What can an armload of shitty plastic China-issue alarm clocks possibly teach us about the meaning of existence? About our relative places in the mess of things? About what it means to be from somewhere, anywhere, in a world that borders on post-national, post-cultural? A surprising lot, if you ask me.
It started like this. At 23, on some inexplicable lark, I moved to Mexico. I’d accepted a teaching position on Cozumel, a tropical island straddled between filthy, lascivious Cancun and the forbidden and mysterious Cuba.
I spoke no Spanish, but had a decent amount of solo international travel under my belt and figured I’d cruise down there and check things out. At that young age, I guess, the premise of starting over, over and over, hadn’t quite lost its luster yet. All of it still seemed so easy. I was an American, but my sense of identity remained fluid, changeable.
But things in Mexico were off to a poor start. It was hot. I kept getting lost, even on the street just outside my apartment. And on the first day of classes, I overslept. I felt disheveled, scattered. I needed an anchor.
So, that first afternoon, I set out on foot in the direction of the island’s only department store, Chedraui. There, I purchased a plastic gray alarm clock. It was square and resembled a tiny television more than anything else. I brought my kitch prize home and quickly discovered that it didn’t tick.
The next day, I returned to Chedraui and exchanged it for a slightly different model, this one cherry red. Back in my apartment, as I inserted the batteries, I noticed a mysterious rattling coming from deep within the recesses of the clock. It sounded as if some sort of a rock was lodged in there. By morning, it, too, had stopped ticking.
Back to the department store, and back home with a black clock. As it turned out, the hand on this one moved, but did so at such a languid pace that it took 28 hours to for it to tick off an entire day. I continued oversleeping. Everything seemed to be moving too slowly, including the clocks, including me. Maybe it was the heat?
Irritable and sticky-hot, I returned again to the department store.
As I scoured the shelves that fourth time, searching in vain for something – anything – that would work properly, I discovered something rather disturbing. There, amid the careless jumble of cheap alarm electronics, sat the previous two clocks I’d already returned, taped sloppily back into their boxes and set out for sale again.
To call my knowledge of Spanish at the time cursory would probably have been generous, but all the same I laid into the cashier, a bored looking teenager with a nametag that read “Pancho.”
“These, no work,” I said to him, gesturing angrily at the graveyard of rattly alarm clocks. “No function.”
He merely shrugged.
“I return! No working,” I insisted.
“Esta bien,” he replied with a flick of his hand. It’s fine. Don’t worry.
But it wasn’t ok! Not to me! I grew indignant. This would never have happened at home, a place I’d begun to desperately wish myself back to. But what could I do? I’d committed to this life. I’d made a promise to stick it out. And I really, really needed a clock.
With little faith, I selected a pink clock and stormed out. As I stomped down the avenidas in the direction of my place, my thoughts raced.
“Forget this,” I thought.
“I should just leave,” I thought.
This world was too hard, too punctuated with disappointments and mosquito bites and broken promises. What was with these people?
As I slipped into a pitiful reverie, I recalled the words my mother used to speak to me when she’d tuck my little kid self into bed: “No matter what you do, you can always come home.”
I used to love hearing her say that, and not so much because I didn’t believe it or ever doubted it, but because it was something I took pleasure in being reminded of. That’s the thing about privilege – when you have it, you don’t have to think about it. Unless you want to. Then it is liable to make you feel sooo warm and fuzzy inside.
By the time I reached Mexico though, I’d asked myself to think about it quite a lot. During my early twenties, on some impulse I am still unable to explain, I decided I needed to do some traveling. I spent the first years of my adulthood in strange foreign lands, far from the bosom of Western privilege. I saw legless beggars drag themselves along filthy cobbled sidewalks, rattling tiny bowls of coins. I camped out in roach-infested huts and tore through jungles hanging off the backs of vegetable trucks. I fielded robberies, I learned to pass bribes. I was pretty darned impressed with myself.
Once, just before I’d taken off for Mexico, I’d met my father for lunch at a pub half-a-mile from the home I’d grown up in. It was a nice neighborhood, not the kind of place where you’d ever find tent cities or packs of wild dogs or open pits of sewage running beneath the sidewalk. Instead, the landscape of my childhood was punctuated with the bland and unobtrusive pleasantries of modern American life: Izzy’s Pizza restaurants, playgrounds, four-way traffic stops. We’d both long since moved away, but somehow found ourselves drawn back to its strip malls and its chain restaurants, over and over, every time we met up.
We were talking about my latest misadventure – an ill-fated tromp into the jungles of Northern Laos that had left me broke and nursing a stubborn case of e.Coli poisoning.
He asked me if I thought my wanderlust was a reaction to my sheltered upbringing.
I’d never thought about it that way, but I had to answer yes. My adventures up to that point would have been best described not so much a “step” outside the bubble as a frantic dive bomb preceded by a blind running leap. I’d landed facedown in my own sick as often as not, broke and roughed up, but I couldn’t stop with the dive bombing.
And in the course of those strange excursions, bad luck or none, it hadn’t taken me long recognize that something was rotten back home in the States. Or, if not rotten, at least past its sell-by date.
In Paris, I watched my French host family spend long, luxurious Sunday afternoons eating quiche and sipping wine in the company of extended family and wondered why I didn’t see my relatives more. In Thailand, I noted the hammocks set up outside every place of work and lamented the grueling pace of my days back home. In South Korea, I was fawned over by a team of doctors for the slightest ailments – ear eczema, a lump in my armpit, a headache – at five or ten bucks a pop, and I began to resent the fact that I had to forgo even basic medical insurance in the U.S.
I’d nurtured a lot of rage toward my home country in those first years abroad. It felt like a way of asserting myself, of proving something to the skeptical hordes of Europeans and Canadians and Australians I often found myself keeping company with. I accepted their insults about my country’s president with head bowed. I claimed I was from Vancouver, B.C., just to avoid seeing that disappointed look on a new companion’s face when it came time for introductions. I laughed with them at the fat American tourists whose voices always seemed just a bit too loud.
No, I wasn’t like those other Americans. Not at all. In fact, I’d probably been born in the wrong country entirely, I began to guess. I didn’t want any part of the American dream. I didn’t care about fancy cars and life insurance. I wanted to drive a moped and take siestas and smoke endless cigarettes and drink wine with my breakfast.
Looking back, I think that this shifting self-conception, this willful rejection of my place of birth, was probably an important part of growing up for me. I was rejecting the things I’d been given, picking them up and yanking them apart like the pieces of one of those little Pandora’s box puzzles. Problem was, I couldn’t figure out quite how to reconfigure the parts in a way that made any more sense. Like the cherry red clock with the strange, dull rattling, the thing always seemed to have too many pieces, or too few.
People should be given permission to relax a little more, I’d become convinced. Even to get sick once in awhile without landing in bankruptcy court. So I’d relocated to Mexico, where people knew how to live, to enjoy, nevermind that I’d never even visited the country before.
But those alarm clocks presented a new chink in my self-effacing worldview. The whole episode, to coin a phrase, really set me off. Maybe home was not so awful as I’d first imagined.
The fourth alarm clock I purchased – the one I ended up settling for – had the distressing tendency to ring out two hours early, or one hour late, depending on the day. In the months that followed, as I did battle with its faulty crank and tried my best not to miss morning classes, I began to revise my views of the two poles around which my life had come to rotate: Home, and Not-Home.
Six years later, my relationship with my home country remains complex. The upshot of my early encounters with self loathing is that they led me, also, to its opposite, and by now I have cultivated a sense of gratitude that would probably have confused my 23-year-old self to no end.
I recall the procession of non-functioning alarm clocks and I say a silent thank you for U.S. return policies.
I recall driving in Nicaragua, how the roads would end – sometimes without warning and sometimes in a considerable dropoff – and I marvel at our interstate highway system, our gorgeous, bone smooth and tirelessly mapped-out highway system.
I recall the careless jettisoning of piles of ugly trash onto the streets of Seoul, into the jungles of Guatemala, and I am thankful for litter laws.
I recall being groped opportunistically in almost every single other country I have ever been to. I think of my Korean bosses out cruising for whores while their wives sat submissively at home, and I say a silent thank you to the mothers of my male American counterparts, who raised their sons, by and large, to respect women, or at least not to treat them like second-class concubines.
But there is a darker side to all this.
In Mexico, I came face to face with an a nascent ethnocentrism that felt as interwoven into the fabric of my being as my very DNA. I couldn’t wipe it clean anymore than I could wake up tomorrow and stop being American, right down to the white of my bones. I hated who I was, where I was from. I also loved these things, fiercely and immutably, and was ready to defend aspect of my worldview to the very death. How to reconcile the two? A little humility helps, as does the recognition that in the end, you simply cannot have it all. Anywhere you go.
People often ask me what I’ve learned from my years on the road. I usually tell them this: human beings are the same pretty much everywhere you go. The same hopes, the same fears. That, and you can get by on a whole lot less than you’d imagine.
When you are far from home, you fall into the deep habit of measuring costs. It’s a natural reaction to the realities of travel: everything you contend with, you now contend with in quantities of finite proportions: limited cash flow, limited time, limited backpack space. You pay attention. You simplify. You prioritize. None of which come easily for many of us Americans, abundance-addled as we are. But it has its own rewards. Because when you start to measure everything by its true cost, you begin to notice the connectedness of everything. How adding one egg to this basket means taking it away from this other one, inevitably.
After long enough, such exercises of estimation are liable to rearrange your worldviews faster than inserting an eggbeater into your ear and hitting “scramble.” How you decide to reconfigure them, ultimately, speaks volumes.
I’ve emerged from my 20s endlessly rearranged, sometimes undone, but somehow still intact. And in the twilight of my first decade as an adult, I cruise the long, sloping highways of home at perfect sunset and am thankful for the clean air, the clean water, the stark possibility of it all snaking out ahead of me.
Mom was right. Because we are Americans, we can wander far. We can rage and rant and swear that we’re never going back. And when our feet are blistered and our glasses are broken and our bellies are aching and our wallets are empty, we can come home anyway. And in this era of shifting borders and unacknowledged genocides and horrific fortune to which the only alternative is a heartbreaking and forever exile, that is something special. But is it enough?
The other day, I overheard two young women chatting in a coffee shop. I gathered from their conversation that one had just returned from a backpacking trip to Europe. She regaled her friend with tales of Swedish boys and absinthe and the dark wonders of Amsterdam.
“It’s so different over there,” she sighed, fingering her exotic-looking scarf. “Ugh, I just want to get out of this horrible country.”
She seemed so comically world weary that I almost laughed aloud. But then I recalled myself at 21, home from Eastern Europe with my sordid stories, my ridiculous dreadlocks and my burning desire to get far, far away again as quickly as possible. I couldn’t bear to judge her too much.
Here is what I should have told her:
If you want to go, go. But someday, your shoelaces will break and you’ll grow tired and, most probably, you’ll be back. And it’s what you do then that will matter the very most of all.
There exists an uncomfortable and irreconcilable space between our need to cling to our national and cultural identities and our overpowering urge to destroy them, for although the postmodern promise of a world that has moved beyond nationhood may never make good on itself, its very premise allows us the untenable luxury of remaining who we are even as we will ourselves into other forms entirely.
If you can find a way to be at peace in that space, all the indignities, the joys and the differences will begin to speak to you. Sometimes, they will whisper. Sometimes, they’ll rattle and buzz with all the futile urgency of an alarm clock going off an hour late. Listen.