Being careful not to reveal any personal security details I carefully answered the Thai taxi driver’s questions as he practiced his English with me while driving across the center of Bangkok.
“How long you in Bangkok?”
“And after Bangkok, then?”
“And after Nepal. Then back home to the United States for holidays?”
“No, no holidays for me, I am going to India next.”
“India? How long you travel?”
This is where I decided to start being careful. “About two months.”
“Oh. Well you say you have been in Bangkok a week. You will be in Nepal, India a month. And then?” He caught me. I will actually be gone longer than two months. So I revealed I had been in Vietnam and Cambodia first which got him to the two months he was looking for. Little did I know I was being driven by a math major.
“And all alone. You travel by yourself. All over?”
“Yes, it’s just me.”
“Ohhhh. Americans. So cool! They travel all over world by themselves!!,” he sort of screamed it at the top of his lungs and banged the steering with his hand as if he were trying to get the attention of the people we were passing on the sidewalk, but they couldn’t hear him. I laughed as he pulled up to my destination and he let me out. He wished me luck with a big smile that suggested he wished he was coming with me.
Later, as I was packing my bags for my flight to Nepal, I was shaking my head myself at the extent of this trip I am on and what I am doing. The night before an old friend asked me through Instagram whether I was hiring guides or fixers in the various countries I am visiting. No. Not really. I took a few tours in Vietnam because it was the easiest way to get where I wanted to go but for the most part I am just wandering the earth and actually trying to stay away from tourist destinations. I hate lines. I don’t like being herded. I want to see where real people live and how.
I forget who it was, but someone I was talking to in Cambodia said to me you have no idea how easy it is for you because you have that American passport. You just wave that and go anywhere. At the Bangkok airport I was waved through one leg of the security course because our countries apparently have a reciprocal agreement on visa issues. Other than that I have felt no sense of official privilege. I did not feel my U.S. passport was a golden ticket to the chocolate factory. But a month into my journey I do feel privileged and lucky to be an American.
I am just damn lucky…Goddamn lucky…that I was born in the country I was born in at the time I was born. Although I just learned recently that Italian-Americans were not originally considered white by U.S. immigration officials in the early 1900’s, I am damn lucky that by the time I was born that was not the case, or life might have been much different for me. And if you want, you can throw in the fact I was born a male. Unfortunately, even today, that carries with it certain economic advantages. So I hit the birth trifecta. The right country, the right time, the right race and gender (I know that’s four).
Because of that stroke of luck (and I will throw in some hard work on my part) I have reached a point where I can just travel the world — by myself — and feel somewhat confident about it. It could all be snatched away from me in a moment of course if I wander into the wrong neighborhood or forget while crossing the street that they drive on the left in Thailand, but for the most part what do I have to complain about? I walk around anonymously. Not worth paying attention to as far as the locals are concerned and if I do get in trouble I suppose the American passport will help. I know ultimately it means Jared Kushner has my back.
I have visited four countries so far and am landing in India as I finish this column. From what I have seen so far, on my worst day, I have fewer problems and a greater possibility of achieving my hopes and dreams than most people in what we call “the developing world.”
In every country I have visited people who know nothing about baseball wear New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodger hats. Asian women walk around in sweatshirts that say “Brooklyn.” When you take their pictures little kids make the gestures of American rap stars. On the way to Nepal there was a huge line of people placing their orders at Starbucks, McDonald’s and Subway at the airport.
Does it take an around the world trip to know this intuitively? No, but it certainly drives the point home. There are parts of the United States, too many parts, that are stricken by poverty and poor living conditions, but it is not the norm. In southeast Asia difficult living conditions are the norm — except in the big cities — and even in those places where western culture is slowly replacing local culture you will see signs of struggle.
In the United States it is a big deal that a large percentage of Americans do not have enough cash on hand to deal with an unexpected bill of $400. Where I have been most of the population is scrambling to make enough money just to get through the day. Today. The next 24 hours. And they will do it again tomorrow.
Even though they realize the United States is going through a difficult time right now, most of the world looks up to us and wants to be us. Of all the people I have met since the end of September, only one — a Russian — laughed at me and dismissed me when I told him I was from the United States. Everyone else either said, they “love America” or asked me if I thought we have a chance to recover from whatever it is that is happening in our country. Mostly they wanted to learn. They asked questions about how our country works and they practiced their English while talking with me.
I brought a Boston Red Sox hat with me on this trip and the few times I have worn it people have asked me why I don’t have a Boston accent. I told a Canadian couple from Montreal that I am really not a big baseball fan — and I am not from Boston — but when I was going through all my hats I decided to bring the one hat that said definitively, “I am an American.” They laughed and the woman, whose family is originally from Vietnam said, “If you’re going be tagged as an American you might as well own it, right?”
That’s right. Might as well.