Wednesday June 7, 2017
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Erna Mahyuni

Erna tweets too much on @ernamh. Angry Sabah native, slave to her dog/cat and blogs at ernamahyuni.com

JUNE 7 — These are strange times. I'm in a foreign country that is rich and yet so desperately poor in some ways while at home friends are either planning or wishing to leave Malaysia for good.

It's 2am in San Jose, California. It's quiet here, downtown, and if I look outside my window I can see the nearby theatre and read the huge animated billboard, letting me know what's on at the Broadway San Jose.

Cafes, theatres, quirky museums, lush-leafed lavender tinged trees lining the roads. Isn't the US lovely, I know Malaysians would say. So cultured, so organised, so well-planned.

Yet all I can think of is the quiet, mostly Hispanic neighbourhood less than 10 minutes downtown. Where I had Mexican food in a tiny slightly rundown place that TripPlan recommended as it was good, ridiculously cheap and authentically Mexican.

It is cheap. Tacos for US$1.30 (RM5.55) and so long as you dismiss all thought of converting what you spend into ringgit, you marvel at how far a dollar can travel here. 10 bucks gets you a (non-alcoholic) sangria, a burrito with all the trimmings bursting with meat, rice, beans and flavour as well as a taco.

While I wait for my food, a tray full of spicy tortilla chips keeps me distracted and I watch local patrons visit the liquor store just next door.

There's a lot of work waiting for me at the hotel. So the burrito needs to be packed for takeway where I will later eat it in bed, computer on my lap. But while I wait for an Uber that does not come (none will come this part of town, just 5 minutes' drive from my hotel), an old, white man suddenly starts talking to me.

More, he talks at me as I do not look at nor acknowledge him. He rambles and uses the word f-ing a lot, going on about how he chose to be here and not f-ing boring Sacramento.

About how he can still find a living here, if people give him spare cans and how people give him soup, or a dime though he doesn't ask for it.

I also notice no one sits near him. The patrons all put as much distance between themselves and him. I tire of his long tales and proceed to walk back to the hotel; I get a little lost, finding myself alone on a dead-end road.

It feels some days, it's the road for too many people. As I return to my hotel, there's a young man, raving and ranting at the wall, sprawled on the stairs of my hotel, clutching a bannister. So young and yet here he is, no one asking why he's not home in bed on a chilly Monday night. It's 18 degrees, after all.

I flick through USA Today when I get back to my room, and there's an article about how low unemployment is and yet people are still so unhappy. About how people are fighting for, in the land of the rich and the free, the right to paid leave.

Back home, annual leave is mandated. As is maternity leave, and sick leave. Yet they don't have that in the US. You can own a gun, you can buy a (cheaper) car but you can't easily find an employer who will pay you for the days you're too sick to come into work.

Better to suffer in a rich country, than in a poor one, some tell me. But suffering anywhere is that ― suffering. To me, it is so terribly needless. We can fly across oceans in metal ships, send a man to the moon and yet we can't stop ourselves from killing each other.

The waitress at breakfast asks me, “Do you need the coffee to go, honey?” I know she isn't just being nice ― Lord knows she needs the tips as in some places employers get away with paying US$2-3 minimum wage, figuring staff can just make up the difference with tips.

I think about how, at the conference, news broke out about a shooting in Orlando and I feel somewhat relieved to be nowhere near there. Yet I can't help but notice the police presence, the extra security around my conference area.

There is no running to a safe place, these days. No urban, busy area is safe. In the past few days, I have had friends in the vicinity of the London and Philippines incidents, watched as they marked themselves “safe” on Facebook.

Fly elsewhere, my dears, if you want comfort. If you like the idea of first-world affluence, the notion of a more sophisticated facade to the madness of human existence.

Just don't fool yourself about anywhere being safe. Nowhere is, not anymore. And until the scourge of suffering, the quiet desperate loneliness of daily hardship is erased, nowhere will be safe.

Life must go on in the meantime. I tip my waitress a fiver and nurse my coffee to go. And I dream of raving old and young men, of dougnhuts bigger than my head, and of guacamole and the tortilla I had no room for.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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