It’s been nearly two weeks since I came back from the US and various people have been asking me if I was going to write anything about my trip. I really am flattered by the keen interest that my friends seem to have in my writing, and yes, I admit I’m guilty for not having been writing much for almost a year. For the past one year, I have been suffering from a common syndrome called ‘procrastination’ which I couldn’t seem to find the motivation to shake off. This can be clearly seen from the numerous draft posts that I have accumulated so far, consisting of just one or two paragraphs, with no signs of ever going to see the finish line. I can now sympathise with plenty of my photographer friends who posted pictures of their trip a year after they were taken cos they simply couldn’t find the time to edit them (read: procrastinate).
So, America, huh? Where do I even begin?
After having traveled to most of Europe, Asia, and Australasia, I often amazed my friends and colleagues whenever I told them that I had never set foot on American soil at all. What can I say, I save the best for last 😉
Truthfully, it’s merely because my old passport and the US immigration department were not exactly best buddies with one another. It was my experience with them that in the end fuelled my decision to change citizenship and if it weren’t for my new passport, I probably would still have yet to set foot there.
New York and Washington DC are not exactly an accurate representation of America as a whole, and people kept asking me why I chose these two cities. But for a history buff like me, the answer is very obvious. Washington DC is where it all started. I was literally feasting on history galore while I was there what with the free admission to memorials, monuments, and museums. Short of being able to name all 44 presidents, I could at least now appreciate the various historical events that had shaped America into the great nation that it is today. And New York, a city so good that they named it twice, is in my opinion the embodiment of America today. It is a place where someone with my skin colour can walk the streets without being stared at. I never felt so much at home anywhere else throughout all my travel than I did in New York. And this is really big coming from someone who has always preferred the countryside than the big cities (I hate Paris, FYI), but I actually love Manhattan. I love Manhattan even with its overpriced food vendors, rush hours’ crowd, sea of immigrants, and dirty subway stations.
Just as the first horde of European settlers took their leap of faith and decided to start a new life in a foreign land, I took mine too and braved myself to give couch surfing a try. Thanks to a good friend who introduced me to AirBnB, I met another kindred spirit and got to experience a different side of DC. One that opened my eyes and made me realise that DC is not all about what you normally see in political dramas on TV.
So I met Mary, my hostess, via AirBnB and decided to stay at her apartment while in DC. Looking back, it must have sounded crazy for a solo female traveler to stay in a stranger’s house during her travel. And I did have a minor panic attack a few days before I left when all sorts of paranoid thoughts crossed my mind. What if Mary turned out to be a guy after all (despite having seen her photo on the website), what if Mary lived in a dangerous neighbourhood (despite having researched the area beforehand), what if Mary liked to party and bring friends to her house, what if she changed her mind about me staying and decided to kick me out, et cetera, et cetera. Well, Mary turned out to be a 38-year-old lady who looked younger than her age and who lived alone in a two-bedroom apartment in a quiet residential area. She spoke fluent Spanish and French, and she chose to work as a relief teacher when she could actually choose a permanent teaching job just so she could have more free time to travel. As a matter of fact, not long before I arrived, she just came back from a one-month trip to Turkey. The last two sentences alone should be enough to tell you that Mary and I would get along just fine. But what’s better was the fact that she didn’t even bat an eyelid when I told her that I left my husband behind to travel alone (it wasn’t the first time I did it and won’t be the last), or that I didn’t have any permanent job either. Most of my Asian friends and families would have frowned at these. During our late night chats and our afternoon walk on my last day in DC, we shared views on some of the basic principles in life such as our idea of marriage, whether to have or not to have any children, how to raise them if we do have them, and of course the importance of living your life to the fullest even if it means throwing caution to the wind sometimes. It was frankly a liberating experience as I don’t often find friends and families back home who can really understand why I made certain choices in life, let alone share my views on these subjects.
The neighbourhood that Mary lived in was predominantly black. In fact, before I came to DC, I didn’t know that more than 50% of DC’s population consists of African-American, one of the highest among the states in America. Over the years, various movements to clean up and gentrify Washington DC have created the image of the city that we see on TV today, one that is littered with white office employees in suit and tie making their way to work. In truth, you could only see this image when you’re in the central business districts such as Capitol Hill. Outside in the residential neighbourhoods, one could still witness a glimpse of DC pre-gentrification, where non-blacks are not a common sight. During my 5-days’ stay there, more than once I sat in a bus where I was the only non-black. My parents would probably have a heart attack if they knew about this, seeing how their last message to me before I left was to beware of the black neighbourhoods. It’s understandable as they came from a prejudicial generation, the product of too many bad Hollywood movies. But having said that, it doesn’t mean that I myself am free from any racial prejudice. It did take me more than one bus rides to be able to sit throughout the journey without fidgeting and looking left and right. Even then, at the end of my trip, I still couldn’t say that I was comfortable among these people.
Just like millions of American citizens and immigrants, past and present, I am also guilty of the notion of the American Dream. I can come up with a long list of why I love my country so much and how no matter what, this is still one of the best cities in the world to live in. But the one thing that the American Dream proudly claims and that I can never say about the country and the society that I grew up in is the freedom to make individual choices without prior restrictions that limited people according to their religion, race, or ethnicity. Growing up and living in a traditional Asian community makes it tough to make certain choices about your own life that do not conform with the norm, custom, or culture. If there is one thing that I learnt from Uncle Sam is that people are no longer defined and labeled by their ethnicity as much as we are today in Asia, and that the choices you make in life don’t always cost you your relationship with friends and families.
They say the grass is always greener on the other side. But for me, it is never about wanting to be on the other side cos the other side does have its own fair share of ugliness which I am not willing to accept. It is about striking a balance between the good of the two sides. In my opinion, the country and the society that I live in would be just a tad closer to perfection if only we could have some of that freedom of expression.