We weren’t always friends.
It started off so innocently. A skinny Chinese boy, a West Australian town, and a dream by the name of John Starks, who wore a flat-top with his #3 New York Knickerbockers jersey during the early nineties. Later in life, I would grow to stand nowhere close to John’s muscular six-foot-five frame nor ever to gain the opportunity to be royally shat upon by Michael Jordan each playoff series, but you, good ma’m, were the Mother of All Things Cool, and John Starks was your most glorious son. Throw in Guile from Street Fighter 2, a kitchen-handy Colonel named Sanders, and $200 AU Reebok Pump sneakers and you were at once my Lady of the Night and super-hot babysitter, all rolled up together. If Australia was the tangible and immediate—sand grains in my pants from the beach, ‘No Hat, No Play’ schoolyard totalitarianism and kids with hair so light they bleached white during summer—then you were the surreal.
But really, thanks for (1) John Starks. He was, ineffably, the man.
Such slavish devotion at your altar of manufactured cool only grew in depth as the tortured pains of immigrant adolescence set in. I felt anger—(3) Kurt Cobain provided its sonic outlet. I hated Aussie grit—your blockbusters provided the glam. I lusted for classmates—Sharon Stone’s legs (4 and 5) sat down in a chair for interrogation (the rest is history). For every emotional pull and timorous impulse to push boundaries a 13-year-old with a diary might feel, you provided all the catharsis, pop psychology, and heart-warming cinematic dialogue I could have asked for, like a virtual Gaia from (6) Captain Planet (which in its own wonderfully absurd way, offered a pre-cursor to globalized youth activism of which I’ve actually taken to heart). However, this only hinted at the sort of religio-emotive intimacy we began to acquire following the release of Ally McBeal to broadcast television.
Having a grand total of two television stations in my hometown meant pickings were slim. However, it also meant that you developed abnormally obsessive relationships with prime time characters from David E. Kelley comic dramas, particularly those involving thin, flakey lawyers and their zany colleagues. So whereas less stunted viewers may have cooled to Ally’s limited array of “over-active” imaginative antics, I chose to travel another route. I began to become Ally McBeal. Not so much in terms of wan smiles and mini skirt suits—alas, gender roles and Anglican private schools appear only faint acquaintances—but mental excursions. Annoying kid on the bus? Cue Vonda Shepherd’s “Shoop Shoop” song and I was a million miles away, walking imagined snow-lined sidewalks as Bostonian suits admired my cheekbones. Don’t know how to dance? Watch Calista Flockhart and make like you’re the dancing baby.
I’ve since been told the story of one young woman who quit law upon discovering that her firm did not possess curious little men with vocal tics. To which I might reply: “Oogga Chaka, Oogga Chaka!,” “Snappish!”, or “Law and love are the same – romantic in concept but the actual practice can give you a yeast infection,” depending on my mood.
So thank you for (7) Ally, or at least, her team of scriptwriters.
On my very first highly anticipated trip to visit you, I had (8) two sixteenth birthdays. I suppose that has more to do with Greenwich Meantime than it does Los Angeleno hospitality, but I’ll take it.
On the same trip, whilst taking my first baby steps around the country–the Chinese Mann theatre, downtown Minneapolis, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, etc.—I found my journey to be thoughtfully soundtracked by the Backstreet Boys, and their irrepressible ballad: (9) “I Want it That Way.” During every cab ride, whilst entertained by each Marriott Inn television channel, you constantly opined that I was “your fire,” occasionally even “your one desire” (growl!), and it seemed at the time that both of us wanted it to be that way. Again, I think a Swedish fellow wrote that tune but I’m giving you all the love this year.
And then my family actually moved here.
When it occurred to me that the transition from the idyllic, pop culture-soaked realm of my youth into the murky, uncharted territories of transnational migration–with its clique-tastic (-1) public high schools and dystopian pre-existential loneliness–was not going to be remotely as charming as Ally’s relationship with ex-boyfriend Billy, nor somehow as romantically destructive as Kurt’s relationship with (-2) Courtney Love, I did not react particularly well. My junior year of high school was a harrowing mixture of peer rejection in which I alternated awkwardly between efforts at choking back my then-purebred rural Australian accent, and attempting to cash it in with various social groups like one might a little red Monopoly house:
“I’ll say ‘Fosters: Australian for beer!’ three more times; then you have to invite me over after school,” went the invisible screenplay;
“Fair dinkum, G’day mate, yes, bloody well…’shrimp on the barbie’: can we make out now?,” I would practically venture like a scene from Annie Hall, though uniformly without success.
I am now desperately attempting to maintain intimacy with my mother tongue, if for little more than the popular and occasionally awe-inspiring approval it wins from (+5 = 11) American women.
I recall the moment I was cleaning syrup off of bottles during recent tenure as a waiter, when during our conversation, one of the more sensual of my fellow wait staff let slip:
“Can you just keep talking…it really turns me on.”
Now as a straight, blood-flowing male I must say that I have never felt quite as immortal, quite as Zeus-esque, quite as wondrously close to the Himalayan heights of He-man majesty previously known only by the James Deans and Steve McQueens of our world as I did that otherwise mundane evening. There are many more sensible, readily quotable reasons to enjoy American society; say: (12) socio-economic upward mobility, (13) the overthrow of WASPish old money cultural hegemony, or (14) the man who invented wikipedia as off-the-cuff examples. But in all truthfulness, it is your magical ability to take what at face value is a particularly coarse, vowel-mutilating, ‘R’-tone erasing distant nephew of the English language, most heavily influenced by both convict descendents and gold miners, and to transubstantiate it into something that is (15) marketable, (16) inimitable (By God you have tried…and oh how you have failed), and…the thought still defies rationality: (17) SEXY, which causes this humble servant to kneel down at the temple of flesh and cry out in gasping awe:
“Thank you CROCODILE DUNDEE.”
But, unbelievably, there was a time when we clashed, Ms. America, so badly that I actually tried ceasing relations.
Somewhere between the (-1) Fox News Channel (despite it being technically owned by an Australian), the majority of Red state inhabitants’ (-2) moral efficacy and (-3) dress sense, and the (-4) competency levels of the current administration, we had a sizeable fall out.
“That’s it,” I told myself. “I don’t like America. Hell, why don’tcha just call me Anti-American, Pat Robertson,” I resolved, as I dived into “Cuba’s Great!” pamphlets from Socialist tables by the student union, staged sit-ins in the name of (+10 =18) Rachel Corrie, and declared my allegiance to the world of snooty, more-lifestyle-conscious-than-thou Chomsky devotees known as the “activist college student.” If there was an IMF protest on a Saturday–I was there; a spoken word coffeehouse talkshop on ecological anarchism or the evil excesses of non-biodegradable deodorant? It took top row in my Slingshot journal.
And yet it was only following backpacking trips through the former Soviet bloc and post-occupation Timor-Leste, during which I grew to love what the Atlantic Monthly describes as the “American Ideal.” Much lovelier than a simple dream, it championed the circuitous route over the path most straight in the name of political pluralism and minority dissent. It is the ability to transform cycles of pure Black sound, often borne of oppression and tumult (the Blues and Hip-Hop), into something universally profound and necessary (the anti-passiveness ability to “rock out” and “get down” respectively). And today, it is the current archetype of post-modern modernity: the (19) Bourgeois Bohemian Renaissance woman. We now have a generation of ultra-overachieving yuppies throughout the neo-New Worlds of East and South Asia, whose ability to balance modern art with chai tea, and go-small gardening with investment banking, was largely guided by one tome of choice, written by a soft-spoken Jewish columnist for the (20) New York Times (who happens to live 10 minutes drive from my work.)
It’s a gradual process, Ms. America, but one whose gentle pace I have come to savor. Every time I buy a platter of pupusas and flautas down the road from (21) Letty of Guatemala in my hackneyed Spanish, each time somebody reveals to me the ethnic history of a Brooklyn neighborhood, we grow a little closer.
And yet for each new friend with whom I swap family sagas of migrant struggle (the generations usually only go no more than thrice), there is a new Minuteman or Ku Klux Klan revivalist organizing against women and men who risk their lives for the very same dream that these nativists’ ancestors once dreamt. This, along with your notion of cardboard-packaged, installable democracy, is your most insoluble contradiction, and one that I firmly believe we shall overcome.
Several months ago, as my Southwest Airlines plane descended toward Baltimore-Washington International Airport, I looked out upon a landscape familiar to many: fresh suburban sprawl and endless lines of SUVs pulling through drive-thru Krispy Kremes, concrete box Walmart stores and gas stations…in essence: the clean, uncompromising face of Middle America. And where before I might have reacted with uppity distaste, burying my face in a New Yorker or spilling Kundera-aping stanzas across an iBook screen, instead I felt the unanticipated, gnawing sensation of a smile, spreading itself ever so gradually across my face.
Upon which it occurred to me that: No, I am not coming home. I know where home lies, and it’s a long way away from Washington DC. But this time, I was returning to a place that I no longer seem to mind, that I might even say I rather enjoy. And now, one day before I move into a rowhouse ensconced with African-American neighbors on the doorstep of the (22) Capitol building, and four days before the two of us celebrate our respective births (Mine: 22nd, Yours: 230th), I am ready to speak the phrase that too many young liberals find so difficult to form in their mouths:
“America, I love you.”