the last hours, again...
a few more will slip by while either resting horizontal or just sitting here in front of the magical keys recalling the ambience and insights of these passing 2+ weeks back in the homeland.
for the third time in these two weeks, i've driven back n' forth to northfield to see my pilgrim son, joshua shumsher. shakun mentioned in an email the other day that she was surprised that i wouldn't be seeing josh again before leaving america as i'd already arranged to spend my last night (tonight) w/ jeff janer & david danzig, two endearing friends from high school who i hadn't seen in years.
retaining & recalling these distant relationships remain a delight for me during my american excursions, as they are often still true, with the conversations picking up where they were left off one frozen margarita or evening a decade or two in the past. each trip 'home' i find myself reconnecting w/ these ancient voices, shards of my past worlds, seeking unity and continuity in the profoundly bicontinental expatriate world i've created for myself & my family.
i enjoy, as well, bringing such good souls into shakun & the kids' lives as totems of my original american universe and the good that is preserved in this vast, overwhelmed, burdened and often traduced landscape.
when i flew in two weeks ago, i watched from the sky the streams of white night headlights and bloodshot tail-lights along route 495 and 95 circling boston. the awesomely bright lights were on at fenway illuminating the world series with more concentrated energy than kathmandu can often muster from new road to durbar marg. there's something clean, wholesome and a bit foreboding in the night sky over an american city. the power and glory of the modern world.
yet, on the ground, once i quickly figure out which side of the road on which to drive (duh?), my internal cultural compass realigns from east to west, from asia to america, from the amorphous, 360 degree hindu-buddhist world to the ordered, logical, sequenced and usually either 'black or white' judgmental judeo-christian culture.
at least, on the surface, i function relatively smoothly, i whisper, encourage myself along...
although, the manifold observations obsessively seek to reunite (or realign) my personal 'recherche du temps perdu' of youth, childhood and the american way. with the present continuous sense of being.
for example, as noted, i just drove two hours at night from northfield mount hermon to newton, a very new england journey from rural wealth & privilege to urban wealth & privilege. from a cloistered boarding school to one of the exclusive suburbs surrounding boston. both emblematic of the glistening, sometimes costly, opportunities that abound in the mega-cities of the states. i'm treated to visions of the impressive academic, artistic & sportive worlds in which joshua has leapt in head first at nmh with the stately elegance of these handsome professional homes in newton.
as i also remind mself: we're not in kathmandu anymore, toto!
still, this early cusp of the 21st century america continues to surprise me. josh and his best friend, mohammed (from aegypt), want to go to their favorite 'fake' thai restaurant in greenfield, the town nearest to nmh, out in the rolling hills along the connecticult river valley. in this small, once decaying industrial town, there are a dozen different restaurants serving the staff and students from the nearby private schools. we have our choice of korean, american, mexican, chinese, thai, pub and/or pizza (of course). no doubt the nepali restaurant will be here soon, too, as gary offered me my choice b/n two nepali restaurants in madison, wi, when i was there last week.
then, explore a bit and the assumptions become illusions become reality become perspectives.
mohammed, who's been at nmh for 2+ years, already, bluntly says how ignorant americans are of the world outside. he's been lonely at times at nmh, esp. going there in 9th grade when he was the only arabic speaker, besides his sister at the school. now, it's only he & the sengelese french teacher/soccer coach who are both muslim and arabic speakers. the international sheen of nmh doesn't glisten so brightly.
from mo's experience, the 70% of american who attend nmh are astonishing naive ('ignorant' is his word) of the worlds outside their immediate purview. 'they don't even know what ramadan is!', he notes with surprise. 'yet, we all know about christmas. why?', he asks rhetorically.
when mo was in his first year and played sports, he wouldn't smile easily at these yanqui strangers, so they took to calling him, somewhat affectionately, he said, 'the terrorist'. although, in their sequested provincial minds, they couldn't appreciate the torment that such an appelation would cause an arab classmate from alexandria, egypt.
gauche? insensitve? condescending? or simply ignorant?
i sense a profound disorientation in the american worldview of the muslim or arabic world post 9/11 and deep into the iraqi quagmire. josh & I saw the movie, 'the kingdom' where jamie foxx and his fbi colleagues take on a terrorist cell in saudia arabia that had murdered one of his colleagues, killing scores, of course, while surviving nearly unscratched. the need for a robust american, cinematic-political revenge, once again, trumping strategy or security or a dose of realism.
similarly, there was a new tv show called, 'the unit', about americans who root out terrorists in the muslim world w/ deadly efficiency, determination and fear in their eyes. i didn't know what to be more aghast about, their showing the cold-blooded killing on prime time american tv by a us soldier of an english-speaking, arab boy when the teenager suddenly broke away to call the nearby arab militia (or radicals, fundamentalists, terrorists...). or, the simple fact that such a brutal episode -- no doubt taken from the daily news in america these days -- was shown seemingly w/o remorse on american tv.
has the level of global brutality affected us that we no longer have the capability to be shocked by our own fears and actions? what sad and lasting impact is this 'war on terror' having on the american psyche and soul? i still hear the intercom in the madison airport annoucning, 'the department of homeland security has determined that level of security precuation is at orange, a heightened state of preparation'. i remember thinking, 'but, c'mon, we're in wisconsin??!!'. how long, like the scars of the vietnam tragedy, will it take this latest gulf war take to depart our nightmares and daytime reflections?
yet, america offers both. the beauty and the beast. the great absorbitive capacity for immigrants yet the astounding lack of interest or curiosity in the vast, cultural riches in the world outside.
i pause my own inner reflections to see josh & mo laugh, smile and totally enjoy each other's company over dinner at our 'fake' thai restaurant. they've known each other only 2 1/2 months, yet they are fast friends. brothers from another planet, they see themselves as the truly international, unique country kids at nmh -- where there's an extensive collection of east asians, korean, chinese, tawainese and hong kongese -- but only a handful from a variety of other countries.
early on, when josh told his ap us history class that he was an american, they all looked at him and laughed immediately, 'you! american? no way!!' they unanimously said. 'you're nepali, brother!'
yet, even though joshua was raised jewish & mohammed muslim, there is no barrier at all to their obvious affection. 'we're just individuals', they remind me. 'everyone doesn't have to have a label', they say. and they're right.
this oasis of peacefulness near the vermont border, this intellectual, athletic and cultural seminary , this cradle of youth, definitely has its limitations, its deeply traditional american roots, its native prejudices and ignorance, its isolation amid its independence, but for joshua and mohammed, it has something else, as well: the opportunity for friendship across barriers.
after all, mo's planning to come to kathmandu and josh to egypt next summer.