Fish Out Of Water

Three weeks in. Seven weeks to go.

I have neglected the blog a bit in the past few weeks. To some extent it’s because I’ve been busy with the things I need to do while I’m in L.A., but that’s not the only reason. The state of American culture, particularly in light of recent events, is in such a state of tension that any comment I might make on what it’s like to return feels a bit dangerous.

I very studiously want to avoid politics on this blog, but philosophy (which informs politics) is fair game, and there are a few things about American culture that have made me feel out of place for a long time.

I’m not a partisan thinker. I try to go where the facts take me and I also periodically try to check in with myself as to whether I’m rationalizing or fudging the evidence to reach my preferred conclusion. It frustrates me when I see others not doing this, and it also means that even though I might have an opinion that puts me on one or the other “side” of the left-right divide, it also means I can generally see why the opposite “side” feels the way they do about things. People are different; life is complicated. Most peoples’ lives are limited to certain geographic areas and (especially nowadays) certain social structures. It’s easy to focus on those and have no awareness of what it’s like for people outside that paradigm.

But more than that, my brain just doesn’t work like most peoples’. I’m basically a highly functional Aspie. My mind is wired to think literally and logically and I’ve had to acquire emotional understanding and to some degree empathy over a long period of time. This is something I’m much more proud of than any musical achievement, because it was very difficult and took a lot of conscious effort. Probably because of that, I also have spent a lot of my life pushing boundaries and being fascinated by the gray areas in peoples’ psyches – what lies beneath what people put out there. I had to learn subtext to be able to develop the emotional intuition most people are born with but I wasn’t.

For a long time now, I’ve felt that “grey area” thinking was no longer really a safe place to be in our culture, and I now see I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time editing myself – not just in the things I say but in how I behave. As I said in my previous blog, I’ve really suppressed my playful side – the guy that stops shopping at Trader Joe’s to start dancing in the aisles – because it just scares people and freaks them out, even though if you think about it, it’s a pretty healthy place to be (provided you aren’t doing it to draw attention to yourself). As I said before, one of the biggest things I love about being in Asia is my goofier, more eccentric side often puts people at ease. Coming back, I’m much more conscious to not say this, not to do that.

With our partisan divide, if you express any idea that is outside of the approved list for left or right, you risk excommunication to the other “side” whether you want to be there or not. I don’t want to be overdramatic about this nor one of these tiresome people who complains all the time about how “PC” everything is. That said, it’s very hard to talk about my experiences because the things I’ve observed do not fall easily into the left-right paradigm – I think it’s equally threatening to both – and also some of the cultural taboos we’ve adopted now seem really silly.

I got into an embarassing situation a few days ago hanging out with friends because I told a joke that someone else found offensive. It was offensive by American standards, and I apologized profusely as soon as I realized how the person took it – it was my bad for sure. But in Asia it would have been funny because it talked about a kind of behavior that was very common there, and why I went there in my mind was that the person I was talking to would obviously never behave similarly, hence the humour. But to them, the idea that such behavior even existed was simply appalling to consider, and so it wasn’t funny at all. They had absolutely no context for what was coming out of my mouth and so had to put it into the nearest available box which was, it must be said, a very bad box I do not wish to be put into.

Maybe the easiest example I can give you is when people learn that I have spent time in the Philippines, they start to talk about the horrors of unlawful shootings and extralegal activity under Duterte.  The fact of the matter is I’ve heard gunfire exactly once the whole time I’ve been there, and things to me seem considerably calmer than before he took power. Many Filipinos have said the same thing, and have talked about how much safer it is to walk the streets now, about the dysfunctional power dynamics that he at least optically (I can’t speak to the reality) is trying to disrupt. This is not meant as a defense of Duterte or taking a position on what he’s doing or how he’s doing it. I’m not Filipino and it’s none of my business. It’s simply what I’ve observed, not a political position or offering approval. It’s telling the truth based on my limited perspective…but me not simply agreeing “oh my God, of course Duterte is terrible” and solemnly relating a Filipino horror story makes some folks deeply uncomfortable. But I can’t say that. I don’t approve of what he is said to have done. But I can only report personally on what I have seen and heard.

I feel like Americans are stuck. There’s a huge non-discussion in our culture that is simply not happening, and as the flames get fanned higher, there’s less and less desire to have that discussion. These two “sides” never get exposed to challenge, so that the good ideas are adopted and the unworkable ones are discarded, and the culture synergizes and moves forward. I am fully aware to what degree people on each “side” are invested in the idea that they are morally right. Without commenting on how I personally feel about that, at the end of the day to have a functioning society, you either have to compromise or you have to dominate. It seems that more and more the latter is where we’re headed. That’s just not a good thing.

For me personally, we’re still talking and arguing about things that we should have settled and moved on from long ago, and we’ve adopted rigid idealogical positions that we think about in absolute terms but that are totally a product of our own culture. Ask a doctor in the Philippines about our health system, or a young white male from Australia about our gun problem, and they think we’re nuts. There’s a huge range of ideas and ways to think about things – ideas to try – that we pre-emptively exclude because they fall outside our accepted idealogical perimeters. We are so committed to the idea that this or that thing can’t work that we refuse to even consider it or try it. For every issue we face there are considerations that affect different people differently, but we invariably separate those issues out into two piles and focus intently on one pile and ignore the other.

I know this is a particularly difficult time for Americans so I don’t want to get into specifics about any issue and as I said, I want to avoid overt politics. So for me personally what this means is that I’m just not very comfortable here because I feel like there’s no way to have safe conversations about things that don’t fit into partisan boxes. We are, as a society, extremely ready to be offended, and coming off living in Indonesia, where people right off the bat will ask you a bunch of very nosy questions (“Where are you from? How old are you? Are you married? You’re fat!”) without meaning anything by it, it’s just hard to adjust to. Likewise, the fear we all live under – the studious way people avoid making any eye contact whatsoever to discourage any kind of interaction – is jarring after living in places where people go out of their way to greet you good morning. The offense there is if you walk by without acknowledging the greeting.

There are a lot of things about being here I like. The biggest one is how much better the air quality is (and I’m in L.A.!), my proximity to nature, and also how relatively uncrowded it is. But I also consider how much that space feeds our isolation…how much I feel like I need to cross the street if I’m walking late at night so that someone else walking on the street doesn’t feel threatened…and I ask myself if it’s entirely a good thing. Not for the first time I reflect that for every advancement we have made as a developed and prosperous society, we’ve also lost something. Every step towards financial security is, unfortunately, also a step towards isolation. Every step towards safety also isolates us from risk, and facing risks is where we acquire resilience and learn our own capabilities. Every move we make to enforce social outcomes also stigmatizes mistakes – and mistakes are our best teachers…it’s where we learn our own fallibility and thus learn to forgive others theirs.

These are the things I think about, and though it’s all just stating things I’ve directly observed, viewed through our country’s partisan lens I can already visualize people going “oh my God! Adam’s a __________” (pick your label). That’s kind of the problem. I’m just looking at things, and trying to make observations without judgment. Life is complex, and I want to take it all in and learn as much as I can. Expressing these kinds of ideas in our current environment feels unsafe. To a much greater degree than in Asia, I feel like I have to mind, carefully, what I say or do. Think about that – it’s a completely alien culture full of mores and customs I don’t fully understand and yet I still feel less guarded. It took leaving and coming back to realize to what degree that was the case, how much freer and more relaxed I am in that environment.

When it was time to come back to the U.S., one of my greatest fears was that I would find that the whole Asia adventure was just a phase, and that I would find myself back in America in my old life as if nothing had ever happened and no compelling reason to return. After three weeks though, I can see that I needed to get out. For me personally, my home country has become an environment that stunts growth. I am enjoying being here, but I can’t wait to leave.

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