This piece first appeared at The Displaced Nation, September 2012.
When I left the US for Europe in 2002 I had no intention of ever again living in America. Violence, backwards politics, a horrible job market, and a provincial outlook on the world made an extreme contrast with my global, Third Culture Kid background. I am half American, half Sri Lankan, and my mother worked for UNICEF, so the family lived all over the world.
Not to mention I was suffering from extreme post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing the murder of a dear friend when the two of us were robbed at gunpoint by a gang banger in Hollywood.
Ten years later and a forced repatriation determined by economics rather than desire, I am at a loss for how much worse off this country is since I left. I know a decade is a long time — but surely not long enough to usher in political rhetoric that would take this nation back to pre-1950s? My mind boggles.
One big dark nation
Gun violence has ever increased — to the point where we find so-called Stand Your Ground laws that allow citizens to kill each other with impunity, under the guise of “I felt threatened” — even when that threat consists merely of a young African-American boy, armed with nothing but iced tea and a bag of Skittles.
I’m back in the world of mad gunmen going on shooting sprees. Sikhs mistaken for Muslims and murdered. Women getting abducted and raped at gunpoint while waiting for a bus — this happened just recently not far from where I live.
Post-9/11 America has seen the sharpest increase in the infringement of civil liberties as matters of homeland security and anti-terrorism. The arrests of journalists covering Occupy Wall Street events brought the US’s rank of journalistic freedom down 27 points, putting the country at 47, just behind Comoros and Romania.
Xenophobia abounds as states pass laws against the teaching of ethnic studies, and even literature written by Native and Mexican Americans, in schools. Such developments are exponentially more ironic when considering that this country’s immigrant history.
The worst (and rudest!) of times
After college it took me almost a year to get a proper job. Upon returning, I’ve had trouble securing even a retail job: all applications are now submitted online and don’t give you an option to upload a cover letter or even your full resume. Not only are American jobs outsourced to China, the application process has been tech-sourced to boot, as machines vet your application — even if you live right down the street from the store to which you’re applying.
I was shocked to find that retail jobs pay exactly what they did a whole ten years ago. Way to move forward, America.
America might have progressed in terms of technology; I see a smart phone in every hand. However, common courtesy has gone out the window as people text, Facebook, Tweet, right in the middle of an actual face-to-face interaction, without even a twinge of remorse.
Call me old fashioned, or a kindred spirit to Hannibal Lecter, in believing it’s the epitome of rude to fiddle with one’s phone (or any other such object of distraction) whilst another human being is talking to you.
The wheels on the bus go back-backwards.
Monsters are the best friends I ever had
To add insult to injury, I find myself in a particularly devoid area of Florida, easily one of the most vapid places on the planet. Plastic people who can spend an hour telling you about their lunch salad are the antithesis of the cultured individuals with whom I spent my time while living elsewhere.
Who would have thought the rabbit hole I fell down when I left Prague would lead to a place scarily resembling Hell, with its torturous circles and its staggering temperatures?
Each day I force myself to review the positives:
- No more winter. I never have to set foot in snow.
- My best friends are phone calls away.
- I live in an area so dull I’ve no excuse not to finish the several follow-ups to my novel, American Monsters.
- I have a swimming pool just ten paces from my back door.
- The public library is my church.
- I don’t have to worry about my visa expiring and being forced out of the country ever again.
- Netflix and Video on Demand are my saving graces, the more provocative viewings of late being Real Steel, Kaboom, Super, Burning Palms, Dancing at the Blue Iguana, Scream 4, The Tall Man, Grimm, Blue Valentine, Don’t Go in the Woods, Vanishing on 7th Street, Hobo with a Shotgun, Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives, Chatroom, Shuttle…my list goes on. Strange and thoughtful films; beautiful, horrible worlds in which to immerse myself. Anything to not be here.
It seems incredible that the America I left ten years ago — the one that traumatized me so badly — is actually a better version than the one in which I live now.
So frustrated have I been by absurd American conservatism and the zombie hordes of consumerism around me, I’ve resorted to a new persona: Zuzu Grimm, a creature who writes wicked dystopic visions of where this country is headed if it continues down this current path of willful ignorance and fear mongering.
But that’s not been the only struggle: For years I defined myself as an expat. My blog was filled with anthropological tales of living in Switzerland, France, Spain, Turkey, the Czech Republic and Germany. More than that: stories of growing up in Sri Lanka, Zambia, Thailand, Pakistan, India.
While I’m still a Third Culture Kid — never really at home anywhere — my expat identity became a cornerstone of who I was. It worked, and was so much less confusing to explain. The expat label made me feel ultimately more interesting. Writing a novel in Prague sounds infinitely more exotic than writing from an essentially retiree community of ten thousand.
Accepting that this is who I am now, and this is where I am, has been even harder than the absolute culture shock upon repatriation.
Being an expat gives a person a sense of uniqueness that may or may not be deserved. Yes, you’re a foreigner who must negotiate language/cultural/social barriers. But it’s also your choice. And for many people economics determines whether you can or can’t participate.
Kind of like having kids. You can complain all you want about how hard it is, but it’s something you elected to do, not something that was forced upon you.
(Well…unless Republicans head up the White house; with their insane ideas on abortion there’ll be thousands more women forced to carry rapists’ babies to term. Disgusting. Terrifying. Yet another grotesque example of the New America I find on return.)
I’m nobody, who are you?
My former life as an expat has taken on so many more shades of meaning as I consider how it must have seemed to those in my position right now: How glamorous. How decadent. How lucky. How dare they criticize my government when they’ve jumped ship. I have to live here. I’m thousands of dollars in debt. I don’t have the luxury of leaving.
Maybe one day when my husband wins the lottery, that’s just what we’ll do. Leave. Maybe for Buenos Aires, or Addis Ababa. Maybe in the meantime we’ll find a better city in the US, one that offers more by way of creativity, culture, and history — the things I miss most about life in Europe.
Until then, I have to make peace with being plain old Sezin Koehler who lives in and writes from Florida. Hopefully some time soon I’ll be okay with that. Any minute now. It’s going to happen.
That’s fine. I’ll wait.
And pray I don’t get sick in the meantime, because even with Obamacare, I still can’t afford health insurance.