Of Alienation, Aliens, and Inalienable Rights

Peep-peep, peep-peep, pee-. With the blind and agitated reflex of an insomniac swatting mosquitoes, I knocked off the electronic alarm clock with a misguided thrust at the STOP button. I had not slept well. But the grogginess was steadily being overcome by a nervous anticipation. Today was the day: for the first time in my life I would be a citizen of the country in which I lived.

I peered down at the floor; the digital face angled up at me: 6:23. I had to be at the courthouse in San Francisco by 8:00. Making mental calculations on travel time (commuter traffic, finding the building, finding parking), I leaned over and kissed my girlfriend on the nose.

"Gotta go, Princess."
"Mmm...You kept pulling the blanket last night."
"Sorry. I couldn't sleep."
"'S all right. Back soon?"
"Hope so. You know these government ceremonies..."
"Well, good luck, love. Be a good American." She snorted.

I snorted back. "Go back to sleep."

Driving down University Avenue in the heart of Palo Alto I was surrounded by the epitome of the American Dream. Million-dollar homes flanked the tree-lined boulevard; three-car garages with BMWs, Mercedeses, and Porsches in the crescent-shaped driveways. Executives and professors, heads of Silicon Valley conglomerates, high-rolling entrepreneurs--this was the stuff of yuppie orgasms. I imagined having a little chat with one of them.

"Well, John, we at Humongous General National are preparing to divert a significant share of our R&D budget from TTL to CMOS technology. We're gambling that the industrial demand for energy efficiency will outweigh the minimal trade-off in switching speed. What do you think? (Here, have a beer.)"

"Well, Brad," (glug..SPFEKK, KAPFF!) "(Hey, this is imported Beersubstitute, man.) In my humble opinion, it's a damn wise move to put your money in sea-moss development. I'd consider going into kelp, too, if I were you."

"Glad you agree, John." He continues in a whisper, "But what's KELP-2? Is that something new your company is working on?"

* * *

Culture is a vast and complex term that is used like a one-size-fits-all muffler ("We'll make it fit. Heh, heh.") to encompass everything from the works of T. S. Eliot to a plush velvet toilet seat. Indeed, any concept, object, experience, or deception shared by a group of sentient beings can be an element of their culture. (In terms of importance, one may argue that T. S. Eliot far outranks a toilet seat, but think about it: how many times a day do you read T. S. Eliot?) In fact, are not the dismissibly inane the very essence of volk culture? When a group of American coevals get together for a night of intoxicated revelry, what do they do as the ultimate show of kinship? Do they crank up Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man"? No way! They sing old TV theme songs.

"What? You've never seen re-runs of Father Knows Best? What are you, some kinda alien or what?"

Well, uh, yes. At least until today.

* * *

Sansom Street. As always I'd underestimated my time of travel by a bit; I was cutting it close. Parking, as usual, was a challenge. Prowling around the blocks, I was growing anxious. Was this the way America greeted its soon-to-be citizen? Where was the red-carpet parking space? Eventually I spotted a cow-sized gap between a Ram and a Jag and I squeezed my Rabbit into it. Once inside the building I discovered I had rushed for nought. People were waiting; the ceremony would not begin for another hour. I took this opportunity to study the faces around me.

The largest contingent was Hispanic--mostly young, husbands and wives with babies, an occasional old mama and papa. After that came the Vietnamese, Koreans, Chinese, and so on. There was one ancient couple from where I guessed to be Yugoslavia. Surprisingly few were alone.

I thought of my own family. Between my parents, sisters, brother, and myself, we held citizenships from four different countries (my mother was on her third). Behind this scattered tribe was my father who, as a teenager, left his peasant village and ventured abroad to educate himself. He ended up with degrees in architecture, theology, and agricultural science and very little pension.

At this point my reverie was interrupted by a young, perky, female voice with a Cantonese accent.

"Hi! So, where you from?"

* * *

The swearing-in ceremony was mercifully short. We raised our right hands, repeated after the judge: "I, (your name), hereby...," pledged allegiance to the flag, and received our official piece of pulp that made us Americans and a stack of other miscellaneous pamphlets including a "Welcome, citizen" form letter from Ronnie himself.

As I walked down the street to my car, I must have been feeling pretty good (my own country!)--I don't remember exactly. But whatever elation on which I might have been levitating (my own street signs!) was soon swiped from underneath me (my own garbage collectors!) by what I found (my own bird droppings!) tucked beneath the windshield wiper of my car (my own...). The U. S. government's first gift to me as its citizen: my own parking ticket!

* * *

"Junipero Serra Freeway--The World's Most Beautiful Highway." Still fuming about the ticket, I decided to take the scenic I-280 route back to help dissipate my bile. The sign was, of course, a hyperbole, but the rolling pastoral landscape was indeed conducive to meditative tranquility--the visual realm of Windham Hill videos. I picked out a tape at random and inserted it into the player. The car interior was immediately blasted by the chorus from The Dead Kennedys' "Kill the Poor."

Once again I meandered off on quasi-philosophical musings. When that Chinese girl at the courthouse had asked me where I was from, I had gone through the usual confusion of trying to elucidate my past.

"Um, I grew up in Tokyo and Tacoma and now I'm going to school around here."
"So you're Japanese?"
"Well, no."
"But my oldest sister is. And my other sister is Korean."
"Don't tell me you have brother who's Chinese."
"No, he's Canadian."
(Brief silence.)
"Hey. How come you don't have accent?"
"That's because I eat Wonder Bread."

* * *

In high school an English teacher told us that all literature could be categorized into three themes: Growing Up, Coming Home, and Fantasy. I argued that the first two were, in fact, equivalent. In my own confused way I tried to assert that Growing Up was the process of finding a niche for oneself, a Home, and that Fantasy was the vision employed to explore the possible paths to this destination. He pointed out that, in order to Grow Up, one had to leave one's roots, one's Home, and go out into the big, bad world. Well, that only worked if one had roots to pull up. What of the cultural jellyfish? I recalled a warning comment that a friend made half-jokingly. "Being an outsider is romantic when you are young. But it gets more desolate as you grow older." Here was his "How the Lone Wolf Ages" timeline. (Or should we have called it "Looking for Home and Not Finding It"?)

Age:        20            30        40          50       60       70+
Label:  Free Spirit    Wanderer   Drifter    Vagabond    Bum    Corpse
From the dashing to the destitute and, finally, to the decomposed, the loner tumbles down the steps of social opinion into the communal grave.

What, then, was my inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness? Was it tantamount to the elusive search for Home? What was Home, anyway? Was it a place, people, a smell, an infinite regression of mirrored images, an address, a temporal apparition, a ghost in the soul?

* * *

Stepping out of the car, I heard a diligent tapping of a typewriter emanating from an upstairs window. That would be my girlfriend with her correlative analysis of Kierkegaard and the punk phenomenon. Ever so esoteric, that girl. Not wishing to intrude on her with the melancholy funk I had fallen into, I stepped in quietly and made my way to the piano. I began to play Debussy, softly and measuredly.

After some time had passed, I felt two warm hands slide over my shoulders; she stood there behind me silently while I finished the piece. Then she came around and settled herself on my lap. With a look that, at once, shattered the mirrors of self-reflection and the lenses of solipsism, and cleared the air of flimsy apparitions and dubious ghosts, she spoke with that matter-of-fact voice she used when something was obvious to her.

"Welcome home, love."



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Copyright 1986, John Nagamichi Cho Last modified: Thu Mar 20 17:13:21 GMT-0400 1997