Lin Yutang wrote, “What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?” Born in Fujian, Lin also lived in the U.S., France, Germany, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, where he’s buried. Whatever attachment Lin had to his childhood stews, fish balls, snails, clams and tofu, it didn’t prevent this remarkable author and inventor of the first Chinese typewriter from globetrotting to improve his mind then, finally, to save his own ass, as his favored Kuomintang and got routed by bad-assed Mao.
Should I stay or should I go? Ambrose Bierce glibly defined an immigrant as “an unenlightened person who thinks one country better than another,” but between any two things, types of coffee, meat loafs, races, there is always a value judgment, so one thing is always better or worse than another, though the verdict is never unanimous, for some people are even fond of ingesting egesta, or watching television nonstop, even to the point of leaving it on through the entire night as they sleep, so they can hear it in their dreams, I suppose. My friend T.J. does this. To each his own, then, but since leaving one’s country is never an easy step, logistically or psychologically, let’s examine the reasons for such a radical departure.
Turning his back on all he has known, and his very identity even, an emigrant is fleeing from his inadequate or insufferable government. If hightailing from a war, he’s trying to save his own skin since the state can no longer protect him. At other times, he’s escaping the state itself, for it has become his overt nemesis.
Since Americans have never experienced a Pol Pot, Stalin or Hitler, they can be terribly dismissive of other people’s historical trauma, so on the left, you still have naifs evoking Communism, of the dictatorship of the proletariat variety, as an ideal, while on the right, you have buffoons who mislabel crony capitalism as communism. Some dream of an American reich. Far from objecting to an overbearing state, they only quibble about its objectives, and nearly all have come to accept endless war as a natural American condition, and it is, quite frankly, for when was the last time the U.S. wasn’t fighting or occupying an alien population? I’d say never, but don’t listen to me. Submit your answer for a chance to win an all-inclusive, extended stay at the world-renown restive encampment at tropical Guantanamo!
A totalitarian state is one that can do any damn thing it feels like to you, without you having any recourse to fight back, short of being suicided by cops, and since the U.S.A. can now arrest, torture or kill anyone without due process, and it has, aplenty, it qualifies as such a monstrously criminal state notwithstanding the fact that all appears reasonably normal, sane and civilized, for now. If the law allows, say, a husband to shoot his wife at any moment, then that society has entered into hell even before the first woman has had her brains blown out.
Another clue to the state’s totalitarian pivot is its heavy emphasis on travel restrictions, such as the secretive and illegal no-fly list, its perverted airport groping of infants and centenarians alike, its absurd and arbitrary ban on everything from baby formula to clam sauce, such as happened to me, seriously. Even with the image of spaghetti on the label, the TSA Einstein thought it was a beverage. He actually suggested I drink it.
Like any attacker, a terrorist is liable to hit you where you ain’t heavily guarded, so there’s no reason why he should consider airports when there is an infinity of other targets, and the more random, the more terror generated, for nowhere would be safe. In any case, the only terrorists we should fear are the ones who are recruited and coached or, at the very least, sanctioned by our sinister FBI or CIA. Since it’s no secret our government casually and habitually massacres, should we be surprised that it also butchers innocent Americans? Far from being victims of terrorism, the United States is the world’s leading generator of it.
The primary aim of our transportation security regiment, then, is not to thwart terrorists but to drum into your head that traveling is not a right but a privilege granted by the benevolent state, and if you don’t grovel all the time, everywhere, and not just at airports or train stations, this special dispensation can be abruptly withdrawn.
Chewing on Kim Kardashian’s pumped up derriere and Tom Brady’s deflated balls, most Americans ignore all alarming signs of their nation’s descent into madness, though some have already made the decision to jump ship. Recently, I posed some basic questions to a handful of Americans living overseas, and their candid answers have been eye opening.
Explaining his reason for leaving, Dave, a 38-year-old living in South Korea, confides, “Initially, it was a desire to be able to make a decent living, and an interest in experiencing life in other parts of the world. More recently, I have been thinking about collective guilt in the context of Washington’s foreign policy atrocities. The U.S. government’s support for Ukrainian Nazis and their genocidal campaign against ethnic Russians makes me think that at some point causing suffering will be the last remaining function of the U.S. government.” What a succinct indictment, and the more desperate this government becomes, the more it will massacre, for it’s no longer competent at anything else. With native grumbling exploding into active rebellion, bloodbaths will also splatter across the Homeland.
Writing from San Luis Potosí, Mexico, Danielle Covarrubias states that she “always knew that the US was a sick society,” and “I remember the day in 5th grade (Westlake School for Girls—bubble within a bubble) when I read in the history book about Manifest Destiny. I was outraged! What? Who said? With what right?” Born in California to a Mexican father and white mother, Covarrubias “never, ever felt like an American or said ‘we’ about the US.” Covarrubias even felt more at home in Greece, where she lived and worked for many years, “I made wonderful, dear friends there. Actually, the time I felt most foreign was when I was invited to some middle-Americans’ house for Thanksgiving in LA. They were nice people, but I felt sooooo foreign there. I actually feel really strange around groups of white people, although I’m half white, look white [ . . . ] I definitely feel that I don’t belong in that society; they’re just so . . . different.”
You can be entirely white and feel more at home, or at least more human, in Mexico. Fifty-seven-year-old Brent writes, “People in Mexico are much friendlier than most people in the US.” There, he’s “able to form nice friendships with people I never could have met in the US, both Mexicans and people from the US.” Also, “Families here are kind of like communes, good fortune is shared with less fortunate members. There are good and bad aspects of that, but outright destitution seems fairly rare.”
Several other respondents also point out this easier access to other folks. Writing from Damak, Nepal, Son Ha Dinh observes, “I get to meet and talk to people daily and spontaneously wherever I travel, whereas in the States you have to make plan, arrange meeting, confirm time and location, etc. . . . Just extra layers we add to our lives that are really unnecessary.”
Having moved from Cambridge to Istanbul, Mark and Jolee Zola share that “Turks (along with the country’s minority residents) are very warm, welcoming people.” Intending to stay for just a year, this retired couple have remained in Turkey for nearly seven, and it’s their home now. They’ve learnt the language. Considering that Istanbul is not cheap, its human attraction must be considerable to retain the Zolas.
Having lived in Hanoi for 5 ½ years, San Francisco transplant Jacob Evans relays, “Vietnam in particular is a very human place. People eat on the floor in rooms facing the street with their doors open. When a neighbor dies, black flags are hung outside and a tent is erected where funeral music is played all day and night. The grieving family are wrapped in white cloth and even later they wear black badges to let everyone know about this status. The Viets are constantly looking after one another. A regular greeting is, hi, did you eat yet? I go to the markets and see every part of an animal used. Sidewalks are transformed into eateries, places to drink and gossip. Time is marked by the consumption of rituals. I am constantly full of awe and wonder.” Arriving, Jacob knew just two Vietnamese phrases, “I don’t have any money” and “fuck your mother.” He has enough Vietnamese now for basic interactions.
Obviously, the longer one stays, the more complex or paradoxical any place becomes. Returning to Saigon as an adult, I had to relearn my birthplace, and this is what I said during a 2000 interview, “I think one of the misconceptions I had was that people related to each other better here. All superficial observations, I mean you can see how people live here: they live in close quarters and the neighbors know each other, they have time to talk, the conversation can drag on for three hours, so I thought people had more patience with each other, they liked each other better, sense of family, sense of community, all that shit. But I was also a little skeptical. I didn’t believe it fully. In the States, I didn’t know my neighbors. I hardly knew anyone. I had to go to the bar. I knew my friends at the bar but the people around me I didn’t know. But here, you see people chatting and talking. But after living here a while, I can see that people aren’t quite that social. They might talk, but there’s a lot of animosity, there’s a lot of mistrust, there’s a lot of underhandedness, you know.”
Attempting to explain, I continued, “Maybe [it’s] just human nature, maybe people are like that anyway, they just happen to be physically close to each other, but not psychologically close to each other. One thing I’ve noticed is that haggling is a very bad custom. You’re always trying to get over the next person. You’re always haggling. In the States, you’re not worried about being cheated when you go to the supermarket, but here you’re always worrying about being ripped off when you buy anything. So this mind game that’s being played, haggling, haggling, corrupts people. But on the other hand, there’s a conversation.”
Had I stayed longer than my 2 ½ years, my observations would evolve further, no doubt, for even with a spouse or, hell, with yourself to your own consciousness, a mask can crack over decades or peel off suddenly, with another mask underneath. Further, just as Atlanta is not Boston, Saigon is not anything like Hanoi.
Moving from sojourner to permanent resident, the immigrant gains gravity and roots, and this is what 47-year-old Joe has done by marrying an English woman and having two kids. Ferdinand Celine wrote, “When you stay too long in the same place, things and people go to pot on you, they rot and start stinking for your special benefit.” It has taken but four years in Great Yarmouth for Joe to sour on England, “i came here with the insane, very stupid idea that i could win over the whole damn town. wrong! and a waste of time and effort. the english will be the english. and they ain’t impressed. and god they hate americans. am i a fanatic? yes! but many americans, bless them, loved me! the english love nothing.” And, “i try to make the most of things, so i do make some effort with these gormless, mean little dullards.”
In Dickens’ David Copperfield, Peggoty gushes that Great Yarmouth is the ‘finest place in the universe,’ and having visited it often during my 9-month-stay in East Anglia, I’m very fond of this tacky seaside resort with its 14th century, anti-pirate wall, but of course I’ve never had to live there, least of all permanently.
Sometimes, though, your host community will simply reject you. Dave, “South Korean society does not really allow foreigners to become assimilated.” Dave’s social isolation became so agonizing, he turned alcoholic and finally had a psychological breakdown. Recovered, Dave stayed on in South Korea, for he appreciated “how easy and simple life can be,” and his being there “at least partially compensate for wasted years and decades spent in the United States.” It’s quite remarkable, this testimony about one’s native land, the self-trumpeted greatest nation on earth.
Dave, “It was refreshing, and a little intimidating, to be in a place where what might pass for average or even below average intellectual capabilities might generally be regarded as brilliant in the U.S. That is also true for West Africa, where it is no big deal to speak three, four, or even five (mostly unrelated) foreign languages—and that is for regular people, not academics who specialize in linguistics. The sort of nationalistic chauvinism sometimes found in the U.S.—‘We’re #1!’ is not warranted.”
We’re too self-absorbed and self-infatuated to know that we’re ignorant. Living on a near continent-sized country, and the sick, dark heart of a bombastic empire at that, we see the rest of the world as ridiculous parodies of ourselves, at best. As we’re flung, one by one, from this mirthless roller coaster, however, each of us will come to a new understanding. Our skills and industry are not needed here. Like me, you’ve become a superfluous beggar.
As the criminal state expands, the little people are reduced to squashable ants. Brent, “In the US it’s hard to get any respect, even self-respect, unless you are economically successful. People tend to blame themselves for their failures more so than in many places, and often lose self respect as a consequence. When people lose self respect it causes all sorts of problems, and the media makes it worse with their constant idolatry of the rich, famous, and powerful, who are often just mediocre people with a flair for self publicity or making money. Just because somebody can make a lot of money doesn’t make them a good person or even intelligent, but that’s how the media portrays them. The Protestant Ethic always equated success with closeness to God, but until fairly recently there were a lot of nooks and crannies in the economy and the country where you could live quietly apart from the hustling and just have some tiny little business and live a quiet life. Those places are getting harder to find. Corporatism is out to monetize everything and everybody.”
Exasperated, Joe raves, “america, turn off your fucking tv’s, you are manipulated in ways you can’t imagine. give the indians their land back, fight the evil anglo-american government, take your kids out of school, re-start the sexual revolution, keep looking to the future (america’s greatest strength and uniqueness, this looking forward to a better world), but create the radical, beautiful society that you can and must create! [ . . . ] i have no hope for america or the world (well, i do, but it’s not the place for that long conversation here). america is too big, for one. It’s now a police/military state. etcetera.”
With some of the world’s highest rates of divorce, teen pregnancy and children born out of wedlock, I’d say the sexual revolution is still (hard) on here, so though the concept of free love arouses me as much as the next guy, I’ve learnt to keep my loins in perspective, as has Joe, by the way, since he’s an upright husband and father. As for the United States being some kind of Utopian project, our opulence and license are a direct result of our unmatched belligerence and rapaciousness. Our open roads are paved over corpses.
As for our egalitarianism, it’s as superficial as this Andy Warhol observation, “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the president drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too.” In spite of our jivey bonhomie among classes, this society is as stratified as any.
This country was built with slave, indentured servant, coolie and sweat shop labor, and after Africans were freed, new, much more powerful black slaves were found in the form of oil. Much of what passes for progress is no more than this petroleum bonanza, but sure, why not, the state will take all the credit for improving your life!
We sucked and we sucked, all over the world, not just here, and after the easy sucking was done, we tried sucking in deeper water or even sideways, into rocks. Our sucking days winding down, we will rediscover hard limits, even social ones, to our lives. As the world’s most indebted nation, we’re essentially the poorest, but thanks to our big guns pointing in all directions, we haven’t had to pay up, and don’t intend to. The rest of humanity, though, won’t let his farce continue much longer. Already intellectually and morally bankrupt, we will also be destitute in the most naked sense. During the next phase of our sexual revolution, a record number of us will be selling our nether parts. To chew and swallow, we will suck from Wall Street to China.
In this permanent war, all-seeing, robocop state, hundreds of thousands of citizens are already internal refugees shivering in tents, under bridges and on sidewalks. Millions more have emigrated, with more to come in the turbulent years ahead. As for the rest of us, we’ll have to endure the worst of this rogue government in situ. We will die in this dying nation.
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.