The scene looked something like this: a couple dozen people stretching, shuffling back and forth through the narrow aisle, carefully and not-so-carefully removing rolling suitcases and duffel bags from overhead bins, milling about with a restless energy, waiting to deplane after a five and a half hour traverse of the continental United States, ocean to ocean in a single morning. One passenger, a tired and travel-worn looking man of twenty-seven, swimming through a tsunami of emotions, sees a gap in the aisle as a woman in the row ahead of him ducks down to check the seat pouch for any belongings she may have forgotten and squeezes past her. As he does, he hears a sharp, sarcastic admonishment.
“There’s usually a process to this. Usually you wait for the people ahead of you.”
“Oh really, is that how it works?”
“Yes. You are absolutely the rudest person I’ve ever met in my entire life.”
“Really? Your entire life?”
The young man wants to retort: “Well, I’d apologize, but if the rudest thing you’ve ever encountered in your entire life, your entire life, is somebody being a bit too eager to get off the plane, then you’ve lived a pretty charmed life, and I’m not inclined to feel a lot of sympathy for you. In any event, I have ten million things going on in my mind, and your indignation at being, I don’t even know what – mildly inconvenienced for, like, half a second? – doesn’t even come close to registering as something that I could possibly care about today. Oh – and I appreciated the condescending and mean-spirited way in which you reflexively voiced your wholly inconsequential complaint. That was classy. Saying, ‘excuse me sir, but could you please not cut ahead of me’ would have demanded too much composure in what I’m sure must have been a quite the taxing ordeal for you just then. Have a nice day, and fuck off.” But the young man holds back. Unfortunately, he is not constituted so as to be hurtful to people, or make biting comments towards others, even when they would be appropriate. He balks at anything situation that hints at pointless conflict. Perhaps a weakness more than a virtue in contemporary society, but such is his temperament. And so he ignores the hateful woman on the plane and continues on, trying not to let her spoil his long-awaited homecoming and reunion with his family.
Later, at the market, he witnesses a similar occurrence. A man, standing in line at the check-out register, floats over to the impulse buy rack and mulls over the chocolate bars. A woman, not noticing the man, steps up and takes his spot in line (which I guess, technically speaking, the man had vacated). This egregious breach of shopping etiquette, apparently, could not be tolerated. Rather than politely informing the woman that he was actually in line there, with a kind word and a smile – or better still, just not giving a shit, because it’s one spot in line that will cost him a grand total of about 30 seconds in the long run – he scowls and snaps at her, “Hey lady, I was standing there!” No, asshole, you weren’t.
The sad common thread of these two events is that, in all likelihood, the “aggrieved” parties – the woman on the plane and the man in line – probably let the events sour their day. I imagine them dramatizing their hardships to their friends and family, ad nauseam: “…and then, this horrible kid nearly bowled me over as he bulldozed his way down the aisle, pushing people left and right to try and get out of the plane because he just couldn’t wait…” The irony being, of course, that apparently she couldn’t be expected to wait, either.
I’ve been asked several times since I’ve been home what the strangest part about being back in the United States is. I don’t really know how to answer that. But I can say that the aspect of American society that strikes me the most, that stands in sharpest relief to my somewhat refreshed eyes, is just how spoiled Americans are, how childish, how frivolous. And I don’t just mean our obvious vapid obsession with celebrities and pop culture, where trending Google topics, Jennifer Lopez’s performance contract with Vegas, a YouTube video of a bear cub moseying around a pharmacy, and Renee Zellwegger commenting on her new look gets broader and deeper coverage on the morning news than a terrorist attack on the Canadian seat of government. No, the cupidity of Americans runs far deeper than that. Americans let themselves get outraged about things that don’t matter, like losing a spot in line. Lines don’t even exist for the most part in Nepal. Now, I’m not saying we want to emulate them, but my point is: just calm down, folks. It’ll be okay. No need to snap at someone and ruin somebody else’s day – which is far more legitimate and likely to happen – because you got huffed at something for two seconds. Take a breath and let it pass.
In Nepal, you’re lucky to get a seat on the bus. If you don’t have someone leaning over you half the time, or chickens or goats in the next seat, or another passenger hurling up his breakfast into a plastic bag right in front of you, or your head slamming against the roof or luggage compartment, it’s a good trip. And here you are, getting off this plane – this smooth, comfortable flight, where you get a headrest and blanket and people serve you FREE beverages of your choice and you can access wi-fi because heaven forbid you be disconnected from the internet and your insipid social network for any length of time, this flight that transported you some 2500 miles across an entire continent in a matter of a few hours like goddamn magic – and that’s not enough. You’re complaining because somebody is pushy – not even pushy, just not following, I guess, the proper protocol – getting off the plane. And you yell at them. You don’t have the maturity or fortitude to check your anger, to give it a moment to abate, to think about whether it is really worthwhile to make a knee-jerk snotty comment at somebody for doing something that had absolutely zero practical impact on you, to consider what reasons he might have for doing it. Maybe he has to vomit, and is trying to get to the lavatory. Maybe he hasn’t seen his mom and dad and brothers in over two years and is just really excited to get off the plane and hug them, and a million apologies for not being quite as considerate of the “process,” as you put it, as he should have, but who cares?
Americans, apparently, do. The worst quality of Americans is not our boisterous jingoism or our ignorance about the rest of the world or how impossibly fat so many of us are. It’s the fact that we are spoiled rotten. Embarrassingly so. Another question I’ve fielded a lot lately is, “Do you think Peace Corps is an effective organization? Do you think it works?” That’s a complicated question that I could write an entire book trying to answer, but if it opens up stupid, cave-dwelling Americans’ eyes to how trivial our complaints are, to how ridiculously charmed most of our lives are, and allow us to appreciate it even just a small fraction more than before, then, at about $375 million dollars a year, I’d say that Peace Corps is a steal at ten times the price.