Last year about this time I started writing an outline for a short story about a trip I took with my friends in late 2005. That trip was sort of my swan song for living in the US. A group of about seven of us had been out of college for a year or so and were still in relatively dead-end jobs at that point, and our vacation/unemployment situations all worked out for a trip in late August. We rented a car and drove to New York City, Philadelphia, and then a few of us onward to Raleigh, North Carolina. The weather was still really hot, and Chicago was getting over one of its worst droughts in recent memory. I’m not going to go into detail here as to our itinerary, but basically we had an amazing time hanging out, seeing sights, shooting the breeze, and even arguing. In retrospect, it felt like the last taste of the pre-adult relative leisure that we’d been enjoying for a good part of high school and through college. Following that trip each would go on his way to more long-term, professional employment. For many of us this meant leaving Chicago indefinitely. In this sense the trip felt melancholy, or at least I see it that way now (though at the time few of us knew we’d be leaving our hometown). This melancholy is compounded by the fact that Hurricane Katrina hit while we were travelling (which, combined with the concurrent Iraq and Afghanistan wars, in many respects at their most dire point in that moment, marked for me the worst, saddest, ugliest, most hopeless face the US has presented to the world in a long time). Also, upon returning to Chicago, I found the urban garden I’d been tending all year for my job totally withered and dead. Internecine conflicts at the organization I worked for meant that my colleague wasn’t allowed in to water, so everything just dried up and died. This last event was perhaps the final catalyst for my deciding to leave the US. There just wasn’t much of a place for me, neither professionally nor socially.
I never ended up writing the story, but I do think a lot about what that moment, and especially that trip, meant for me. I think about growing up in the same house in Chicago all my life, being friends with the same people since pre-school or grammar school, sharing all sorts of referents with them. On the one hand, we shared a city and its physical and social landscape (we even shared the myriad changes Chicago suffered in the 1990s), but we also shared all the experiences and stories accumulated over years and years of friendship. Looking back on it, I recall a coziness that was so pervasive we never noticed it until now, when it’s gone. If we did feel it, that coziness felt like a stricture, the boringness of everyday life and routines and the all-encompassing “here”-ness that you chafe under when you’re a teenager dreaming of many prospective “theres”. Even in college, when most of us went downstate to U of Illinois, and some went farther afield to places like California, there were frequent weekends and especially summer nights when, as we did in high school, we’d sit on my back porch underneath the El tracks (that’s the elevated metro line, for non-Chicagoans) and talk about girls and stories and long-ago childhood memories. In high school this was the default option, as we couldn’t go much anywhere else. But by college, when we could have gone to bars or clubs, we still preferred the old back porch, and one another’s company. I think a lot of what we were doing there was dreaming of the future, dreaming of doing something with our lives, even as in our reminiscences perhaps we were preparing to let go of the past (and maybe even recognizing that “doing something” elsewhere wasn’t entirely preferable to “doing nothing” there where we were). At any rate, now I am doing things with my life—I’m married, I have a kid, I take care of many other kids, I work in an interesting field, I think, I cook, I write… I’m happy with this adult life of mine, and often shocked and thrilled that I am finally in the future I’ve always dreamed of. But sometimes that slow, stuck time as teenagers on my back porch also appeals to me.
Around when I was outlining my aborted short story last year, I was also enjoying a fair number of cultural inputs from the US, and really appreciating certain aspects of our shared identity. I got into an online TV show called the Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, and I saw Garden State again (thanks to my Colombian father-in-law’s massive film collection). These and many of our popular culture artifacts in the US are notable for their consciousness of race, their US culture in-jokes, and especially the nervous tension of everyday life. My wife is more familiar with US culture than most foreigners I know, but even she is often unaffected or uninterested by our humor. Even for films she likes, such as Cyril or What about Bob?, she finds it hard to sit through all the tension. She squirms.
Above all I have been recalling, impressed, how at least the educated middle class in the US is really a society of cultural consumers. Most of my family friends are voracious movie watchers, book readers, playgoers, magazine readers. An important part of their shared identity comes from classic movies they love, or new articles they can discuss, or books they read in their book clubs. I have been at many a family gathering where we spend hours recalling favorite scenes from movies we’ve all seen. In this respect, our culture in the US is almost like a pre-literate tribal culture in that we share and repeat stories that everyone knows about. It’s just that these stories come from a post-literate canon of mass culture, and not simply oral tradition.
Seeing a movie like Garden State, I also missed the frankness and rawness of regular life in the US. People seem to think about and show their emotions more, to cover up and conform less than in other places I’ve been to. I also feel like people go through life more aware of the larger implications of what they’re doing. In the US, even litterers, racists, or anyone else doing something that seems thoughtless, are usually aware of the arguments against what they’re doing. They have in fact thought about it, and come to a conscious (though perhaps incorrect or flawed) decision. In Colombia and other developing countries I’ve been to, people often don’t look beyond their immediate wants and impulses. They don’t tend to ask themselves if something is correct, or advisable, or coherent. Maybe the thoughtfulness I perceive in the US is because much of our daily life is relatively undramatic—we’ve got washing machines, cars, automatic furnaces, and even many jobs are automated and uneventful these days. So maybe people in the US have stripped away some of the day-to-day busyness and drama of just living and getting things done, and this gives them more time to explore themselves as mental beings and not simply physical task-doers.
Of course the flipside of this is that a lot of people spend so much time thinking about their emotions that they don’t do anything else, and we end up with a certain degree of collective neuroticism in our culture. At least that's the media image, especially in a movie like Garden State. Perhaps if I weren’t feeling so nostalgic when I saw the movie, I wouldn’t be thinking of the constant emotionalizing as a good thing, but rather asking, “Why do they have to be so damn quirky?” Furthermore, why can’t we recognize our emotions and explore our inner self while working on something worthwhile, and not just being complacent in jobs we don’t believe in? This is similar to what I thought with the movie The Namesake. This film explores the relationships among members of an Indian-American family. There is lots of love and emotion, but the setting is always bland suburbia, and we never get the sense that the parents’ jobs matter much to them. They never talk about their work or their beliefs as to how to live in and change the world around them. So as much as I like The Namesake, I again wonder why people can’t combine the daily challenges and joys of raising a family with work that they can believe in, and a mission to change the world for the better. And this brings me full circle to why I left the US in the first place: a sense that many aspects of daily life were frivolous and not at all important or transcendental. Perhaps we’re so focused on our own emotions that we allow (or promote) the stripping of all character from our collective spaces. Hello faceless malls, cars to take us everywhere, soulless lawns. Hell, even the Awkward Black Girl show, which I like a lot, has everyone driving in cars instead of walking, and working at jobs they don’t care about.
Of course the unfruitful navel-gazing I decry in the US is not exclusive to our culture or even our time. I recently read The Country of Carnival by Jorge Amado, written and set in 1930s Brazil, in which all the characters are basically effete nihilists that scorn happiness or meaning or striving or even concern. It is a good read, especially considering the author wrote it when he was 18, but it sure is a downer. And a reminder that the well-off and those with lots of time on their hands have probably always tended to endless self-analysis, moroseness, and neuroses.
At the time I was intensely pondering all these questions about culture, it also was looking as if we’d be moving to Chicago in the next year or two, and I had visions of my son Sam attending my same pre-school and grammar school. I asked myself if he too would experience many of the things I loved and hated in Chicago. Would he feel the comfort of long-lasting friendships and a familiar neighborhood? Would he learn hard, ugly lessons about race and class?