If I’m being honest, I must say I’m confused.
It seems like sometimes I can be too close to see.
I don’t think I would have noticed this before I removed myself from the everyday American this-and-that. But I did remove myself from that. I was out of the American flow of social consciousness for a while. I didn’t used to believe in groups as big as countries having a collective mind but now I do. I’ve been to some countries that have a oddly similar way of thinking, at first I thought it was town specific. Somehow the smaller the group the easier it was for me to believe it. Then I’d cross a border and see a different perspective emerge. Some countries are similar to other countries but the borders matter, the groups we separate ourselves into seem to actually matter. Even when the groups have 318 million people in them. I thought it was strange that some countries populations seemed happier than others despite both experiencing terrible things in the last 30 or 40 years. I was surprised at how different the airport in New York felt compared to the airport in Seattle.
At a certain point I started to get the feeling that some of the things I’ve been seeing since I arrived home could not happen in a different country consciousness. It started with a faint feeling of confusion with all the little things that I had gotten so used to that no longer made sense. I went from the more similar rules of the Southeast Asian countries to the drastically different rules of Denmark before getting back to the United States. I found that even some of the most routine and simple actions had to be relearned. I had to teach myself to look both ways before crossing the road again. In the individually organized, seemingly chaotic countries I had been to there was more individual responsibility and less trust in broad rules. In traffic each person takes care of themselves and because each piece self organizes most of the time everyone is fine. Each driver just looks straight ahead and doesn’t look to the sides or behind them. Rear-view mirrors are not used. Since each person doesn’t drive straight into someone most of the time people are not hitting each other. Another piece is that people walking just watch out for themselves, if there is enough time to cross they cross and they know that the drivers won’t want to damage their vehicles or them so they trust that the drivers will slow or swerve to avoid them if possible. I got used to only checking one side of the road or just listening instead of taking a close look. I could hear if a car or motorbike was in unstoppable hitting distance and that was all that mattered. It didn’t matter if the car was far away, the only car I had to know about was the one that would not be able to swerve around me when I stepped into the street. I could wait in the middle of the street if I had to so I would only check one direction before stepping into the road.
Now imagine that most systems operate in this individual, organic-responsibility way. The rules in these systems were based on ability and in some ways more basic needs. A good example is trying to get into a bus: people don’t really stand in lines very often, its more of a clump where each person is trying to push through the bus door. Some people might actually push you gently to get past you, no one was really aggressive or violent. Assertive is the word, each person is asserting their own needs by trying to get what they want. If a person wants to get into the bus they show this by pushing towards the door of the bus even if their are other people also trying to get in. It seems really rude at first but no one seems to get upset and no one gets hurt. No one seems to expect anything different so I doubt anyone thinks of this system as impolite.
Sometimes these systems are inefficient but before you get carried away self congratulating yourself for the more “organized” system you’re used to try to remember a time at a stop light where you waited for zero cars to drive by before you were allowed to go on your merry way. Our American systems are not better, they are different and probably equally flawed. I had many moments of annoyance because I did not understand the systems I was surrounded by. I thought to myself how stupid it was and how rude everyone was on my bad days and on my good days I bared through the confusion.
I was getting so used to this world. BHAM!! back in the US and it was all ruled and organized and I was so stressed that I would break a rule. I took comfort in the fact that in Asia it usually took a pretty obvious action to attract dissent. I would have had to obviously negatively effect someones life to break a rule but in the US I could walk across an empty street and receive a ticket for J-walking. That kind of rule is so confusing after traveling.
If I didn’t walk out into traffic in most of the places I had been I wouldn’t have ever gotten across the street. Now I can accidentally break rules left and right. I could drive too fast, too slow, not stop at the right times, walk into the wrong field, and so many more things that might seem completely harmless to me at the time but if someone were to decide it might hurt someone, in some way, in some situation, in the future I could have to pay money or deal with the legal system. It’s frightening that I might accidentally do something that could hurt someone in an imaginary, separate reality. I mean what if I drove five miles an hour over the speed limit and a person walked out in front of my car? I mean they didn’t and hopefully wouldn’t but what if they did? It’s stressful.
In at least some of Asia it seems to be the person who is walking out in front of the car that would be worried about the collision, if they did something that got themselves hurt it would probably be their fault. I’m not trying to say either way is right or wrong but I’d like to express that it is confusing going from one system to the other.
There is a peculiar anxiety in this system for me. This system seems to ask me to think about so many possibilities, imagine so many possible futures. I try to guess what might happen and avoid the things that could hurt other people or myself, I really try to predict the futures and see other peoples perspectives. Its exhausting to try to guess someone else’s perspective, I like it when people tell me their perspective. Like when that elderly man just pushes past me to get into the bus, I know the push is like saying “I want to be in the bus”. I don’t have to guess what he would like me to do, he doesn’t actually seem very concerned with what I’m doing. He notices me but doesn’t ask much at all from me.
This American landscape is my home though and as hard as I tried to learn to exist in the countries I was in I was never as accustomed to their ways as I am to the ways I have grown up in. I still felt annoyed when someone pushed past most of the time and I still tried in vain to be polite by letting someone go first in line.
I’m actually surprised that I’m having this much stress by coming back home.
But I guess acclimatization is always more noticeable when the environment changes.
June 8, 2016 at 7:21 am
Ahhh.. I see what you mean. I feel exhausted by trying to imagine all the other perspectives all too much. The thing is, if you do what you want, naturally people will either restrict you, or accept you, and we would all do well to find those who can accept us the way we are.
August 31, 2016 at 3:21 pm
You decribe a lot of what I’ve been feeling, and put it quite beautifully down. Thanks for your perspective!