Until now America has been the standard I used to judge other nations and cultures—this place is normal, and everywhere else is at least slightly bizarre. The fact that I’ve lived for three years in a country that most people on Earth, except for that country’s elderly citizens, would consider bizarre, has now made everything on Earth alien to me. Why, for instance, does the nice waitress at this very decent restaurant have to keep bothering us about whether our meals are okay?—when in Korea you can just press a button on the table to call one of them over if you need something. And what’s the deal with tipping? Don’t you guys know the service is just as good if the culture everyone has been born into knows nothing about these newfangled western ways?
My wife was sharpening her knives before we came here, and she’s been gleefully pointing out everything she can find that’s wrong about America since our arrival, paying particular attention to the same things that I bitched about back when we were in the Daehan Mingook. All the foreigners I know in that country can’t stand the way old people act as if they own the place, and while here that may not be so true, the bellies we’ve seen prowling about these phlegm- and pornographic sticker-free sidewalks are a different sort of boorishness and obstreperousness, a different kind of fuck you, an advertisement of the fact that these people do not take responsibility for one of the few things in their lives that they probably have some control over—the size of their stomachs, and the amount of money all of them are going to be costing their fellow taxpayers when their endless heart bypass surgeries are finally funded by the rest of the nation.
I know it’s not going to make me any friends in this country to complain about the obesity epidemic, and I also know that it’s a lot easier to stay thin in Korea for a host of reasons. The food is healthier if you can stay away from the meat barbecues, the western food is so expensive and so terrible that you don’t want to go anywhere near it, and the country is so small and so crowded that you spend most of your time walking around from place to place (in buses or subways or on the bare highways), rather than driving, in America, where the country is so incredibly spread out that you can’t get anywhere without sitting down in a car for at least twenty minutes.
America is also much more comfortable. I mean, the chairs and couches are actually pleasant to sit in, where in Korea people squat if they want to rest their legs, or just pile up on their hardwood floors after working a typical twelve hour day, or fight you to the death for a coveted spot on one of the subway benches (or very obviously refuse to sit next to you if you happen to stink of foreign corruption). The science of ergonomics has yet to reach the land where no one sits down. It’s so uncomfortable there that it’s often better just to stand, which is what I usually did when I had to take the subway. But in America everyone’s sitting all the time, and if I’m not careful I’ll start to drowse the moment I sink into one of the many unbelievably pleasant couches my parents have managed to stuff into their little house.
It seems I’ve become more Korean than I first realized. The carpets bother me more—the clutteredness of American homes, the way an object will vanish into the morass of junk the moment you drop it. The dogs need to be kept outside, things need to be recycled and composted, and wouldn’t these beautiful forests be put to better use if they were cut down and replaced with ball-bearing factories staffed with Burmese migrant laborers? I want to wail on the horn whenever a car gets in my way, and yesterday I struggled to keep it together as I waited a couple of minutes in line for some incredibly good doughnuts at a nearby restaurant that would not be considered nearby in Korea, where most of the stuff you need is within ten minutes’ walking distance, rather than an hour’s driving distance.
But I think the most frustrating thing about America is the political intransigence of the dying Republican Party. This bizarre philosophy, that government is the problem—something that is only true when the government is not of, by, and for, the people—cuts its wounds deeper into this country every year. It would be nice, for instance, if I could hop on a high-speed train to get down to New York City in a few hours—and wouldn’t it be amazing if the entire country were connected by bullet trains in the same way as Korea or Europe—but instead I have to drive for nine hours, and go through the hassle of parking and navigating, because government is the problem. It would be nice if my entire family weren’t afraid of getting hurt or getting sick, and that we had access to the same socialized medicine that every other wealthy nation has, but that’s not going to be true for another few years at least, because government is the problem.
This leads me to my next point: Americans are more political than Koreans. They talk more. They can have arguments, and even completely different political opinions, without suing or imprisoning one another. Even the oldest generations have gone through universities, while only the current generation has managed to find the time to get educated in Korea. People are full of questions (though the opening but polite barrage is almost always the same), and can talk about anything with you forever, even if you are both perfect strangers, while Koreans, for whatever reason, don’t seem to ask you that much. The culture discourages questioning, the language barrier certainly makes people reticent, and sometimes non-Americans think they have “our country”, our very own nara, figured out just from watching the news and a few blockbusters, while I think in reality America is so diverse that it’s impossible and even wrong to generalize—except when it comes to health care and fat people.
Someone told me a long time ago that it’s difficult to drive around this place, to explore its numerous beautiful little towns, its perfect forests and mountains and rivers, its cities that have more character and culture in a single block than all of the rising megalopolises in Asia put together, the general friendliness of the people (the way several of them have already apologized for minor mistakes, and smiled warmly, where I wouldn’t get the time of day in Korea for the same insignificant issues), the endless banquets of incredible food, the unlocked doors, the feeling of peacefulness that pervades the land—it’s difficult to be here, and to enjoy it, and to reconcile that enjoyment with the wars this country wages around the Earth, the shameless corruption of most of the government (yesterday I believe the future President of the United States, His Everyday Guy Romneyficence Willard Mittington The Umpteenth, was openly dining with the Koch brothers, America’s most notorious robber barons), the slow but sure annihilation of the natural world to provide a little comfort.
Gotta go now, more later!