In America


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IOWA CITY — People who have traveled extensively don’t tell you much about jet lag. “Oh, it’s just your body getting used to the new hours of the sun,” they tell you, most often in a flippant way. They make it sound like having a minor hangover that can be cured by Advil and three glasses of water.

For most of my travel life, the most extensive time difference I have had to bear consisted a total of two hours and 30 minutes–a miniscule time lapse, also largely irrelevant, because I went from east to west (from Manila to Chennai) and essentially followed the path of the sun.

When my brother Rey was home from L.A. for a few days last August, he spent his jet lag hours bothering us in our wee hours (“Let’s grab a bite to eat!” he would text me at 2 am), and the rest of the day snoring out the sun.

This does not sound like an ordeal that equals misery in some level of Dante’s hell– and so, off I went, on an 18- hour journey across the Pacific, to Iowa, to an alien timezone known as Central time that soon would wreak absolute havoc on my body.

Jetlag, nobody tells you, does its wrecking in increments at first, in such killing subtlety, lulling you into believing in the beginning that no jet lag was actually happening.

It hit me full force on the third night. In came the awful insomnia, the splitting headaches upon waking up, the sudden bouts of disorientation, the untimely narcolepsy that plagues the day hours. “Go out,” I was soon told. “Let your body get used to the sun. Get your circadian rhythm in sync with the daylight. Resist the temptation to sleep in the afternoon!”

By the fourth day, I developed a coughing spell so fierce I had to retreat to my hotel room for three days to convalesce and wasted an entire week in an effort, with the help of a regimen of the strongest dose of Mucinex, to get better. The cough eventually went away, after a little more than two weeks–a most tiring period.

“I think I’m just developing allergies to all this clean, crisp Midwestern air,” I told a friend when I was on my last days of getting better. Which was true. I thought of my relentless coughing as essentially my lungs clearing out the humidity and the pollution of Third World air, and breathing in the alien but clean, thinner air of Iowa, filtered perhaps by the cornfields that surrounded this tiny academic city, home of the greatest creative writing workshop in the world.

“Well, it’s also the start of autumn,” one helpful Iowa native informed me. “It’s quite normal to get sick these days. Getting from summer to fall can be hell. Have you had your flu shots?” I said no, and was promptly told I could have it in one of those chain groceries; Walgreens, for instance.

For two weeks, my body, used to the humid battering of the tropical air, was telling me in very dramatic psychosomatic manifestations that America was different–the air was different, the sun was different, the people were different, their sense of normal was different. But I also knew I needed this difference.

In America, I am often asked the same question: “What surprised you the most about the U.S.?” I find that question quite telling.

Back home, our usual ice-breaker question for foreigners we find ourselves having small talk with is: “How do you like the Philippines so far?”

In a sense, this is reflective of some unconscious form of yearning for approval, as if we are begging the one we are interrogating to “like” the country based on experience and not newspaper headlines.

The American question, on the other hand, is quite telling of everybody’s awareness here
that there are many ideas of “America” in the world, many of them myths and stereotypes created by Hollywood and dreadful FoxNews.

For many Filipinos, for example, it is the ultimate Mecca of travel and work, the one destination everyone back home longs to go to, judging from the long desperate lines at the Embassy along Roxas Boulevard, or the spiking enrolment to college courses that are ready-made for a Stateside existence.

In fact, I told Edgar Samar, my fellow Filipino participant in the International Writing Program here in the University of Iowa, that I couldn’t help but sometimes scrutinize the look and the feel of the U.S. visa and the Social Security number we had obtained as part of the IWP–“So many people back home would die for these,” I told him.

My answer to the question, of course, is a response to my idea of America, which the writer Anthony Burgess once summed up as “consisting of five provinces: the Wild West, Southern California, Chicago, some generic university town, and New York.”

Behind our generic ideas about it, there are breathing people here who may be different in looks and in other things–but they are also, surprisingly, just like me.

Also this: the overwhelming kindness of people, especially of the Midwestern kind. I found this in abundance in Iowa City, in Chicago. “Everybody’s so friendly here,” I told a newly- minted Caucasian friend, and she laughed and said: “Wait till you get to New York.”

Still, I was surprised by that friendliness, that easy “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” or “Hi, hello” that spring from everybody’s lips, from total strangers.

It is not at all unusual for complete strangers to bump into each other and inquire, in such intimate tones, about the scores of an ongoing baseball or football game. On a park bench in Viagra Triangle in the middle of Chicago, I had the most interesting free-flowing conversation with a third grade teacher who was sitting beside me grading her students’ homework. We talked about snow and books, just like that.

Also, while waiting for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to perform its inaugural concert with maestro Riccardo Muti in Millennium Park, an old college friend (now a Chicago local) and I bumped into an old man, a classical music aficionado, who began telling us his passion for architecture and old chairs, just like that.

These things never really happen in the Philippines, proud as we are about our inherent friendliness and ever-ready smiles. Oh, we smile all right. Oh, we are friendly. But we are never spontaneous in our conversations with strangers, we are never fired-up enough to say a casual hi or hello anywhere we go.

Here, you do. This is what I like about America.

What I also like is the implicitness given to you that here in America your individuality is prized. You can be who you are here–for the most part, anyway–and no one in general bothers with you. (There are many exceptions, of course, some very deadly ones.)

They show this individuality in many ways: in fashion, in a lifestyle choice, in a fearless raising of hands to question the teacher in the classroom.

I once read somewhere that Americans may be lagging behind worldwide in the fields of science or mathematics, but they are number one in the area of self-confidence. This is true.

This is a place of very confident people. I was startled by that in the very beginning, coming as I did from a society where strong statements of whatever kind are often frowned upon and “regulated” by some subtle measure.

America, it seems to me, and I know that I run the danger here of being naí¯ve, is a place where you can … “blossom.” I cringe using that hokey word, but nothing else fits the idea I am trying to convey.

This is a place where you can make yourself into a somebody if you really wanted to, regardless of where you come from. I think they call this idea as the American Dream, but I am also aware that this has been a much-sullied fantasy of late, considering right-wing hatefulness we get in the media, the recession, among other things. I see this most manifested in the number of the homeless that I see everywhere–another thing that also surprised me.

But still you can’t help but feel the possibility of becoming anything–it’s palpable in the air, a true democracy for the ways we can pursue individual fortune.

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