Thursday, February 25, 2010

Homeland Security

"When will you return to your homeland?," one of my students asked me after class last night. My quick answer was, "Never! Thailand is my home now." But can it ever be my "homeland"?

I don't like the word "homeland." It sounds too much like "fatherland," a word I associate with Nazis who counted only the Aryan race in their monoculture. When it was chosen by Bush and his cronies for the name of the institution that would ostensibly protect Americans from terrorism, I cringed. It smacks of ethnic nationalism, and America was always supposed to be a melting pot where immigrant ethnicities where mixed, boiled and stir fried. The blend became something new: American. Fascists, however, like single identities that can be manipulated and mobilized against the enemy, whomever it might be. The unprecedented attack on the World Trade Center gave radical conservatives the excuse they needed to achieve their nefarious aims out of sight of a terrorized citizenry (read Naomi Klein).

In the 1950s and early 1960s, anxious and fearful Americans supported the supposedly anti-communist McCarthy and various committees ferreting out "un-American activities." Innocent people were caught in the net, people who were a little bit different. They didn't fit in the American xenophobic mold. They might have been born in America but it could never be their homeland. When I was a student at Berkeley in the 1960s, we felt at war with the wider culture as we campaigned for the right of blacks to go to university and vote in the south and for Cuba to be free of interference by the U.S. Vietnam was not yet easily visible on the radar but the Korean War was still a fresh memory. America was the only nation that had dropped nuclear bombs. The world was afraid of us. America, then and now, was the neighborhood bully rather than a standard bearer for freedom in the world.

I'm reminded of American chauvinism as I watch the winter Olympics from Vancouver. Here in Bangkok, it comes via ESPN on a Thai cable network. The announcers seem to be mainly British and there is no cheering for athletes from one country over another. The goofy fans in the stands with painted faces and waving flags are given equal time. I watch the medal count statistics and note that at the moment Germany is challenging the U.S. I find myself cheering for the Koreans in several events and notice that my loyalties now are free floating. If anything, I identify more these days with Asians now that I'm living on this side of the globe.

My students who are Buddhist monks use the English word "homeland" to identify the village where their family and relatives now live and where they grew up. Only one of my current forty students was raised in a large town or city (in his case, Bangkok). They speak of returning to their homeland during the holidays or after the term ends. I do not attempt to correct them by suggesting simply "home" or "birthplace," and I am not sure what dictionaries use this word to translate from Thai, Shan, Lao and Khmer. It's interesting that they use homeland to mean a specific place, while Americans are led to believe it stands for the nation as a whole.

Nan has returned to her homeland, a small village in the far north province of Phayao, for the funeral of her grandmother who died on Monday. Relatives have come from all over to mourn her passing, a woman probably younger than me, who sold one of her daughters into prostitution when she was 13. This is an all-too-common occurrence in rural Thailand that I cannot seem to forget. That same daughter, Nan's aunt, became successful in her profession and sent money home to her mother for years and even built her a house. When she became pregnant by a New Zealand sheep rancher, she returned to give birth to Edward, now 7, and she died there a few years later of cancer. Nan's grandmother had four children, two daughters and two sons. Both sons died of AIDs. She struggled to take care of her family during the years when war raged throughout southeast Asia. And when Nan's parents were forced to work in another province, she took care of her and her sister. More recently she has cared for Edward. I never met her. In fact, my existence was hidden from her, for she would have wanted my money, Nan said. "She likes money very much." Today this woman I am unqualified to judge will be cremated, "in the jungle," Nan told me, meaning in the forest rather than at the local temple because two people in the village died this week.

Where might my homeland be? Not in Toledo, Ohio, where I was born. After World War Two ended, my parents moved to North Carolina where my father was a salesman of plastics, the new miracle invention. I went back to Ohio looking for the house I lived in when I was in first grade, but it had been removed to make way for a freeway. I lived in several houses in Greensboro and then Lenoir, but I don't think of them now as home. And certainly not Atlanta where I lived for only a year when I was 12. I spent my formative high school years in Southern California in the 1950s and feel a fondness for the place without much attachment now. When I abandoned the south for northern California in 1975 it was without a backward glance. I returned only a few times to indulge in a bit of nostalgia. Santa Cruz was my home for over thirty years, with two years away to live in Connecticut and work in New York City. If I feel a fondness for a place now it is the beaches and mountains of Santa Cruz along the San Lorenzo River. I miss my children and my friends there and the familiar haunts where I hung out, but when I left I knew I would not return. Nostalgic visits back to California are not in my current budget.

Most Thais would find this absence of a sense of place that I can legitimately call home rather odd. When I ask them about their home they invariably give me their place of birth. While most are forced by circumstance to leave their homeland to work, they return on New Year's and Songkran and Loi Krathong to celebrate the holidays with their extended family. And many retain ID cards that list them there, which means that in order to vote in elections they must return to their village home. I'm sure this has a depressing effect on voter turnout, since minimum-wage workers cannot easily take off for what might be a three-day, round-trip home.

"Home is where the heart is," according to the familiar proverb. I take this to mean that home can be a moveable feast, an apt phrase that Ernest Hemmingway used in one of his books. "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man," someone says, "then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." "Home" is a shifting signifier for the temporary abode of mobile, modern Americans. When I was growing up, families followed the husband's occupation. My father, who was disturbed at the lack of job loyalty I showed when starting out in my various careers, ignored geography in his search for employment. My parents returned to North Carolina after nine years in Southern California and both died in a retirement community near Tampa, Florida. Because he'd grown up there, my father considered Florida his true home, and my mother always showed an emigrant's pride in Canada where she was born (Winnepeg). When I left Santa Cruz, though, I took my heart with me.

Is it possible to be a citizen of the world, to count the planet earth as your home? Remember that Esperanto never caught on. Moving house frequently as a child, I recall the feeling of strangeness in a new place that gradually changed to familiarity. Sometimes I could recall the unsettledness I felt before getting my bearings. It was like the Necker Cube, that trick of optical illusion where you can learn to shift perspective at will. First it was strange, then it was home. With a little effort, I can even feel at home in hotel rooms. When my marriage broke up, I lived in a succession of short-term rooms that were comfortable if temporary. I've lived in my current furnished apartment for a year and a half. Without much decoration but an overabundance of books, it feels like home. Often I'm reluctant to leave and the thought of returning gives me pleasure. Nan and I are looking for a bigger (and hopefully cheaper) place and I'll leave here with no regrets.

Until then, the 22nd-floor Lumpini Place condominium is as much home as any place can be, particularly now that Nan is sharing the small studio apartment with me. The security guards (a regular militia) smile and nod at me, as does the lovely woman on the ground floor who toils at her laundry business seven days a week, ten hours a day. I walk Nan to the bus each work day morning and stroll a little farther after she's gone to buy my daily copy of the Bangkok Post from another hard-working woman who chatters at me in Thai as if I understand. Most afternoons when I'm not teaching I walk up the boulevard for exercise and errands, trying to stay in the shade of the elevated highway above. Several of the motorbike taxi drivers say hello and salute, asking me about my health and the lovely lady they see accompanying me in the evening and on weekends. I get thumbs up and high fives. Then I cross over the pedestrian overpass and walk by Tesco Lotus where we shop for groceries and sometimes eat frozen yogurt topped with fruit and candies at one of the many stores in the shopping mall. Lately in Tesco's clothing section I've been trying to find underwear that fits, constantly underestimating my waist size. A bit farther up the heavily trafficked road is Central Pinklao, an even bigger mall where I'm one of the regulars at Starbucks. The baristas greet me effusively and order my regular drink, a tall hot cappuccino. If I'm lucky I there is an empty stuffed armchair available in which to sit, sip my drink, and read the book of the day. Afterward I might browse at Asia Books, one of five booksellers in the mall and the one with the biggest English selection. On the way back home I nod at different people who have grown accustomed to seeing me, one of the few farangs to remain in this Bangkok neighborhood (the few they see are tourists that come and go).

What I'm trying to say here is that having a homeland does not necessarily provide security, and that not having one does not mean one is deprived. While critics may disparage it, the internet allows me to take my community along on my travels. I have become connected with friends from every stage of my life and we share thoughts and pictures by email, on Facebook and even via Twitter (though I've yet to limit my contacts there to only those with something interesting and essential to say). Home in this sense is a connection between family and friends rather than a particular place. Homes maybe temporary but "home" is an accumulation and culmination of a lifetime.

1 comment:

Gunnar Gällmo said...

"Remember that Esperanto never caught on" - well, for us who are regularly using the language, it did!