Fear and Loathing
in the Land of Make-Believe
BY L. ROY AIKEN
I used to take aerobics instruction from a Thai-born, all-Japan female bodybuilding champ by the name of Klinkenberg. Even if no one called her by her married name, Sa-ard, she was still one of the most intriguing people I knew during my three years in Japan.
Unlike many foreign-born women married to American servicemen Sa-ard was not at all eager to abandon her corner of the planet for the Land of the Free. The infrequent visits she made with her husband were more than enough.
"People in America think they live in real world," she said. "Not true. They live in land of make-believe. This," she said, pointing to the hardwood floor of the aerobics studio, "this is real world."
For my part, Iíd laughed and told her she was freakiní high. Sure, Iíd had some good times in Japan, met many wonderful people. But for all that, my wife and I were fed up with the toxic air, the cramped streets, the impossible language, the expensive everything.
It had been three long years. We wanted to go home.
In due time we were back in South Carolina. With the acquisition of a fully-loaded late-model minivan I suffered no regrets for this countryís lack of a go-anywhere train system like Japanís. In fact, Iíd been looking forward to winding it out on Americaís famously wide and fast roads.
Unfortunately, my insurance bills are high enough without points taken from my license, so I tend to drive no more than five miles over the posted speed limit.
And five miles over the 55 mph speed limit wasnít enough for the woman in the SUV. With a cell phone pressed to one side of her face and a flesh-eating scowl all over, she was riding so close on my bumper I could count the pores on her nose in my rear-view.
Most people would just pass. But most people seem to be in the minority these days. No, this woman ó and, God help me, Iíve encountered way too many others like her since ó she figures if she rides up on me at 60 miles an hour, so close you couldnít slide a razor between her front fender and my rear, Iíll accelerate to the speed she considers proper.
Thereís a sickness driving people like this. Worse, itís catching. Itís all I can do not to slam on my brakes and make this bitch eat my tailpipe. Lucky for her Iím not one of those people who keeps a pistol in the glove compartment...
Good Lord, what am I saying?
One put up with a lot on the road in Japan. Many streets there were little wider than the average American sidewalk. Traffic was so bad where we lived it took my wife half an hour to commute five miles to work.
But we never, ever had to deal with being bullied. Not by anyone, let alone adults in shiny-pricey vehicles whom youíd think would know better.
Road rage is one thing. Iíve seen people fuming in the supermarket because theyíve been asked to move their cart to allow others in the aisle to pass, because theyíve had to stand in line, etc.
At least no oneís opened fire at the local Winn Dixie. Yet.
Donít get me wrong, people are stressed out in Japan. They have a six-day work week, crowded trains, and even more congested highways. Most people in America have bigger living rooms than the apartments many of them go home to at night. Their children are under horrific pressure to succeed in school, and if the academic pressure doesnít drive them to suicide ó which it does, often enough ó the bullies will.
On the other hand, most of them learn how to deal with it. For all that needs to be fixed in Japan, at least theyíll never need metal detectors in their schools.
Since Iíve been back Iíve noticed a weird seething rage among people in general. Not everyone, mind you, but enough to creep me out. Judging by the news out of places like Los Angeles, Littleton, Jonesboro, et al, itís enough to get those in the wrong places at the wrong times killed.
And for all the talk about statistical decreases in violent crime the right places and right times seem to be getting scarcer.
I think back to what Sa-ard told me about Americans and the make-believe world she claimed we Americans live in. This probably isnít what she meant exactly, but itís a clue: Our radios and televisions continually trumpet the prosperity we presumably enjoy as a result of the "new economy," yet most of us arenít getting any richer.
For all the New! Improved! computer technology driving the economy, things actually seem to be getting tawdrier. The American dream home for too many people isnít a solid house that can be passed along the generations, but a double-wide trailer ó and this is just as well, because the neighborhoods many of the affordable houses are in are disintegrating.
What good jobs there are only last so long before the companies are bought out, sold out, or flat-out collapse. Itís taken for granted that you likely wonít retire with the company you took up with as late as age 30. You have to keep an eye out for what happens next, you have to keep moving.
Most of all, you donít dare Lose. If youíre not rich and happy (and how can you be happy if youíre not rich?), thereís something wrong with you ó didnít you see all those people on the TV? If youíre too stupid or weak to be a dot-com millionaire or whatever the least you can do is not allow yourself to be stuck behind some idiot on the road. Show that pokey Joe whoís boss! And donít let anyone make you move your cart in the aisle. Donít let anyone call you "bitch" in school. Politeness is a sign of weakness but disrespect cannot be tolerated. Youíve got to show people whoís boss or ó or ó or ó
Hey, but things are great in these here United States. Oh yeah, never been better! Said so in the Wall Street Journal. Said so on CNN, ABC, NPR, the morning zoo show on the radio. Everybodyís getting rich!
Everybody except all those angry losers out there, that is. No telling what their problem is.
Weíre due to rotate out of Beaufort this year. Pardon the pun, but weíre gunning for an overseas billet. This land of make-believe is no place for children.
Yíall will just have to get rich without us. Enjoy your prosperity. And good luck.
Former Far East correspondent L. Roy Aiken is holed up in a bunker with his two children in Beaufort, emerging at irregular intervals for provisions. Too weak and stupid to be a proper dot-com millionaire or winning game-show contestant, too stingy and short-sighted to drive into Savannah to splurge on Big Game lottery tickets, he deludes himself with the hope that his novel-in-progress Cringe City will be optioned as a big-bucks screenplay before he has to sweat getting it published.