Monday, November 5, 2012

Sojourn in DC: Culture shock, integration, and obesity

I will be in the Washington, DC area for a few days to interview for a job at a pretty big company.  It's really a fluke--the first time anyone in the professional arena has actually shown interest in me, as opposed to the normal routine of people's marvelling at my potential but no employer willing to paying me to exercise that potential.  In this post I will be writing about my initial cultural observations and experiences during these few days in the US, while out of tact and discretion I will avoid specifically talking about the job interview process.  I wouldn't want to mess up my one chance at getting a legitimate, prestigious job!

I get to the Bogota airport late Saturday night.  I'm happy and honored that the company I'm to interview with has paid for my flight to DC, but not thrilled that for some reason they've booked me on a midnight flight out of Bogota.  There are plenty of better schedules for getting out of Colombia by plane, and many are surely cheaper than American Airlines.  At any rate, I walk up to the long line and give them my information, and they ask me, "You're riding in executive class, right?"  I don't think so, but I tell them that if they say so, then I guess I am indeed to ride there.  This means that I get to skip the waiting line.  I've spent all day trying to get myself looking halfway decent.  I've shaved, cut my copious ear hair, ironed my two dress shirts.  My wife was nice enough to shine my dress shoes, with help from my son Sam.  I sewed a crucial collar button back onto one shirt, but the other lacked a replacement button, so the former shirt is designated for my tie interview day, and the buttonless shirt for a more casual day.  For many reasons big and small I have been feeling like a "boleta", the term Colombians use for an unsophisticated, usually rural person.  I don't know that I've ever worked in an environment requiring formal wear, and so my only suit is an Armani that I got secondhand when I was 14, now over half a lifetime ago.  Likewise my buttonless shirt is from this era, and the shirt I sewed the button back on dates from when I was about 20.  I guess it's a good thing that I still fit in these clothes (indeed I think I'm skinnier now than I was at 14, though I'm lamentably little taller), but to my wife's question as to whether they were an outmoded cut or style, I had no idea how to answer.  Neither of us are great followers of high fashion, and my wife confided to me that in her new, high-level job at an important NGO in Bogota she too often feels like a "boleta".  At any rate, I had to make do with my paltry clothing resources, though my wife and I resolved that we should soon make a concerted effort to get decent clothes.  This resolve was made all the firmer when in searching among our backpacks and suitcases for a bag I might take to DC and look respectable with, I saw that the majority of our luggage had ripped holes, broken or missing zippers, and other impediments to respectability.

So now here I am, beat-up shoes, white gym socks, 15-year-old suit, scuffed suitcase, and all, but made to feel upscale by my allocation to first class (I'd long thought that business, executive, and first class were different designations, but at least in the case of American Airlines they seem to be one and the same).  I would never confer upon myself the privilege of flying first class, not only because of the high price and the moral objectability of putting oneself into a separate class than others, but above all because it seems silly to adorn the ordeal of commercial passenger flight with a few superficial perks so as to mask what is inherently an uncomfortable, drab experience of transport.  Going first class on a multi-week trans-Atlantic ship voyage or something might be worth the extra money as compared to being jammed together with hundreds of squalid Irish famine refugees, but if you're going to be crammed uncomfortably into a plane for a few hours anyway, I vote for not trying to doll up the experience.  In any case, in my particular situation my assignment to first class makes me a bit less insecure as to my personal presentation and my right to enter the elegant, professional office milieu for my interview.

My boarding pass is for seat 1A, as if to highlight that I'm the cream of the crop, or at least can pretend that I am for the duration of this trip.  I don't know if it's the late hour, or the flight's delay from 1am to 2am, or the annoying seat-rearranging that occupies the crew for the duration of our many-hours' wait in the flight gate, but I find myself treating people in a curt, superior manner, as if internalizing my temporary bump up to the ruling class.  When the American Airlines staff call me up to the flight desk and tell me I'll be moved to seat 3E, I feel like telling them snottily that I'm willing to fly in the luggage deck if it will get the damn plane off the ground.  But I refrain.

Once on the plane I'm too tired to appreciate the little perks of business class like a larger seat and a dedicated flight magazine (which frankly looks crappier than the airlines's Latin American, Spanish- and Portuguese-language magazine that is also in our seat front pockets), though I do partake in the water and orange juice offered us, a talisman against the cold I feel creeping on.

After reading the Latin flight magazine cover to cover as the plane taxis for liftoff (fascinating articles on a luxury train in Andalucia, and a writeup of a Madrid hotel I think I once visited), I am able to recline my seat and sleep a few scant hours before we arrive in Miami.  My wakeup is brutal--dry mouth, impending sore throat, and piercing pain as the pressure of my inner ears adapts to the cabin's artificial pressure increase.  But we land in one piece, and I set off at a full run to catch my connecting flight to Reagan airport outside of DC.  Because of the flight delay, American staff in Bogota had told me I'd likely have to change my DC leg of the trip.  I was surprised at how few flights American has going between Miami and Washington.  I mean, they're pretty big cities, the latter with 3 regional airports.  As it happened, I had to suggest they book me a space on a flight to Baltimore/Washington airport.  The staff had no idea this might be a viable option, and I only did because I'd checked out a Google map a few days before.  The next flight after the 7am one I'd surely miss apparently wasn't until 1:45pm!

At any rate, in Bogota they hadn't definitively changed my original DC boarding pass, in the hope that I might actually make the connecting flight.  I certainly do my best to, running through the sprawling Miami airport at full speed, dragging my single carry-on wheeled suitcase that I've wisely limited myself to for just such an occasion.  I get a quick treatment at immigration, as one of the relatively few US citizens with our shorter, exclusive line, and I desperately run up to an intra-airport train that takes me to my distant boarding gate.

Alas, despite my best efforts, my plane has already left.  I only now realize how sweaty I am, even in the ubiquitous airport AC.  Luckily, the ladies at the gate counter find me a soon-to-depart flight to Baltimore, which leaves me with only the task of calling the driver who is to pick me up to change our rendez vous from Reagan to Baltimore.  I have my Colombia cellphone, but I only find out later that it can make calls in the US (at great cost in pesos), so for now I get change for the $20 a family friend gave me long ago for emergency use (thanks Termini), and promptly have $2 in quarters eaten and not returned by a greedy payphone that doesn't complete the call I need to make.

I have never been a very outgoing person.  I don't know if it's my reserved Midwestern roots, or a general trait of US culture, or my own particular neuroses, but for most of my life I've never been able to walk up to strangers and make small talk.  Thanks to my living abroad for so long, well out of my comfort zone, and probably too under the influence of the more outgoing, sociable cultures I've lived among, I now regularly talk to strangers, especially when I am arriving in the land of my forefathers after a long stretch, giddy with travel and the prospect of returning home.  To immigrants I ask where they're from, their personal stories, to native-born Americans I make folksy comments about the shared ordeals of security checks and such.  I imagine most people I talk to in this way think I'm crazy or at least weird.

At any rate, I call upon this newfound faculty to solicit aid for my telephone predicament.  Since the payphone won't work, I ask some nearby airport staff on break if I might use one of their phones to make a call and pay them whatever it costs.  Again, after some initial surprise and awkwardness at such a request in a country where everyone seems to have his own state-of-the-art cellphone, one of the guys accedes, and I sweat up the screen of his elegant iPhone.  I apologize profusely afterwards, but he seems accustomed to the sweaty screen issue, and doesn't even charge me for the call.  I repeat to him the old Tennessee Williams line about the kindness of strangers, and again he seems bewilderedly amused at this eccentric character who talks like someone from the US but by this point surely acts more like a lost country bumpkin from Colombia.  With this unexpected friend, as with the customs people and everyone else I interact with, I adopt a very gracious, almost excessively deferential attitude.  I don't know why this is--I've always thought of myself as sort of an arrogant, cocksure guy.  Am I internalizing the almost feudal linguistic modalisms of my new home in Boyaca, where people address each other as "Your Mercy" and say "sir" at the end of every response?  Or is it merely a stronger resurgence of my courteous Midwestern roots?  Or am I just so awed by everything and worried that people will for some reason decide I should be deported from the land of my birth, that I bow and scrape like a beleaguered second-class citizen?

One other cultural tic I feel that I am increasingly free of thanks to my time abroad is the racial complex that characterizes much of social interaction in the US, the post-traumatic stress manifestation of the country's original sin of slavery and race hatred.  Maybe it's just in Chicago, but situations where whites and blacks mix always have seemed loaded and tense to me.  Either everyone is wary of and hence jerky to one another, or there's a contrived congeniality in which one person or the other is trying too hard to downplay differences or mimic the other's linguistic and cultural quirks.  At any rate, I feel that I've largely done away with that now.  It's increasingly natural for me to treat my fellow citizens of any color precisely as fellow citizens, genuinely feeling that we bear more in common than we have separating us.  Indeed, to Colombians or Spaniards or anyone else outside of the US, the people of my homeland are clearly identifiable by a series of cultural traits that transcend color (the way we dress, the volume we talk at, the swagger we walk with, which my wife once described as looking like we have our pants full with poop).  In this optic I'm more and more able to talk to a black person without thinking or worrying about all the social constructs and loaded issues and terms that could serve to separate us.

Once I've communicated with the company driver, and am on my Baltimore-bound flight, I am more able to enjoy the first-class luxury than I was on the previous redeye flight.  They serve us copious amounts of juice and water, plus a delightful breakfast of a biscuit, bagel, yogurt, fresh strawberries and blueberries, and a banana that frankly tastes and feels like cotton next to the fresh, flavorful bananas we eat in the tropics.  Despite the mediocre banana, it is perhaps the best airplane breakfast I've ever eaten.  I am also surprised at the caliber of the in-flight magazine (for some reason a different issue than in the prior plane), especially its crossword puzzle, which was genuinely challenging.  Not at all like the simple Spirit Airlines puzzles.  During the entire flight there is a pair of overweight women across the aisle from me, chatting it up with a flight attendant.  Their conversation is pretty vapid, centering on the pros and cons of different faceless Florida suburbs and the nuances of different TV programs, but with my ethnographic eye I appreciate their congenial, genuinely friendly way of relating to each other and to the flight attendant.  I think this generalized good will is a positive trait of my countrymen.

I am picked up at the airport by the company's driver, a soft-spoken, moving-and-shaking Nigerian immigrant about my age.  I ask him about his country, interested to hear what someone from another place thinks as an immigrant to my country (albeit a distinct region of my country that I'm not very familiar with), in order to compare it to my impressions as a migrant elsewhere and as a returned prodigal son.  He's not very interested in talking about Nigeria, which makes sense given that he apparently wasn't interested enough to stay there, but he does fill me in a bit on the DC area geography.

After a somewhat long ride along endless forest-brimmed interstate, we pull off to another highway, and at the end of a series of such highways we get to the residential complex I am to stay at.  It is owned and kept by the company for the express purpose of hosting visiting interviewees such as myself.  As we pull up to my door, one among many indistinguishable doors throughout the complex, I begin to realize that this driver, my main human contact with this whole place, will now leave me alone in the residence.  There will apparently be no one to receive me, no one waiting in the apartment, just the keycode that they have given me beforehand to get into the apartment, and another code to get into my private room.  The driver accompanies me as far as the door, and then leaves me to an eerily unoccupied apartment.  It is like when you arrive at a friend's house in an unfamiliar city to stay for a few days, but they are out for work and won't be back for a few hours.  But in this case there are no friendly notes, no expectation of reconnecting with someone familiar.  Just a perfectly arranged room with its amenities, and a stack of take-out menus on the shared dining room table.  The fridge is empty but consuming electricity, there is a collection of single-serve sealed plastic bowls with kids' cereals on the counter, and the AC has been pre-set to 80 degrees F.

In many respects I feel like the rural migrant arriving to a strange new environment that seems impossibly elegant.  Lately I have been reading the excellent book "The Warmth of Other Suns" about the Great Migration of blacks in the 20th century US, and so I guess I have the image in my head of the clueless, backwards country relative coming up from the feudal South to find a shocking, gleaming, cold and efficient new world.  Surely the experience must be similar for many present-day immigrants from other countries, Colombia among them.  I am at once awed by the shimmer of everything, the seemingly modern apartment house, the ubiquitous (and not all that necessary) air conditioning, but also taken aback and left cold by the absence of humanity in it all.  The streets have lots of cars and few people, this housing development is centered on sprawling parking lots but with little visible human life, the playground and tennis court and swimming pool are totally unused on this Sunday I arrive. 

It is a reverse culture shock to return to the US after living in Colombia, where 8-person households are common and receiving guests is given great cultural importance, or after working in places like Haiti where poverty and a neocolonial inferiority complex mean that everyone is constantly bowing and scraping, trying to attend to your every need and even many needs you'd prefer to fulfill yourself.  Normally I get annoyed with too much solicitous or even slavish attention from others, but now in an apathetic suburban US, I miss the human presence.  There isn't even any noise in the halls here.  My family's rental apartment in Bogota is in a building that is by no means raucous, but the fact that 4-8 people live in many apartments necessarily means that you hear a bit of the lives of others as you walk the hallway stairs or even when you're in your own place.  My culture shock is double in that I am not returning to a region and a lifestyle that I grew up with, but to an atomized exurban culture I've never been around much before, even when I lived in the US.  I don't know how many people live like this in the States, with AC, sterile, drab carpeting and decor, and lifeless streets, but it's a far cry from Midwestern city living or rural farmhouses.

In this context the material comforts seem like little compensation for the absence of humanity.  I have internet access and a big TV mounted on my wall.  But these do not a happy human make.  I mean, what good does the thick, vellum-like toilet paper do me?  It's just to wipe your ass.  In this and in many other of the "improvements" in US life as compared to life elsewhere, any advances beyond the most basic levels of necessity don't add much to quality of life, and they seem to go hand in hand with the dehumanization of daily interaction.  Toilet paper is a definite improvement over rough corncobs, but thick, resource-intensive toilet paper as opposed to a basic, rough grade doesn't really do much for me.  Freedom from constant hunger is good, but a selection of 15 different ethnic take-out cuisines (most of them in a fast food form that's bad for you anyway) doesn't substantially improve life beyond that basic level of satiety.  I am thus ironically proud of my maladaptation to this exurban lifestyle I'm seeing here.  I do feel a bit bewildered and out of touch when I see the apparent glitz and perfection of the physical surroundings, but when I consider that much of that impressive glitz is related to misplaced values and a series of poor collective decisions in the way we live life in the US, I don't mind being out of touch.

Furthermore, as I'm exploring my new temporary home, I realize that the material comforts and the quality of things here aren't actually that great, either.  My bedroom light is out, and I have a feeling it's due to a bad wiring job.  But just to make sure it's not a simple burnt bulb, I decide to take a look at the fixture.  This is easier said than done.  The ceiling is maybe 11 feet high, and the light is right above the bed.  So I get a chair from the dining room and attempt to stand it atop the bed in order to reach the fixture.  From this wobbly perch I am able to undo the screws holding the glass cover to the fixture, which also ends up detaching the whole fixture from the ceiling!  I am about to break my neck, so I get down, fixture dangling from the wiring, and I push aside the mattress so I can support the chair directly on the box springs.  The mattress is cheap and light, crappy foam just like we use in Colombia and in many other developing countries.  And the box springs are in fact some light poplar frame covered in plywood and cardboard.  I had always marvelled outside the US that people don't use box springs.  In Colombia and most places I've been, you put the mattress directly atop wooden planks that span the bedframe.  This in fact makes a lot more sense to me; as a kid I wondered what the point was of big, heavy, unwieldy box springs.  Now I'm suprised at their absence, at least in a US lodging.  But perhaps they aren't that common anywhere, even in the US, and I was just raised in a weird world of old Victorian houses that use box springs.

At any rate, I push aside the mattress, place the chair on the cardboard "box springs" (trying to find a firm spot where the chair legs won't just punch through), and finish my dismantling of the light fixture.  At some point in the whole process I wonder if there's a hidden camera somewhere, and this is simply the first in a series of trials to get the job I'm applying for.  Maybe they want to see how resourceful we can be in adverse, poverty-style scenarios.  I don't know if my mad busting up of the room would be a point in my favor or not, especially once I find that it is indeed a wiring problem and a new bulb won't fix it.

Once I have more or less reattached the useless light fixture and restored the room, I see another sign that perhaps not all is so elegant here in exurbia, US.  It is another wiring messup.  Apparently the builders installed a plug outlet that wasn't connected to anything.  So to make this blind outlet work, they plugged an extension cord into another outlet,

Ran the cord under the carpet until the blind outlet, and plugged it in.  That way the blind outlet has at least one functioning socket, in this case for the nightstand clock.

By now I am feeling less bewildered, less out of my league.  In this housing complex, and surely in the exurban US in general, not all that glitters is gold.

Next I take a walk to see the "sights" of my exurban Maryland community.  I naively think that I should at least get to know the surroundings and the character of the place (naive because the place ends up having little character.  My Wikipedia search reveals that the town is old and has some colonial buildings in the center, but where I am is a far cry from there.  Perhaps if the walk is pleasant I'll get all the way to the older part of town. 

The walk is not pleasant.  The weather is hot, with no trees on the sidewalk to protect me from the sun overhead.  Everything I see is residential:  either parking-lot-centered complexes like mine with names like Cherry Hollow, or retirement communities.  There are also a few older (read 1950s to 1980s) small town trashy single-family dwellings, clapboard houses with barking dogs and rundown cars in the driveway.  I wonder about the history of this area, as it surely has gone through a transition at some point from a rural small town to a DC exurb.  Is all this settlement from outsiders moving here, or have the locals simply remained in one place and gradually upgraded from dirt-floor shacks to bland, poorly-constructed but perfect-looking houses? 

I do like that the town and the housing complex are mainly black (and I will later find that the company I am interviewing for is also predominantly black, at least in the office staff I deal with).  For some reason I often feel more comfortable around black people than in all-white areas.  Is it due to some cultural affinity I share or pretend to share with blacks?  Maybe it is precisely the opposite--that our differences are obvious and explainable, so I don't feel bad about not entirely fitting in.  This part of Maryland also feels less hostilely segregated than Chicago.  The feel of the place for me is similar to a sensation I have had in visits to New Orleans, which is mainly black and fairly segregated, but where I have never felt the racial tension I feel when whites and blacks mix in Chicago.  Maybe it's just that in majority-black areas black people feel more comfortable and confident, and white people are accustomed to being around non-whites.  I am reminded of a quote from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, something to the effect that southern whites don't mind how close blacks get, as long as they don't get too big, while northern whites don't mind how big blacks get, as long as they don't get too close.  Ellison's observation surely has some truth to it, but I think it's generally bullshit to pretend that, aside from the occasinal lynching, southern whites have historically been more friendly and comfortable in dailly dealings with blacks.  The Warmth of Other Suns puts the lie to this idea with its depictions of the hateful, sinful, neurotic obsession that southern whites had for bullying and brutalizing blacks, the widespread meanness of whites in the 20th century South.  Of course Maryland is border state country, and we're in the 21st century, so I don't know how the racial vibe here really fits into the scheme of the Great Migration.

This area reminds me of a slightly more prosperous version of southeastern Chicago around Altgeld Gardens.  Housing consists in the same mix of enclosed apartment complexes centered on parking lots, plus lone, ramshackle houses on big lots that look more appropriate for a small town than for part of a huge metropolitan area.  People here have cars, and the houses aren't totally blighted, so this part of Maryland beats Altgeld Gardens and Riverdale in that respect.  But Altgeld Gardens at least has a number of commercial places, both in big, formal establishments, as well as operating out of private houses.  So in that respect, Altgeld Gardens is a more liveable urban landscape than this place.

I muse on the odd version of racial integration represented by the DC area.  Everyone, white and black, is living in a bland, acultural morasse, united in their determination not to interact with their neighbors or the outside world.  I bet the more elegant areas in northern Virginia and around Silver Springs, Maryland, aren't that much different in their basic organization from my sad little housing situation here.  I imagine they too are car-dependent, with few sights to see, little variety in their residential landscape, and no one on the streets.  Perhaps the rich and the poor are separated into different segments of the DC area, but there's a certain democracy to all of them living in the same boring, soul-crushing suburban anomy.  Plus in my little enclave, though there is a clear black majority, there are also a fair number of people in the housing complex who are white and Hispanic, and even many mixed-race couples.  I don't think Dr. King would've liked this version of antisocial equality, and Malcolm X would snidely point out that this was what he was warning of when he criticized integrationist blacks who wanted to live just like whites, with defects and all.

On my little foray into exurban Maryland I also realize why people are fat.  I don't mind heat, and in fact welcome it.  But the merciless sun, ubiquitous pavement, and soulless blandscaping (I wish to coin this neologism) make walking uninspiring, and there is nowhere to go anyway.  Later on I discover the mall in the other direction from my apartment complex, but it's all take-out food (though admittedly varied, with Indian, Chinese, Italian, and fried chicken).  My massive portion of Chinese food and my 24 ounce 5% juice drink make me understand other side of the obesity equation.  Portions here are far bigger than anyone should eat in a single meal, and there is an inordinate amount of sugar thrown in everything, even in salty food (which, by the way, is also far too salty).  So given my uninspiring surroundings and my sickening options for pseudo-food, finally I succumb to the exurban mandate to go back indoors to my apartment.  Under these circumstances, it's easy to understand why people don't go outside, and are constantly gaining weight in much of the US. 

I'd initially hoped to get work done in my temporary new home, but I thought it would be a shame not to see the area.  Well now I've seen that there's nothing to see around here, so I'm going to go ahead and work.

1 comment:

  1. The incident with the chair on the box springs made me think of a David Sedaris skit. Really funny, and so YOU, Greg. Good insights.