Guest Post: A-merica, our home and native land… by Garreth Chan

I spent two months of my summer entangled and confused in an endless jungle of a fantastically exotic city.

Glass and cement twisted into a permanent tango, childish handwriting in chalk emblazoned across uneven sidewalks, slowly scrubbed away by the scuttling feet of the masses, and the roar of traffic buried in the rumble of the streets as trains bled into every direction. The evening sun was liquid gold seeping across the street, dotted by long shadows of determined – and permanently distracted – eyes and minds as they stared into their respective destinations, random spots scattered across the entire island.

Quite a number of people mingled in a popular city square not three minutes from where I stayed. For the days where the skies were clear, I chose to weave around the restless crowd as they cheered on a regular pair of street dancers challenging each other with intricate contortions, narrowly dodging the crouching artists who were intently doodling with chalk. The music blaring from the stereo was regularly perforated by the urgent tapping of chess clocks as a separate subsection of the square cheered on another form of ancient battle in black and white. Occasional couples darted between the scores of onlookers, giggling, fingers permanently intertwined, before settling on the sparse stone steps, where tired co-workers, relieved mothers and shrieking children celebrated the end of another day by drinking in small talk and polite smiles.

It was a gorgeous and suffocating city in equal measure.

Breathtaking, in all senses of the word.

*

My entire life in Hong Kong provided only incoherent snippets of what “American culture” was. As a child, I was a huge fan of Cartoon Network – and I still am, quite unapologetically – and would spend significant portions of my day deciding whether I wanted to be Ben 10, or Bloo from Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. Entering an international boarding school would further open my viewing experience up to the likes of Suits, Community, and How I Met Your Mother.

It was in these formative years that “American culture” really took shape in my mind. Every person belonged to a clique. Every clique belonged to a Central Perk or a MacLaren’s Pub. People had problems that solved themselves, or loved ones who would solve their problems for them. Feelings and emotions were shared regularly with rarely any consequences. Nobody ever really died. And above all, at the end of the day, everybody got along. I interpreted the idealism and hedonism that these sitcoms portrayed to be the true American experience, and I thirsted for more.

It also helped that Hong Kong families, like many non-Western countries, viewed the United States as the Pantheon of academic achievement. (Mecca metaphors may not have worked as well among Hong Kong people.) Success was the Ivy League, or any other college in the States, really. I did not have to convince anybody else that America was the dream; they were intent on convincing me otherwise. From forwarded email strings to strategically placed newspaper cutouts, America was everywhere. America was everything. America wasn’t only a melting pot, it became a bottomless cauldron overflowing with endless optimism, attractive people, bright futures, and a lot of drinking. To the angry teenager desperate to leave, that was the perfect juxtaposition against Hong Kong’s ever-overly competitive and materialistic families and students – a perfect getaway. I began to yearn for America, hoping to revel in its endless glory and beauty.

And in January 2015, America became a reality.

Landing in snowy New York City as a foreign sophomore in college and seeing a signature fleet of yellow cabs right outside the John F. Kennedy airport sent a wave of excitement tingling through my shivering body. Somehow in this adrenaline rush, I had convinced myself that I was in my own TV show.

As Abed might have said, “Cool. Cool, cool, cool.”

(It was also my first time seeing snow, but I don’t think my mind registered that quite yet, not with the New York of it all.)

I hopped into the first cab in line and took off my gloves, half expecting Sinatra to blare from hidden speakers.

“Carlyle Court, please.” I proudly proclaimed my address, hardly containing my excitement to be whisked through the streets of New York in a yellow cab.

The cab driver glared into the rearview mirror at me, his scruffy gray stubble matching his gray pupils.

“What?” His voice was deeper than I’d imagined.

“Carlyle Court, please.”

He yelled something in response, and two things became very apparent right away. First, maybe problems in America didn’t sort themselves out as easily as sitcoms would have me believe. Second, the American accent wasn’t as monolithic as I had previously learnt in all the shows I’d watched.

I didn’t understand a single word he said.

The remainder of the cab ride was an ambiguous mix of embarrassment, confusion, anxiety, and cultural shock. Somewhere along my trip, the iconic Manhattan skyline loomed into half-obscured view, but I think I was too self-conscious in the moment to take it all in. Before arriving in New York, I had had this plan to commit the skyline to memory as I entered the city, drawing a mental image as a backdrop to every other disaster movie ever made.

As I skirted through Brooklyn, my face burning, absolutely wordless, the trip felt like the disaster movie.

We arrived at Carlyle Court in a tepid anti-climax, I muttered my thanks to the visibly annoyed cab driver, overpaid my ride, and stood there lost in the snow.

Ever so slowly, I came to the realization that this was America. This was the America of romantic comedies, of catchphrases and of ducky ties. This was the America of Hollywood blockbusters, of pop megastars and of dreams. This was the America of billboards and Billboard, of friends and Friends, of communities and Community.

This was the America that I had learnt to love as a child, even before my own city.

And it had never felt more foreign.

But I guess I also saw it coming.

I mean, how ignorant is it to exoticize a country and a culture I knew nothing about?

How unbelievable is it that my lopsided interpretation of the country was skewed because of my limited exposure to the region?

How curious is it that I formulated ideas about the country that were completely inaccurate, as I realized when I finally approached its culture firsthand?

And how ridiculous is it that learning about the country’s culture – and admitting that I had glamorized its beautiful nuances – has made me love it even more?

All I needed, really, was to find a couple of smiling kids, take a selfie with them, set it as my Facebook profile picture, and write a heartfelt caption about “changing into a better person” – that would’ve been the cherry on top.

*

Oh, yes. By the way.

The fantastically exotic city, and the romantic city square?

Union Square, New York City.

And yes. It was breathtaking.

 

Garreth ChanGarreth Chan currently lives in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Raised in Hong Kong, he is pursuing a BA in Music and Social Research & Public Policy (SRPP) at New York University Abu Dhabi. With a particular focus in community arts education and social entrepreneurship, he has several fingers in various cookie jars, including sound design and scoring for film and theater, music production, graphic design, and creative writing. Under the pen name Alexi Garre, his work has appeared in several publications including A Literation Magazine, Aleola Journal, Black Heart Magazine, Infinite Scroll Magazine, and The Misty Review.

Garreth’s poetry is in Issue 13 of Black Fox Literary Magazine.

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