I’ve returned from my vacation to the US. I couldn’t get any critical distance from which to write or observe while I was there; I was too busy enjoying being back. I did manage to take a lot of pictures though. You can view them in this Flickr set, America 2007. The most pleasurable aspect of the trip, after reunion with loved ones, must have been hearing and speaking my native English. Effortless communication – How we take it for granted! My friends were kind enough to get me up to speed on contemporary slang that I may have missed during my absence. Like, what do you call that tattoo, usually of a butterfly, that women get on the small of their back just above their low-riders?
A tramp stamp! ………………………Ok, I’ll stop now.
The trans-pacific crossing went smoothly enough, but I was nervous about clearing immigration. Last time I was in country it was the INS at the border, so this was going to be my first time meeting the Homeland Security folks. The officer I got turned out to be of Chinese origin, and likely a naturalized citizen by his accent. He was civil enough as he stamped my and my daughter’s passports, though he asked me four questions about my time spent abroad, something that never happened before. That was ok, though. But when he swiped my son’s, he looked troubled for a moment and then told me he can’t authorize my son’s entry and that we have to follow him into the Back Room. I sure didn’t want to visit the Back Room, but of course I followed him. There were various unhappy, pensive looking people around the room sitting on benches, while a different officer at the counter was busy giving the third degree through a translating officer to a Mexican grandmotherly-type lady. It wasn’t coarse or abusive, but Lord it wasn’t friendly. He paused in his work to take a quick two-second glance at my son and the passport, stamped it, and said “there you go have a nice day”. I was really itching to know what had triggered the first officer to pass me back to this guy,
but I doubted he would tell me and my desire to get the heck out of there overcame my curiosity. I took my son’s passport and split. Looking back on it, Long’s record must have been flagged because my son is a) born abroad, b) living abroad, c) male and d) muslim. And clearly he passed second review on account of being a little kid. That’s great, this time. But I can easily imagine that 6-7 years down the road, Officer Friendly is going to want more than just a quick glance at him.
Once in the country, I didn’t feel like that much had changed, but I was struck by some differences I had forgotten about, most significantly the wealth that was in evidence at every turn. Money just dripped everywhere you looked. It wasn’t bling necessarily, but more often the little things that jumped out at me, like the two or three thick fluffy napkins given without asking at the restaurant or the triple-stitched, reinforced backpacks folks carried at the airport. Meijers was so dazzling I had to take a picture. It’s not that you can’t find such opulence in Malaysia – it’s that it is found only in the centers of town in the elitist stores.In the US, it’s at Meijers in every small town you pass.
My kids picked up on it right away. KakNgah walked down the hallway of my friend’s nice but by no means extravagant brownstone flat on the first day we arrived in Chicago, muttering to herself, Ini orang kaya ke ini orang kaya?!”.
Another difference had more to do with me. My blood had definitely thinned during my years in Malaysia. My children and I were wearing sweaters and jackets well into June, and I never felt hot, even when my companions were sweating. You can get used to anything, I guess.
Beyond that, the trip was uneventful in the extreme, and that was fine with me. I took great pleasure in meeting friends and relatives I hadn’t seen in years, soaking in the beauty of Three Roods Farm, and eating bread, real bread, bread with crusts.
I returned to Malaysia in time for the arrival of my new child, an armload of new books my biggest prize. Personal favorites have been both Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Blackamerican and his translation and commentary on the Faysal al-Tafriqah of Imam Ghazali. In the former, Prof Jackson frequently cites the work of Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race. That turns out to be a two-volume academic tome that I would never get around to buying, so luckily I was able to benefit from the online annotated summary of Invention provided by Prof Allen himself. Other good ones include American Islam by Paul Barrett, which I liked so much I ordered a copy for my Grandpa and which includes a great chapter on the Naqshbandi Order; Gifts for the Seeker translated by Mostafa Badawi, a popular religious text in Malay; and Musa Furber’s translation of Etiquette with the Quran. There are so many good Islamic books coming out that I just can’t keep up.
Thanks be to God for the Journey and for the Return.