Writer: Lee Lian Kong
Published: Fri, 13 Jan 2012
It had been a 14 hour long flight, after an earlier 6 hours flight. I was flying to Evansville, Indiana, to undertake a one semester study grant by the US Department of State. So there I was, jetlagged and tired but finally, on United States of America soil. It was my first time on a plane and crossing oceans. There was excitement but my tired body was struggling to keep up with it. It didn’t help that at the Atlanta Hartsfield Airport where I was transiting, there was a long line at US Customs. I was not in the best mood.
For the last 24 hours or so, I’ve been in airports and inside airplanes. From KL to Seoul to Atlanta, the airport interiors looked nearly the same. Modern, clean, first world. It was the subtle details that made all the difference. In KLIA it was the kebayas on MAS stewardesses and the announcements in Malay. In Incheon Airport in Seoul, it was the completely new experience of being surrounded by predominantly by Koreans and the unfamiliarly curt Korean speech. Finally in Atlanta, African Americans counting more than their white counterparts and packaged food everywhere. Welcome to America.
Back home, it has been a habit of mine to assess situations, to guess the racial demographics of Ara Damansara or to gauge where that Malay slang is from. It is my home for 21 years and I have picked up these tiny details all my life. I knew how to behave or act in various situations or places.
Now being foreign, anything goes. There is so much you can read that is in actual fact, the total opposite in real life. (Read : Girls, not all the men here look like James Franco. Sorry.) How do I go about without offending someone or how to convey enough gratitude or how to exude just the right amount of ‘cool’.
Okay, the last one was a joke.
It didn’t help that my deepest study of American culture was all 14 seasons of South Park. Though critically acclaimed and lauded as the best satire and most honest television programme to pop out of the US of A, even I knew you don’t just go around making fun of Jews and mimicking a redneck’s slang just for the heck of it. Not until you can assure yourself that South Park really is the real depiction of the United States, anyways.
Through whatever brain juice that was left in my sleep deprived brain, I told myself to just mind my Ps and Qs and just don’t act like a Cartman-like douchebag. In fact, to just keep quiet. With that, I walked from the North Terminal to the South Terminal to catch my last connecting flight to Evansville, Indiana. It was a long, long, long walk. But it was also during this walk that I stumbled upon the highlight of my trip.
They were three soldiers in uniform waiting in a departure lounge. In my head, I got all giddily excited, exclaiming “OMG, they’re wearing urban camouflage uniforms like the ones in Hurt Locker! There are real, actual soldier standing in front of me!”
These were the people I saw on CNN, the people the President of the United States was calling back home, the people who were most affected by 9/11, one of the greatest events of my generation. They carried M16s and faced the possibility of dying everyday just for their country. Scenes from Saving Private Ryan played on repeat in my mind.
I looked down the hallway and there were small groups of them scattered everywhere. Some drinking coffee, some walking about, one on his iPhone talking softly to his wife.
“Are you on your way home?”
An old lady called out to one of the soldiers she passed by.
“Yes, mam. I’m on my way home.”
That was the highlight of my trip. It made the horrendously long flights worthwhile to catch that single exchange of words. After 9 years of conflict, the soldiers finally get to come back home to their wives, mums and dads, girlfriends, brothers, sisters. It was a historic moment and that exchange between the soldier and the old lady was the real and more importantly, the human side of politics and news that TV reports just cannot show. In Malay, there is a word called ‘sebak’ and another, ‘tersentuh’.
In English they would most closely translate to poignant and touching. It was both for me at that moment.
This was America. In retrospect, I believed that, that moment was not just touching, but foreignly so. It was a by-product of a global superpower’s foreign policies, very much unfamiliar to someone from a much smaller and isolated country in the global playing field. Moreover, I had not felt something like that before because my sentiments have thus far been confined to those I have been surrounded with, fellow Malaysians and those I have built relationships with. They were complete strangers to me. Yet the feeling of being touched was strong and genuine.
Was this the real America?
Would I come across such achingly real moments like this?
I certainly hope so.
Lee Lian Kong is already playing Alleycats’ “Senyumlah Kuala Lumpur” on repeat. She welcomes feedback, do email her at firstname.lastname@example.org