Thursday, July 3, 2014

Stories We Tell

I'd like to digress a bit, this post, if I may.  The approach of the American JulyFourth holiday, my second since being back in the U.S., brings back memories of, well, the last JulyFourth holiday I was forced to endure in this country.  The staccato bursts of fireworks, unevenly spaced and like to burn down a building, thrown up furtively by amateurs who snuck over the border to Pennsylvania to buy them, have started to come more often, the interval between them shortening, like the beeping countdown of an imminently exploding bomb in a bad action movie.

As I wrote last year, I am not particular to fireworks, to the slack-jawed stares on the upturned faces of spectators, illuminated in red and blue and green by the exploding bursts above.  I am a bit alone, I have found, in my aversion to the common U.S. pastime of celebrating the war that freed a small proportion of the population by recreating the destructive forces of black powder cannons in colorful facsimile.  But it reminds me of a story.  The story of a lonely traveler far from home, another JulyFourth, another celebration of Independence.  Have I told you this one before?  No I don't think so.  I'd have remembered.

We all live by our stories, after all.  That's what this blog has been about, really.  For two years I've been making up stories, never mind the stories that have actually been happening.  Is the journey over now, I wonder?  Should I pack it in and call myself abroad no more, for real this time?  The truth, after all, is stranger than all the fictions I could come up with.  Living in this country, more and more, is like living in a foreign place, a place I don't know anymore.  A place, perhaps, I never knew.  What matter whether I am home or not?


Shall we flashback two years?

I'd been in Astana less than a month, and suddenly our boss—the American one—was talking about the party at the embassy, asking if we were going.  We responded with the customary "What?" that we'd learned was the proper response to anything our boss said to us.  He was nice enough to forward us the invitation from the embassy to all U.S. citizens in the city, and we RSVPd our way in.  In proper American fashion, it was a picnic, and we were expected to bring a dish to pass.  It seemed an odd condition, but we were excited to have a half day at work on a non-local holiday, so we took it.

Upon arriving at the embassy, I of course had forgotten my passport.  Speaking right good American, though, I smoothly talked my way in just by showing my driver's license.  Then it was on to the American-style socializing.  Which of course meant sitting apart in our own groups, pointedly ignoring all the other small groups around us.  It was just that predicament that encouraged us to move on and talk to some strangers.  We'd forgotten how stultifying it could be, talking to our boss, a middle-aged many who enjoyed chatting up younger women.  Luckily for us he began to move on to the local women after a few months.

By luck—strange, strange luck—we ended up talking to a group of construction workers—men, of course.  Without properly considering what we were doing, we entered into conversation, answering ill-advised questions like where were we from, and why did we come to Astana.  The funny part was, much as we'd been explained to about how sexist the culture was there, those construction workers were the first overtly sexist experience I had in Astana.  They couldn't believe that a group of young women would move, singly, to a foreign country, and just to be librarians.  Weren't we worried?  Where were our men?  How had they let us come?  This coming from men who probably never left their apartment complex, except to work, and if they did only went to places where they knew the workers spoke English, and only in groups.

There were other people there, interesting people.  Many of them were military, or former military.  We met the U.S. Ambassador and his wife (who was a librarian).

There were no veggie burgers.

We didn't have fireworks that day.  But the Kazakhstani were big fans of fireworks, so we had many to look forward to, and had just had a few back in June for a patriotic holiday, probably related to the president's birthday or something.

I'd never been one for patriotism, and though I played at it a bit, surrounded by U.S. citizens in a land far from it, I still didn't feel terribly inclined toward it.  Patriotism is a story we tell ourselves too, whether to hide our ignorance or warm our souls, cold from the knowledge that our allegiance is fraught at best.  Innocent, was the word Twain used; we all hold the story of our innocence close, lonely travelers in a strange land, hapless wanderers.

Even Twain's story had to end.  Even the Innocents returned home, finally.  Even Twain, king of irony, could not keep up the facade forever.  Setting out, I didn't intend for this to be my final blog post, but I find it is time to retire the facade.  Irony requires distance; I no longer have the desire or ability to distance myself from my world.  For better or for worse, it's time to go home.

You can still catch me on my tumblr, at where I review and write about fiction by women, and generally talk about feminist things.  Or catch me on twitter as eaking_vb_toeak.

And hopefully someday soon find me in print, as I retell the year of my life abroad—the truth and nothing but, of course—tentatively titled My Tapestry: Reflections of a Year Abroad. 

Thanks to all who have been faithful readers, those who have shared those stories with me, and those who have just dropped by occasionally to keep tabs.