A smile swept across my face as my field of vision shifted through a window on the Airbus we had been perched in for the last 12 hours. Outside were the foothills the color of Grey Poupon, a water-deprived sight once distasteful to my eyes but now entirely welcome as they signified a lack of the humidity that had overtaxed my sweat glands in Vietnam for the last three weeks. Hooray! We were back in the San Francisco Bay Area! Home of moderate temperatures, good food and ethnic diversity.
My elation faded about as quickly as Floyd Landis’ stunning collapse in Stage 16 of this year’s Tour de France.
First was the realization that—due to a recent, unusual heat wave—the temperatures in the Bay Area were over 103 degrees Fahrenheit. Holy global warming! This was warmer than Vietnam, albeit much less humid and hence a tad more comfortable.
Second, there was the issue of getting to Santa Clara via BART and CalTrain. This did not go quite as smoothly as one might have hoped. “Due to a switching problem, BART trains are running 20 minutes late,” boomed the overhead loudspeakers. CalTrain was even tardier with arrival times of 27 minutes off schedule. So much for the American order and timeliness I had been looking forward to.
Then there were the languages heard around me. After three weeks of listening to Vietnamese—a language that (in my opinion) is quite possibly the most jabbing, guttural, and cacophonous language in the world—I was looking forward to hearing and conversing in American English, my native tongue. Instead, on the BART train from SFO to the Millbrae station, the language I was hearing most was Cantonese, especially from that of a mother yelling across the train at her kids. As I wished to cover my ears I reflected upon how that dialect of Chinese (the dialect of my ancestors) is possibly the only language in the world that sounds even harsher and more shrill than Vietnamese.
As I disembarked from the train I was pushed and shoved by these Cantonese-speaking people with the same disregard that is prevalent in many Asian cities. If I seem to be picking on these immigrants, may I note that at least they were not hogging up train space by having tremendous blubberized girth. In contrast, while looking (unsuccessfully) for an empty seat on an extremely packed CalTrain I boarded moments later, I observed that one 400-pound American couple was so obese that the two of them had to sit in opposing-facing benches diagonally instead of next to or directly across from each other and literally occupied four seats.
As the train rolled southbound I noted miles and miles of stucco walls covered with graffiti, something conspicuously absent in Vietnam. A couple of hours later immediately after my friend Adam picked me up from the Santa Clara CalTrain station. The roads near this station were nearly absent of vehicles, and yet the first thing we saw was two cars involved in a head-on collision in the middle of an intersection resulting in two badly crushed sedans. Ironically, despite the sea of motorized chaos in Vietnam I never saw an accident there, and here one of the first things I saw on the “orderly” American roads were two totaled automobiles.
Ah, but the first few hours of my return to the U.S. were not all bad. Actually, I think the above observations are more comical than annoying, and are minor complaints especially when compared with other aspects characterizing American life.
For example, for all the trouble that had afflicted BART and CalTrain, at least rides on them were free today due to the date being designated as a “Spare the Air” day. The air was at least 10X cleaner and clearer than that in Vietnam and yet our local governments had declared the air quality as not being good enough. It was refreshing to be back in a country where clean air is highly valued.
Unlike Vietnam there is diversity here with people with black, blonde, brown, red hair and light, dark, olive, yellow, and freckled skin tones. A broad spectrum of interesting cultures are represented, and yet all of the different ethnic groups (for the most part) live harmoniously together.
Even random strangers in most places in the U.S. greet each other with small talk, eye contact, and a smile. For example, there was the older lady at the CalTrain station who struck up a friendly 15-minute conversation with me as we waited on the same bench for our much-delayed train. In contrast, in Vietnam the only times I would be randomly approached and talked to were by beggars wanting some cash or, more frequently, by cyclo and motorbike drivers wanting to sell me a ride.
As we waited I also noted that aside from the overhead jets flying into and out of the nearby San Francisco airport, the environment was notably devoid of the honking-every-two-seconds that occurs in Saigon. Also, despite the record-breaking heat-wave afflicting the Bay Area (104 degrees Fahrenheit in Santa Clara the next day), my skin was dry to the touch instead of saturated in the sticky sweat that had covered me every day in Vietnam even when I was sitting down under shade.
Here in the U.S. I could also cross the street without having motorbikes veering 12 inches around me. Cars would actually slow down and stop for me as I traversed a crosswalk. What a concept.
Most importantly, the people whom I most care about reside here along with the language and customs I am most comfortable with. And so despite all of the gripes listed in this article, the joy of being back in my home country returned just as Floyd Landis’ had with his incredible comeback in Stage 17 of the Tour de France. I love the U.S. There is nothing quite like one’s home country, and it is great to be back.