It’s a cliché, the image of the immigration officer handing back your passport with a cheesy grin and the cheerful message, “Welcome to America”. When our officer handed my father and me our passports at Dulles, we had to stare at him a bit, waiting for him to confirm that we were free to pass through the gates. He just gave us a thumbs-up sign. Extremely anticlimactic after a 48-hour trip across four airports, but in my case, just fitting. I’ve always been an advocate for poetic moments being real to the point of catching rust.
My mother keeps asking me what my first impressions of the United States are. I’ve only been here a day, and I haven’t seen too many places – half of the car ride home, I was asleep because I was just so tired – but first impressions are meant to be proven wrong anyway. The America I’ve seen so far is flat. The hills, when they’re there, aren’t sharp, and even the buildings and the houses are smaller than I thought they would be. The city where I currently live doesn’t have very many people, and even in venues where a lot of people congregate, the crowds are really quiet. Calm. Very much unlike the country I’m from, where even a group of three people could laugh up a storm in any given conversation.
The supermarkets have a dozen brands and specifications of everything. I was shocked to find an entire wall of refrigerators containing nothing but variations of ice cream. I’m under orders to just keep eating as much as I want for the entire time I’ll be here. As I savor my haphazard turkey and cheese sandwich though, I lament how infinitely cheaper the lemonade here is compared to alternatives in Manila. Food is relatively cheap here given how much the average American earns. It is a difficult feeling to process: on one hand, sadness that my people can’t enjoy this level of food security; and, on the other, sheer elation that so much food could exist and be accessible in one place.
There are hundreds of free movies on our TV. The shower and all the sinks have hot water, and the kitchen sink has a built-in food compactor. My mother has dozens of cosmetics on her vanity, presumably because they’re sold cheap and not because she’s suddenly channeling Barbie. There’s a crazy amount of very detailed medicine ads on TV. I’ve been watching the news all day – very riveting. CNN’s doing a special on the possible Republican presidential candidate, and so far I haven’t seen anyone dance to or sing a cheap novelty song yet. They’re actually discussing the middle class, foreign policy, and career records. Aside from the usual mudslinging, of course, but then that’s everywhere. In the Philippines, voters would only care which candidate is which former politician’s offspring.
The Pope has come to America, yet the largest political group of atheists and agnostics committed to separating Church and State has also put together an ad featuring someone named Ron Reagan. He claims he’s a lifelong atheist, has always been, will always be, and he’s not afraid to burn in Hell. I’m sure Mr Reagan has bashers, too. Probably religious conservatives who take it upon themselves to beat down the smallest hint of blasphemy. But in the Philippines, if he’d given the same statement on national television, the CBCP would have hunted him down in a heartbeat, and perhaps several of our many churches would want to join the bloodbath, too.
Where I am is at a time zone twelve hours behind what I’m used to. I didn’t have to change the time on my watch, but I’m not sure my brain has caught up yet. I’m literally halfway around the world, having easily fought jet lag, but trying not to balk at the idea that our local convenience store doesn’t sell Datu Puti vinegar. I’ll be here until November. Let’s see what my impressions will be then.
(c) goodstock photos.