The Outsider Problem (Or, Living Away From Home Gets You Judged)

During my first week of work in Al Ain, one of my co-workers, an Egyptian named Abuzeid, offered to give me a ride back to the hotel I was staying in.  Lovely, I thought, and little did I know what he had in store for me.

The diatribe that followed must have been really pent up.  I imagine this was one of the first times Abuzeid had had a chance to let an American know what a bullshit country the U.S. was.  This was 2009; thankfully, we’d had some nine months of relatively harmless Obama rule and a lot of the sins being committed in America’s name could still be attributed to Bush.  As a vocal anti-Bush voter, I was happy to nod along and say that Bush sure was shit and that not every American agreed with what he did.

That was hardly the first time. Whenever I left the U.S., I found it really important to open with an apology.  That made a lot of following conversations easier.

Because most of my backpacking travels in Europe were in the Bush years, it was always easy to say, “Yeah, fuck Bush.”  That won me friends; people just wanted to have their viewpoint validated by an American.  It made them feel better about how angry or spiteful they were towards the U.S.  It helped that I had plenty to complain about too, from the Republican party to suburbs to fast food to the gun culture.

As an Obama voter, it got more complicated as the years went on.  I generally liked his domestic and foreign policy choices, so the bashing didn’t come as naturally.  Over time, the line between Bush Bad Obama Good got blurred; people trained their guns on him and forgot about the Bush years.  That was harder to go along with.

The first time I didn’t bitch about a major U.S. decision was when they killed bin Laden.  Upon reflection, some things could have been done better; putting him on trial would have been more satisfying in a lot of ways.  But at the time, I didn’t feel any shame over the killing.  I was rather proud of it, in fact; this is what that fucker gets, was the thinking.  My co-worker in Al Ain had whispered it to me in between classes; himself a fellow American (and nervous wreck), he must have thought the Emiratis were going to get whipped up into a frenzy and tear us apart.  It ended up being a hotter topic among staff than students.

During a staff breakfast, one of the English advisors was eating with me when he remarked that he never understood why people of the same culture segregated themselves when they moved to a new country.  But he got it now.  We were doing just that; him and me, the only two native English-speakers in the room, excluding ourselves in that room full of Arabic.

The point was, no matter how much we tried, we would always be outsiders.  All the work I’d done building bridges by hating whatever was trendy to be angry about the U.S. was really just trimmings; at the end of the day, as I learned over time, I was not from the emirates, nor Muslim, nor Arab.  I’d never be on an equal playing field in those schools no matter how hard I worked to be so.  People would treat me differently; I could die in the UAE at the age of 80 and I’d still be referred to as “the American.”

It was out there I learned how trapped we are by our birthplace.  A lot of us struggle against that, but we swim against a mighty tide.  Being outside your country creates an automatic label; you are your passport.  Assumptions are made; you are rich or poor, kind or cruel, honest or a liar, based upon that. Soldiers either open the door for you or stand in your way; tour guides double the price when they hear your accent; local people like you or dislike you based on what they’ve heard in rumors and media about your home country.

We all do it because it’s an easy way to immediately understand a person, and it feels less racist or shallow than judging by appearance.  It’s the same thing, of course; I no more chose to be born in the U.S. than a person might choose to be a race.

Still, it’s come to be nice not to have the “where are you from” conversation with people.

 

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The Beam

It shimmered; it pulsed; it burned; it illuminated; it flowed; it made all things possible.  It was life; it was death.  To see its magnificence in person was – well, it was as close to God as you could get.  You had to wear protective gear, or else you had to stay behind the shielded windows.  Only the dead were allowed to see it with the naked eye.

He was ninety-four.  His wrinkled, vein-riddled hands trembled, but not with fear.  He was not afraid.   He looked at the pad in front of him and he smiled.  The three men, the judges, the executioners, his saviors, they saw it.  They smiled too.  This also was their favorite part.

He was wearing his best clothes, the last material wealth he had; the rest had been spent getting here.  He was never a rich man; he’d spent much of his life in turmoil and struggle.  Two divorces, a son who died too young, three failed businesses, but all of that was behind him now.  His expensive tie, his flawless business suit, his shined-till-they-glowed shoes were all he had left, but he would not need them soon.

“Marshall Wilson,” said one of the men.  The old man stopped and looked to the window.  He made eye contact with the speaker; his eyes glinted with happiness.  “Can you confirm that’s you, please?  For the records.”

“I’m Marshall Wilson,” he replied as his voice choked.  It made the men behind the window smile again.

“Marshall, please give us you basic background information.  Your life, if you will.  Again, for the records.”

He cleared his throat.  He knew what the answer needed to be; they were well prepared for such a momentous day.  “My name is Marshall Wilson and I was born in 2076 in Houston, Texas.  My father was Dutch Wilson and my mother was Brittany Hammerstein.  I went to university in Paris where I learned quantum software.  I married Carlotta Mendez in 2106 and had three children with her: Tam, Zayed, and Morus.  Morus died in a work accident in 2127.  I’m now ninety four.  I’ve completed all legal contracts necessary and paid all fees required for the right to enter the Beam.”

The men behind the glass nodded to each other.  A perfect answer.  “Thank you, Marshall.  Please, take a moment if you like.  We will open the shielding when you’re ready.”

Marshall turned from them and stepped onto the pad.  In front of him, behind the shielded windows, shone the Beam.  Beyond that, darkness, space, nothing, everything.  He gripped the railings around the pad; a lot of people needed those.  A few fainted; they had to be woken up so they could enjoy the moment they entered the Beam as they were contractually prescribed.

“Ready when you are.”

He took just a second.  “Ok.  Let me see it.”

For the men behind the window, there was no change.  Their shielding stayed up and the Beam remained a dull, white-yellow.  But for him – well, they could only wonder what he saw.  His hands clasped around the railings, harder and harder.

“Oh!”  But he did not faint.

“Inform us when you’re ready to have the door opened, Marshall.”

“Just a second.  Just a – oh!”

By now he was blind.  They could see his eyes were glossed over with a thick film.  His skin grew redder and redder, the cells dying in the intensity of the Beam, his flesh gone sour, the flakes dancing away from him, but soon he would need none of it.

“Oh!”

“Are you ready, Marshall?”  They couldn’t wait much longer.

“Yes!  Yes!  Open it!”

And so they did.  He fell; they watched.  Each of them turned over in their mind what it must have felt like; how fast it must have seemed, but how slow at the same time.  They wondered if his life literally did flash before his eyes, or if it was too quick.  A two second drop was not much, but nobody knew if time slowed down before the Beam.  There was much left unknown about the whole experience.  One of the three men blinked and missed the moment of contact; Marshall slid into the white-yellow Beam and vanished, vaporized, joined.  Thankfully there was a recording he could refer to.

It would take less than 16 minutes that day for Marshall’s soul to return to Earth from the station orbiting Mars.

“So goes his soul,” intoned the man in the middle.

“His soul returns home,” said another.

“And this soul will return to us,” said the third.

“So be it.”

“So be it.”

“So be it.”

The first man turned off the records with a gesture.  “When’s our next one?”

“Twenty minutes.”