Monday, February 28, 2011

The Handbasket Has Landed

Location: Battambang, Cambodia
I'm feeling an amount of anxiety this morning. Sure, I had a coffee and I've been giving up coffee, but I don't think that's what's agitating me.

The overseas job search has turned up nothing hopeful. South Korea has turned out to be very difficult to break into: if you talk to tourists they're all, "Oh yeah, there's incredible demand for teachers there! All sorts of jobs!" but if you look at the websites they're all, "This is the worst time of year to look for work, and anyway, you don't have your paperwork in order, and here's a new stipulation we came up with last month." As well, the message boards are full of horror stories, teachers working in private institutions headed by a schizophrenic or simply running afoul of a foreign bureaucracy with little to no legal recourse. Many of these are written poorly, a warning flag for me when reading reviews, and of course people are going to hyperbolize the negative, but even when dialed back down from 11, the ratio of "I had a good time" to "what a Kafka-esque nightmare" is not encouraging.

So we've expanded our search terms to include Thailand and Japan. The latter seems unlikely because it's increasingly in demand--we might as well try to teach English in Italy or France--and the cost of living is prohibitive. At least in Korea, we could've worked for a year and built up some savings, as a pair of teachers sharing living expenses. In Japan, not so much. As for Thailand, I love it (though I don't like their current battle in trying to usurp a Cambodian temple for its revenue potential) and a couple affable Aussie boys told us that the city of Trang had a great need for English teachers, yet I can't find anything there. I've seen three ads for schools that offer ESL degrees like the ones we got in Bali, but no jobs. Do we have to hop on the bus there? It's 180 miles from here (Battambang) to Bangkok and nearly 500 miles from there to Trang. And then what? Knocking on doors, handing out our résumés? Is that how it's done? I certainly couldn't read the Classifieds.

On top of that, I'm getting tired of just blowing through new cities, seeing the same old new things over and over again, being charmed by and then tired of various cuisines. I'm tired of every conversation (with locals) quickly leading into a sales pitch. Few of them ever just want to talk, to share ideas. They're all estimating how much money they can get from us, because their assumption is that all Americans are rich. One Khmer's jaw hit the floor when we explained there actually were poor people in the U.S., the living conditions in the Appalachians. Was it so perilously naive of me to think I might make a few friends on this trip?

On top of that, the ecosystem has been irreparably damaged by human influence. Reputable scientific bodies are producing more and more reports to underscore this, and they're winning Nobel Prizes for their research, but when we try to talk to the laity about it we get a lot of derision and denial. It's impossible to ask people we know to stop buying so much, to cultivate a personal garden, to take an emergency preparedness course, to form communities. Everyone seems to be arguing in favor of behaving as though nothing's wrong, betting on everything staying the same, and yet no one has won a Nobel Prize for this philosophy. No reputable scientific organization has suggested everything's okay and we can undo this damage. And at times it looks like the only responsible thing to do is to cut this trip short, stop looking for work overseas, go home and buy some land and start living up to this alarmist philosophy of ours.

That would be heartbreaking to me on the one hand, since living abroad has been my dream for many years and now I'm with someone who's shared that dream, but on the other hand... these lands don't feel foreign enough. Whether I'm walking through Savannakhet or Ubud or Bangkok or Battambang, the environment is either transplanted from the Western hemisphere or aspires to Westernization. The world feels like I'm in my own city, just a little further in the outskirts than I've gone before. I know these roads, we have them. I know those spiky haircuts and drainpipe jeans. Even if I don't go to a Western restaurant, we have restaurants and our menus work the same way. The food is served a little differently but only a little: a fried egg sitting on fried rice. Beef in a curry sauce. Hot and spicy soup with whole shrimp in it. "Same-same but different," the slogan for SE Asia (that, and the insidiously apt "Stay Another Day"). The last true obstacle is learning the language, but even if I did that, even if I achieved fluency and learned the attendant perspective that comes with a dialect, I would never truly crack a society. I would always be the farang/falang/balang that speaks very well, like the bear that learned to ride a unicycle. Or a potential meal ticket.

What do I want? I don't know what I want. I feel supremely directionless right now. Do we arbitrarily pick out another Cambodian city to rest in for a week? Do we return to Thailand, or do we drift down to Malaysia for a couple weeks? How long can we roll around SE Asia like tumbleweeds, slowly draining our savings? Do we return to the States, embed ourselves in several feet of snow, look for work and bore everyone we know with 10,000 photos of dirt roads and tales of human suffering, alienate them with peer-reviewed endtimes catastrophizing?

I don't know what to do. I don't know what kind of life I can go back to, and I don't know how responsible it is to stay out here. Everything just feels like shit. The climate has broken the point of no return, everything's going to hell, and at best we can only mitigate the inevitable crash--except the passengers are vehemently arguing that nothing's wrong, the plane is still in the air and will be forever. Am I looking for sympathy? Surely I will get none, as people complain about the lives they have chosen in contrast to the decisions we made.

I'm not looking for sympathy. I'm looking for an answer to, "What the fuck?" Someone said the comfort of unanswerable questions was the fact that they are unanswerable, but oh my gods do I disagree with that right now.


amandamcbrady said...

so this is not criticism, or any sort of answer. just a comment. not even a special comment.

take the rest of your trip. and consider it a trip. stay till the snow melts and then come back and start building a new life. have a special moleskeine with just ideas of what you want to do.

we live so eco friendly it shocks me. i never thought i would be an organic co op csa shopper who uses cloth diapers and warms her house with dead trees from my own yard. I never thought i would use an ebook reader, but i have blown the usage statistics out of the water as far as carbon footprint. i am absorbing the sins for 10 e readers. but you can't lecture that kind of life into someone. it has to be what they want to do.

on the other hand, you can serve someone a chicken who literally crossed the road to get to your oven, and that person will say, "what is this, is this chicken? what?" and you will say, yes it is a chicken and it is delicious, and if you could estimate how many you eat a year you can order them in the spring and they will live the happiest life ever on the farm right over there.

(and you will never want to eat a chicken nugget again. maggie thinks i am actually allergic to McDonalds and Culvers. )

maybe one thing you would want to do is go to asia once a year. in the winter. that would be pretty good motivation to work hard and save. maybe you could go on a service trip for a month every year in january. you can dig a well or purchase antiseptic foot wash in bulk or repair homes. you could ship books. maybe your sister would go with you, or your niece when she has j-term in college. and you could go back to the same place every year and build a relationship there with the community.

there are lots of things you can do. take a step back and think. just a comment.

Molly said...

Don't read this as snarky, because it is not intended as such. But I don't understand why you are so desperately worried and torn up about the state of the planet. Not because I don't believe the science, or I'm in denial about how bad it is, but because you're not going to have children, and things aren't going to be so bad within your lifetime (or hell, even Maggie's lifetime) that life will be a misery of apocalyptic proportions. Even the most alarmist of scientific reports say that it will probably be decades before anything significant changes horrifically, right? I mean, in terms of your day to day life and not in terms of how much things cost? So relax. Do what Amanda said, and live your life as green and eco-friendly as you can, know that you're doing right by your environment, and enjoy your time here on earth.

(And if you think this sounds idiotic and I'm totally fucking wrong, and you're already composing your pointed and aggressive reply explaining why I'm wrong, I'm sorry. I may be wrong about the climate but I'm not wrong about you needing to find a way to be happy with the world and the things you are able to affect/change.)