Saturday, April 21, 2007

Return of the Navigator: What to Do With My Jeezny?

It’s July 4th, 1978, and after a fun day of playing Frisbee with his dog Bruiser, 12-year-old David Freeman wanders into the woods to find his younger brother. He falls down into a ravine and awakens moments later. Or is it? In fact, David was abducted by aliens and made the navigator of their spaceship. When he awakens it’s actually 1986, and although he’s aged just a few minutes, the rest of the world has gone through 8 years of changes. His parents moved houses, his kid brother is now older than him, and he’s got this spaceship that he’s got to take care of. It’s got all the ingredients for a great 1980s movie. The Flight of the Navigator is a Disney classic, but also a great way to describe what it’s like coming back from the Peace Corps.

When David woke up from his fall, he walked back to his house, and found a different family living there. “Who are you people?” he screamed, as he tried to make sense of the situation. My parents moved to West Virginia while I was in Thailand, and I became effectively homeless. I came to visit a week ago, and can’t stop thinking, “Where am I? Who are you people? Where is my spaceship?”

It’s kind of a weird feeling walking around a strange house and seeing pictures of myself on all the walls. Or seeing all the same furniture and snacks transported to new rooms. The same cookies, different house. My Mom’s been telling me she’s going to fatten me up (I lost around twenty pounds), and I noticed that my bike tires are flat and there’s jars of chocolate everywhere.

My first task was to separate all my clothes and things into piles for Goodwill and the garbage man. I found three fake IDs cleverly hidden in all that junk. My handles, Price Meade from New York, Floyd Gandoli from Colorado, and Timothy J. Nabbofeld from Michigan, all got thrown away with old prom pictures. Never buy your kid a laminator for Christmas.

This isn’t the first time that my parents have moved, but it is the first time they’ve moved to West Virginia. WV is the punch line of every hick joke from every place I’ve lived, and I’ve heard over and over, “Why did your parents move to West Virginia?” in the same tone as, “Why are you drinking Draino?”

But it’s not that bad. In fact, it’s a little bit reminiscent of vacationing in Laos. A sparsely populated, mountainous region, with kind, hospitable people who speak a strange, semi-comprehensible dialect. Welcome to West Virginia! It really is a beautiful place. Right next to this town is Eleanor, which is the self-proclaimed, “cleanest city of WV”. Once you enter Eleanor, you’ll see a road sign directing you to turn right to go to the park, a school, and gun range. Only in WV does this make sense.

Right here in my parents’ neighborhood, I’ve been using the same skills I used to integrate into my community in rural Thailand. My mother has been kind enough to parade me around the neighborhood, while acting as interpreter. Apparently a hot topic is the local mayoral race, which includes three candidates: our neighbor, a 25-year old who lives with his parents, and a man who rides around town on a lawnmower. Now that would be an interesting blog.

And by the way, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a 25 year old living with his parents.

It is nice to be back in America. Instead of holding television antennas with one foot in the air to watch a soccer game, we’ve got a game on every night in High Definition. Life is good. As my Mom and I watched the Barcelona game the other morning, I pointed out that I brought back a letter with me for Barcelona’s coach, Frank Rijkaard. A woman I worked with wrote a letter for this man, and gave it to me to give to him. Frank Rijkaard is Dutch, and is a coach in Barcelona, Spain. But since all foreigners come from the same country, and speak the same language, we would of course run into each other. Only in Thailand does this make sense.

The letter starts with “I am your dream girlfriend” and ends with “Love you for ever”, and has this 40 year-old woman’s picture in what looks like a military uniform glued next to her signature. But you bet your ass I’m gonna send this to Spain anyway.

This isn’t to say that Americans know any more about Thailand, however. I’ve been keeping track of some of the dumbest questions I’ve heard since I’ve been back. Some of them I expected (“Do you speak Taiwanese?”). Some of them I didn’t expect (“Were you working to help find Bin-Laden?”) And some of them I just can’t answer (“So… How was Thailand?”) I think the most appropriate question I got was from the customs agent that took my passport, and asked me, “Did you enjoy your trip?” “Indeed I did,” I answered.

Last night we went to a Thai restaurant, which came well-recommended to us from our neighbors. It definitely wasn’t the Thai food I’ve been eating for two years. But I did find a bit of pleasure eavesdropping on the table next to us. “I would love to live in Thailand,” a young man said. “That’s where the Dalai Lama lives, they’re Hindu, and they can’t eat pork.” I hope that man goes to Thailand, because I’ve got a letter for the Dalai Lama I’d like him to deliver.

In the Peace Corps, a PCVs “life” is put on hold for two years. But lo and behold, everyone else went on with theirs. Younger friends are now married with children, old friends passed away, my niece grew up, my parents moved. So what now? What else is there to do for a 25 year-old returned Peace Corps Volunteer to do but sit and wait for the inevitable call from NASA saying that they’ve found my spaceship?

As Alex said, in A Clockwork Orange…

“What’s it going to be then, eh?”

“What it was going to be now, brothers, was homeways and a nice surprise for dadada and mum, their only son and heir back in the family bosom. Then I could lay back on the bed in my own malenky den and slooshy some lovely music, and at the same time I could think over what to do now with my jeezny. The Discharge Officer had given me a long list the day before of jobs I could try for, and he had telephoned to different vecks about me, but I had no intention, my brothers, of going off to rabbit right away. A malenky bit of a rest first, yes, and a quiet think on the bed to the sound of lovely music.”

Well, this is it. The end of “Falang, My Friend, Very Good!” I’m no longer a Falang. It’s been a real pleasure writing this thing, and I appreciate you taking the time to read it. Hopefully it made you laugh a little bit, as I’m sure it’ll make me when I’m 80 and forgot what I spent two years doing over in Thailand.

- brian