would be more irksome than anything else. I remain certain that when I get back to New Zealand, everyone will be tipping. I am not an American, and until I sit a test and marry an employer and become an American, I am going to bask in my right to say that tipping is a patronising affront to the very people beholden to it. And that while certainly I never(!) make the choice to opt for Not Patronising those people by also Not Paying The Portion of Their Wage Their Employer Should be Covering (because that would be doubly patronising and also niggardly), the fact remains that on its best day, tipping is basically saying to someone, "Your employer and I have been talking, and he doesn't feel like paying you adequately, so here's a little sumpin sumpin seeings as I'm rolling in the benjis and all. Thirty percent? Oh, I'm touched that that should be so special to you; honestly, where I live we line our birdcages with thirty percent!" People all over America have weighed in on tipping for me, and there's something sweet and socially contractual and honor systemic about it, but really, I'd rather just eat somewhere where they know what minimum wage is (that is to say: an insult).
I have a very real fear that the deep vein of commercial smugness that I choose to dissociate with any notion I might have of Essential Americanism will be back in New Zealand waiting for me. That everyone in the country will "have me covered." That all slogans for all products will be Concise. Succinct. Smarmy. That the entire food industry of New Zealand will have discovered what American media have apparently known for some time now, which is that all food can be sold with warm lighting, a Dutch tilt, and a shot of the raw ingredients bouncing off a chopping board, splashing water as they go. Who knew it was so easy? America!
And I suppose if that smugness were to follow me home, the bizarre and unexpected decrepitude propping it with rickety scaffolding might as well come too. The run-down faded glamor of even the nicest areas, where everything's either Just Opened and absurdly new and flashy or Going Out Of Business Everything Must Go and closing up shop even before you walk in the door. The moneylenders in every temple, souvenir stands and chilly-bins of $1 water and desperate ticket-barkers anywhere people might conceivably like to be. The huge, massive, totally unavoidable homelessness every single where you go, brushing past the quietly heartbreaking hordes to dine in places where they have valets to move your cars five feet and everything in the restroom is motion-activated (seriously, America, how clean do you think you are, and how dirty do you think everyone around you is?). When homelessness is so widespread that the homed are pastiching the mannerisms of the homeless in order to rustle up beer money, maybe it's time to start taking stock of your priorities.
The N-word phenomenon, I would hope, would also come with me. When I first got to America I was amazed by how bone-deep the power of racial language really is; the notion of the power of words and perceptions to divide and conjure tensions was so palpable, I imagine it was as close as one can come to experiencing life in a universe where magic words actually exist. New Zealanders basically think this is silly, but people outside America could learn a thing or two from the way Americans cultivate their racial attitudes.
Not the attitudes themselves, necessarily: there are racists as all fuck in America (doy). I met an Arkansian fellow in Portland who shocked the room by dropping a few N-bombs, clarifying his position in a Pryor-caliber rant that rocketed incomprehensibly from "It's okay to say 'nigger' because 'nigger' means 'ignorant person'" to "please don't say 'cunt,' I have a mother and I find that offensive." (This differs from the Man of Portland's usual racial policy, of course: the MoP is very proud of his enlightened racial outlook, and one day he imagines he may meet a brown person, and that brown person will be very impressed also and probably invite him to a concert/reading, because this being the Man of Portland's fantasy, the brown person is Mos Def).
The most hateful racist, the most misguided racial doofus, and the most racially sensible American share one quality: they rightly believe their racial position to be an active part of their inner life; they enshrine this position, cultivate it actively, and recognize that it affects the way they interact with the world. This unspoken acknowledgment of the importance of one's racial dimension sets Americans apart from any other people I have met. Note that assigning weight to one's racial position is different from assigning weight to one's racial identity: while the latter is a great way to set one apart from other people and quickly develop a violent and misguided hatred thereof, the former is more of a shared acknowledgment that race is something worth talking about, which is a position that would improve both race relations and the general tone of conversation Down Under.
A Lengthy Diversion About Racism
Traveling California and Texas, I found myself surprised by how many Hispanic folks I found myself in the company of, and how utterly Latin-American - culturally, linguistically, visually - these folks all were. This obvious (is there a word that's like "obvious" only more so?) observation will not constitute news to any resident of those areas; but for someone who thinks, on some level, that they have a pretty good notion of what America is about, based on mass media depictions thereof, it is a surprise.
Now, if one sees America as a thing to be experienced in whatever form it takes and a thing of which one will never truly be an integral part, this surprise is neither here nor there; but if one were emotionally invested in the notion of America, and one had allowed oneself to osmose one's notions of America from the mass-media discourse (that is, if one were a human being living in the West after 1950), it is very easy to imagine oneself feeling gypped. That is to say, if one loved the America of American mythology so much that one could not get one's head around the America of American life, then it would be very easy to imagine one becoming angry at the people that one saw as populating the gulf between the two.
American racism (applicable equally to most any racial minority, with the exception of those who look exactly like Will Smith), seen in this light, becomes emotionally totally understandable (because resentment toward the gap between expectation and actuality is one of the most irreducible constants of human existence), and intellectually utterly foolhardy (because it is like saying, "I am surprised and violently angry that my Whopper does not look so appetizing when the Dutch tilt, warm lighting, and splashy chopping board are removed." Come on, what are you, a fucking moron?).
A Return To Our Theme
Obviously there are many things I would wish to infect New Zealanders with from America, besides a more grown-up attitude toward racial discourse. It would be lovely to come home and find that New Zealanders had conversations about which route to take, because that always makes life feel more like an episode of Seinfeld. It would be great to be able to find good Mexican food as easily as it is in America, and charming to find that the tradition of the American diner had been imported to New Zealand in a slightly less ersatz form than the two or three examples of same currently on show. It would be simply marvelous if New Zealanders, on my return, were as warm and welcoming and eager to show the best of their culture as Americans are. (It is entirely possible that this is the case; watch this space).
Maybe I'll even get home to find that the mortifyingly affected no-nonsense, strained working-class authenticity and obsession with "unpretentiousness" on which New Zealanders fall back as a cliche of self-definition has finally been cast aside, the country's queer shoulder finally put to the wheel. Maybe I'll get home to the teenage bedroom that is much of Kiwi culture and find that the country's pulled the curtains open, turned down the Linkin Park and decided to start having interesting conversations. Who knows? Maybe I'll never hear lazy half-assedness referred to lovingly as "#8 wire ingenuity" again. I'll get back to New Zealand and the majority of people will be as friendly and wry as the people in Seattle, who befriended me and wouldn't let me leave and kept subjecting me to day after day of conversations and hospitality and experiences and fascinating everyday life. People like the cool, savvy urbanites who live San Francisco like a tattoo on their soul, who I lived around and with for months and who offered a different glimpse of the city every other day, will be a dime a dozen. Everyone will be as positive and lively as the types who work so hard that they're able to live in New York and never forget how lucky that makes them. Maybe folks everywhere will be as engaged with the culture and excited about their place in it as the people that America just kept dropping into my life.
It's basically nice to be going home. But there are things I wish I didn't have to leave.
 I'm sure there's a non-awful alternative example, but all I'm coming up with are the turgid The Astronaut's Wife, the craptacular Flatliners, and the shitbiscuitulent Hideaway.
 Once. When I was snapped at by an old Chinese woman who yammered at me for twenty seconds, walked off, and came back with something that cost twice what I had ordered and contained none of the food components of the thing I ordered, I did not eat said food or tip said crone; I spent the evening mostly-frivolously hoping to avoid contraction of some sort of worst-karma-ever curse.
 By dismissing as ridiculous any ideas of regulating racially-charged speech, one not only refuses to accept most of the cultural fabric of the world one is living in, but also closes oneself off from rich veins of comedy in the realm of oversensitivity. A friend was once scolded in the supermarket for saying "collared greens," possibly because it sounds like "colored greens" or perhaps because it is associated with a stereotype; if one's anchor is cast too deeply in the waters of "all racial sensitivity is silly," one is unable to enjoy the nuance of this sort of thing.
 If Tom's America has a theme, it is that this is always, always, without exception, always a foolish assumption to make, except that there are exceptions.