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Archive for April, 2009

It’s been said that if fish were scientists, the last thing they would discover is water. Similarly, if a fish was asked if his nose was wet, would he even know what wet meant? One’s own culture often inhibits understanding of the most obvious elements of culture.

I am an American Ex-pat, living in Australia. There are many things about my homeland that I could not appreciate until I’d lived overseas long enough to dissociate culturally. On a recent trip home within the first hour of re-entry I was instantly reacquainted with the high stress levels of my country of birth.

I have a theory that whoever created the movie Blade Runner must have spent a lot of time at LAX. The airport’s constant drone of multilingual announcements and warnings over the P.A. system, the jostling parade of jet-lagged foreign nationals, and the unspoken hypervigilance all harken to the movie’s futuristic vision of Los Angeles. For a movie made over 20 years ago, it portrayed an amazingly accurate likeness of LA, at least of its airport.

Banners on the walls proclaimed “Welcome to The United States of America,” but there was something incongruent and foreboding in the Customs processing hall. Most likely it was the ominous bank of automated defibrillators mounted on the walls. “The Department of Homeland Security welcomes you to America! Let us stamp your passport, scare you to death, and reboot your heart. It’s all part of the service!”

Above the customs officials’ booths was a huge signboard that flashed not useful customs information but rather banal advertisements of its ability to display moving casino-like messages and images—”Look, we can display hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs!” It was conspicuous and unnerving and downright odd. What did it mean? Should I be worried? Is this really America, leader of the free world, or a set on Smile, You’re On Candid Camera?

Outside on the sidewalk, there was a similar combination of unsettling surrealism and palpable urgency. On our way to terminal one, we walked past six law enforcement officers who were standing around a sedate but cheerful handcuffed man. Needing to cross the five lanes of traffic, we waited until the crossing light eventually signaled clearance. Then it immediately started to countdown, allowing fifteen seconds to complete the traverse. I felt bullied by that signal and its nagging bleeps: “Hurry up–or else,” it menaced.

Less than an hour on home soil, and my stress levels were threatening to escalate. My question is do these insidious pressures play on all citizens? I imagine most Americans are unconscious of these stressors, like fish who are unaware of their watery environment. As an ex-pat who has come home, I can observe that America the land of the free, but the home of the harassed.

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