Twenty Years Can’t Shake the American Out of Me

I’ve in Asia for most of the last 20+ years. But an incident last week made me realize that I am still very much an American.

It has to do with space. Not outer space. Personal space. I like it. Don’t encroach on me or I might act rudely.

Here’s what happened:

I was at my normal beach-side resort, doing my normal afternoon writing. There was a row of empty beach lounge chairs at one location, and I took up residence under an umbrella, punching out amazing prose on my computer. (OK, it may not have been amazing, but let me believe it to be so.)

As I mentioned, there were many open lounge chairs, lots of them, tons of them, loads of them, but one of the guests decided to sit in one of the chairs just two doors down – with only one empty lounge chair between us.

Okay, I thought. I can deal with this.

But the Indian gentleman had different ideas. He sat on one side of the chair, leaning towards me with his cell phone in his hand. I could have reached over and touched him if I wanted to. (I didn’t.) I felt encroached upon, like a little bird was sitting on my shoulder watching every move. I tried to ignore him. But he seemed to be staring (although he wasn’t.)  I went and dipped in the pool, hoping additional time would send him to another location. (It didn’t.) I felt rude and unwelcoming, but I had writing to do, and I don’t like an peeping-Tom stalking me from mere inches away. (It felt that way, anyways.)

When I came back from the pool, I slide over one seat so that there were now two lounge chairs between us. Surely this would be enough space for me.

And then he started talking on his phone. Loudly. It sounded like he was yelling at the top of his lungs. (He wasn’t.) And he talked and he talked in Tamil. I couldn’t understand a word, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t type a word either. I tried to concentrate, but I felt the cavalry closing in on all sides, completely trapped.

I went for another dip in the pool, cooling me off, giving me space, hoping that I wouldn’t be surrounded when I returned.

I sat down again and then he did it. He turned on the music on his phone. The best of Bollywood. How can I write with Bollywood music blaring from mere three feet away? I wanted to get up and do my best moves. (I didn’t.) The beat and the sound overwhelmed all my senses.

I looked down the row of empty chairs. Lots of empty chairs. Tons of empty chairs. Look, buddy, they are all for you. So many open chairs. But he wanted to be near me.

Eventually, I gave up, picking up all of my towels and belongings and heading to a table at the outdoor restaurant.

It was at that point when I realized how American I still am. Americans love our space. We hate crowds and closeness. Many times, Asian personal space is only within a person’s mind because there’s simply too many people to have actual space which you can call your own. India has over a billion people. China 1.2 billion.

It reminds me when I heard a Vietnamese speak of their first trip to America. They were in the suburbs and went for the walk. When they came home, they said “Where are all the people?”

Indeed. You can take a walk in an American suburb in the middle of the day and hardly see a soul.

You can’t take a walk in the Vietnamese countryside in the mid day without running into twenty people working in a rice field.

I guess I still like my space. I hope that fine Indian gentleman didn’t think I was being rude the other day. I wasn’t trying to be. I was just being American.

I still can’t help it, even after all these years.

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