“Why is everyone so fat?”
Ah, the illustrious first words my wife uttered upon setting foot on American soil. To be honest, she wasn’t at her lowest weight mark in life either. It was October 28th, 2008 and we were a mere two months away from the birth of our first child. She had gained somewhere around fifty pounds during her first pregnancy, so I guess you could say she was in good company.
It was quiet, the terminal deserted. Or was that just us? I looked down at my legs and watched my feet take their slow, short strides learned on the other side of earth. “Half-strides,” I called them, because you couldn’t walk like a normal American in that part of the world. I looked at her feet, back at my own. Scratch that. We were now on “quarter-strides.” It had to be the pregnancy.
“You okay?” Even though it was just a whisper, my voice still carried further than expected. It was just us and a vacant airport hallway.
She nodded but I could see the tension there. Seven months pregnant and a twenty-two hour flight would do that to anyone, I guess.
“Nervous?” I asked as we finally saw more signs of life ahead. There they all were, queuing ahead in multiple Customs lines.
So was I.
It’s weird to feel like a stranger in your own land. I opened my mind, though, just as the double glass doors began to widen and welcome me to the outside world.
It was cold and neither of us had jackets, but my dad didn’t keep us waiting long at all. He pulled up to the curb, jumped out, and gave us a pair of hugs. He, my brother, and my mom grabbed our bags and stuffed them into the trunk of the car. We didn’t have much.
I heard the trunk slam shut as I stood on the curb. It had been three years since my own eyes had taken it all in. So much concrete, I thought as I looked left, right, and below my own two feet. I looked up. It was a mirror reflection of the street below. Everything is all so grey.
It was a thought that would continue to haunt me for days, months, and years to come.
Forty-eight degrees seemed life-threatening when the lowest temperature we’d experienced in three years was about seventy-five degrees. My wife and I shivered as we hurriedly crammed into the back seat of my dad’s new car with my brother Jim. The door shut, the airport faded behind us.
I watched as car after car whizzed past us on the highway. It was all so big. “Americans love their cars,” I pointed out to my wife. It was my only excuse for the miles and miles of pavement and parking lots surrounding us. How many of them were closed, abandoned, deserted? I longed for the green of Southeast Asia.
“We’ll need to take you to the driver’s license office tomorrow morning,” mom said as she addressed me from the front passenger seat.
And that’s when the fog lifted. I clutched at the haze, willing it to stay a little longer, but it only faded between my fingers. It vanished and the light reminded me where I was.
I was home.
I stepped forward from my place in line and approached the counter. Everything was happening much too quickly.
“How can I help you?”
I was still so confused. How did I get there? I looked to my rear and saw my dad and brother waiting for me. “Yes…I need to get my license replaced.” I had lost it two and a half years earlier in a taxi cab in Cebu, Philippines. The last time I’d driven a car was six months prior to that. Adding to my dilemma, I had also gotten used to traffic moving along the left side of the the road while living in Thailand. It just made more sense to me. Who drives on the right side of the road?
I handed her the form I’d filled out while waiting in line. “And you still remember your old license number?” She sounded a little impressed.
I nodded. I wanted to rattle the numbers off in Thai. It seemed so natural to me.
“Okay. Remove your glasses and look right over here.” The camera flashed. “Want to see?” she asked.
No. No I didn’t. But I nodded and stepped forward anyway. She turned the screen toward me and I saw myself. Exhausted, empty, still a million miles away.
“Want to take another one?”
I shook my head. “How much?” She told me and I opened my wallet. My stomach dropped as I touched the unfamiliar green bills decorated with American presidents. I grabbed a Lincoln and a Jackson. In less than a week we’d be voting for the next one in the chain. Who would it be? Obama? McCain? Who were they and why should I even care? I knew nothing about them except buzz words like hope and change.
Hope and change? Hope and change from what? For who? Me? What had even happened in America the last three years? I couldn’t even tell you who had won the last Superbowl.
She handed me my new temporary license. “You’ll get the permanent one by mail in about three weeks. Keep this one until then. You can take this with you to vote next week.” She must have read my mind.
“Khap-” I caught myself and bit my tongue as the now-foreign word died in my throat. It was a word I had used every day of my life for the last two and a half years. It was a word I would never need again. “Th…thank you.”
She looked up, confused.
But not as confused as me.
It took me about two weeks to get used to driving again, even longer to get used to the place I now called home. Nearly three years, if we’re keeping count. Three years. How many miles of concrete did we drive across during that time? How many potholes did we hit? How many parking lots did we pull into to reevaluate our route and change direction?
I look at that old driver’s license today and remember those early days so well; the exhaustion and confusion, the frustration with myself. The longing for something else somewhere else.
So much concrete.
It was everywhere we looked yet seemed to get us nowhere at all. It was ugly, grey, and bumpy. But you know what? It took us to where we are today and shaped us into the people we have become.
It took a while, didn’t it? But I guess we all need a road trip every now and then. Maybe I was around the 15,000 mile marker when I opened my wallet one day and looked at that old license I had paid for on October 29, 2008. Who was that guy staring back at me? I breathed a sigh of relief.
I was no longer the foreigner. He was.
I closed my wallet and looked around. When did I finally realize there was so much more to life than the road right under my own feet? Although the path we trod may be grey or even bumpy, there’s more to life than what’s directly under foot. Look up. Look around. So long as the sky is blue and the grass is green, I’m pretty sure we’re headed in the right direction.