Archive for November, 2010
“…and so the dual citizenship allows me to live and work over here without a visa,” I say, finishing my well-rehearsed and repeated “why I’m over here” story. The recipient of the story this time is a member of the Idaho National Guard. He’s dressed in fatigues just like the hundreds of other American soldiers in the Shannon Airport departure lounge.
He pauses. “Well I guess I found my own way of seeing the world — and I didn’t need a visa either,” he says through a grim smile. I turn red as I realize that unlike the light rain that will greet me when I reach my destination of Bristol, in a few short hours this man will feel the hot sun of Iraq.
Shannon Airport, located in the west of Ireland, is the first stop for a lot of of American military aircraft. With its location on the far west of Europe, the airport makes for a prime refueling location for transatlantic flights. As a result, the departure lounge has been overtaken by hundreds of troops from the Idaho National Guard. Every one of them is heading to Iraq for ten months.
During a pause in conversation, the Guardsman looks at a baby-faced young soldier a few rows over. He’s dancing and showing off for his friends while wearing a tacky Irish hat he just bought from the duty-free store.
“Man, I don’t know why they buy that crap. Some of these kids come over here with their military checks burning holes in their pockets,” the Guardsman tells me.
Even in the a remote airport in the west of Ireland, I find my membership as a citizen of the most powerful country in the world come sharply into focus. It’s not an uncommon occurence. Last month I had some business to conduct at the U.S. Embassy in London. Before I even reached the front gate, a private security officer asked me what my business was at the embassy. I told him I had an appointment and I was an American citizen. He directed me to the guard booth on the left. Next to me, a man from a Southeast Asian country I couldn’t identify pleaded with another officer. “Please, I must…”
“There’s nothing we can do for you here,” the officer interrupted in a respectful but brisk tone.
I passed the man and walked into the American citizen guard shack and went through the airport-style security checkpoint. The demeanor was friendly and inoffensive — of the people in this guard shack, everyone who has business at the embassy likely knew they were going to leave having gotten what they came here for. A quick glance over to the non-citizen guard shack revealed a much different situation. The guards were all acting professionally, but the people held a tension in their shoulders. Some of them were probably applying for visas or citizenship. Not all of them would get it.
As I emerged from the citizens’ guard shack and headed toward the Embassy building, I passed within feet of a guard armed with a semi-automatic assault rifle. I wasn’t entering any office — I was entering a modern American fortress.
Entering this citadel of American might made me reflect on how lucky I am to be a United States citizen. One of the frequent questions I get from people over here is “Why would you move here? I’m trying to get to your country.” Acquiring American citizenship isn’t anywhere near as easy as it was for me to get Irish citizenship. Even visas are so difficult to get that most people who want to take a year abroad chose to go to Australia or Canada instead.
Yet here I am, able to work anywhere in the E.U. or U.S. without any prior approval. I feel very lucky.
Back at Shannon Airport, my flight begins boarding just as the Guardsman finishes telling me about how eerie it is to carry your weapons on a transatlantic flight (since they’re on a military plane and are all required to carry their side arms).
“That’s your flight,” he says.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“I’m John,” I say while shaking his hand.
“Good luck, Seth.”
“Thanks a lot.” He says sincerely, in spite of his apprehensive mood.
As my plane leaves the ground, I look down to see the American military plane sitting in on the runway, preparing to go to Iraq. I think of Seth and the other Idahoans who are flying off in the face of incredible danger, and I feel incredibly grateful.
One year ago today, I turned my life upside down. One year ago today, I upheaved myself from the familiar into the unknown. One year ago today, I moved from Minnesota to Ireland.
Yet I’m not sure I have much to show for it. I’ve lived a year of relative mundanity. The locales were more exotic then what I was used to, but life? Life has been the same. I don’t spend my days skydiving or riding elephants. I go to work. I play XBox. I go out for coffee with my friend. Not quite the life of adventure that greets some European travelers.
History is fraught with stories of brave men going on a pilgrimage and coming back fundamentally changed. Like many who have lived abroad, I wanted my own Forty Days and Forty Nights story (in a biblical sense — hold off on the Josh Hartnett jokes). But that’s not the way life works. Stories told in retrospect have the advantage of stripping away the irrelevant, the boring and the counterproductive.
When he was my age, my dad moved to Canada to work for two years at a ski lodge. When he returned he took his first job in higher education, an industry he would work in for over thirty years (he retires this summer). The pieces of the puzzle seem to snap into place so easily when I listen to the story. He took a few years off, “found himself,” then returned armed with the knowledge of what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
But that’s not really how it played out. He tells me his time at “The Lodge” was a time filled with loneliness and introspection, a time when he had to learn to be by himself for the first time in his life. After the two years were up he returned to his family in Maryland, lived in his mom’s basement and spent six months job hunting before settling on a job as a residence hall director at a university.
Day to day life lacks the cohesion of reexamination, and that’s what I need to keep reminding myself. Right now, one year into my big move, I’m the same person I was 365 days ago. I haven’t been fundamentally changed. Still, I can’t predict what kind of story this will make when I tell it decades from now (God willing). Will my years abroad be the time when I finally broke into the television industry? Will it be the time I came to appreciate Minnesota as the place I wanted to spend my life? Could it be the place where I meet my future wife? I can’t know. But the knowledge that someday all this will make sense is what will keep me going into year two.
I regretted my decision to order fried yak meat and potatoes as soon as she walked in the door.
Not because the dish itself was in any way undesirable, mind you. It was just that, well, she was a Buddhist nun.
I was sitting with two of my fellow teachers, Brianne and Hibes, in the Tibetan restaurant next door to our hostel in Chengdu, China. We were staying in a Tibetan neighborhood in the southern part of Sichuan province, so it was not surprising to find such a restaurant so close by.
There we sat, drinking sweet milk tea in a small room with colorful silk embroidery and prayer flags hanging on the walls, their colors standing out that much more in the dimly lit room with dark wood paneling. I had ordered yak meat out of a sense of adventure, and it turned out to be lean and with a distinct salty taste, quite good. Ordering the meal itself had been a feat, requiring much gesturing and pointing to pictures on the restaurant’s front signboard. As soon as we placed our orders, a woman walked in — black hair cropped close to her scalp, yellow and red robes wrapped carefully around her- and sat at a table in another corner of the room.
We took note of her presence, but did not openly acknowledge it. We talked amongst ourselves about Buddhism and the rarity of female Buddhist nuns. As the conversation drifted back to our old lives in America, we talked about people we knew who had joined monasteries and seminaries, and what their lives are like now. Soon our food was served, and we ate our carnivorous dishes quite happily until Brianne squeaked, “Oh! A spider!” Hibes saw it on the edge of the table, by her food, and quickly flicked it onto the floor.
“Where did it go?” I asked. I had had a run-in a few days previous to this with a particularly large spider, and was more skittish than normal in the presence of the insects.
“Right there,” said Hibes. “Here, I’ll get it.” And she stood up to squash the spider. I looked over at the woman in the corner, who was watching us. As the front of Hibes’ shoe slowly lowered toward the floor, the woman suddenly stood up.
“No, no!” she screamed. “Don’t kill it!”
Taken aback, Hibes stepped away, apologized and sat back down. We had falsely assumed she couldn’t speak English, and this outburst was surprising to us on several levels.
“Save life,” the monk said. “Preserve its life.”
Of course, Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and a Buddhist nun would never kill even an annoying spider at the dinner table. We were embarrassed to have been so thoughtless in front of her, but the act of stomping on spiders had become second nature to us after a month in China. The woman did not seem offended, and began to engage us in conversation. I watched as she thumbed through a set of wooden prayer beads, not quite the Catholic rosary I’m used to, and thought she must be praying for every bite of meat I took while talking to her.
The woman was soft-spoken but not shy. She asked us about ourselves, where we were from and what brought us to Chengdu. Although she lived in Tibet, she had spent two years living and studying in Vancouver, and was currently in Chengdu studying with her Buddhist teacher. She informed us that the three women who ran the restaurant spoke about as much Mandarin as we did (which is to say, not much), and that most people in the neighborhood spoke only Tibetan. The young boy running around the restaurant- one of the owners’ sons- spoke no Mandarin at all.
“Tibet used to be a separate country,” she explained. “Now it is part of the one, united China.”
We nodded that we had heard this before, choosing not to delve any further into this particularly sensitive issue. I asked her instead where she was from. Hong Kong. I was impressed to hear this, because Hong Kong is a Cantonese-speaking part of China. According to my own calculations, this woman knew Mandarin, Cantonese, Tibetan, English, and I could only guess which other foreign languages. I was impressed.
We made small talk with her as we finished our meal. As we stood up to pay, I asked her how to say ‘thank you’ in Tibetan. “Tu di che,” she told me.
“Tu di che,” I said to the women who ran the restaurant. Their huge smiles in return showed they appreciated my feeble effort.
There was a lot I wanted to say to the nun, apologizing for our spider-killing and yak-eating, asking her about her life in the monastery and how many other women were in it, thanking her for speaking so kindly to us, but I didn’t. I wasn’t sure how. So I just smiled, and she smiled back, and we left and walked quietly back to our hostel next door.
Kelsey Gustafson is an editor with Two Passports. She moved from Kansas to Chongqing in 2010 where she teaches English to Chinese students.