Thursday, June 18, 2009

Guest Post: The Safety of Memory by Mark Walther

My old friend Mark Walther has graciously agreed to write a guest post. I've stretched myself too thin this week, what with the children's final exams, the dreaded annual mammogram (all clear!), and futile attempts to whittle an avalanche of notes into shape for my third Jin Shin Jyutsu class in Ireland next week. 
Mark Walther and I met in high school at Brent School, the international school we attended in the northern Philippine city of Baguio, where I lived in my teens and early twenties. He was different from our rowdier American schoolmates - quiet, observant, thoughtful. Always had his nose in a book. I liked that about him because I was passionate about books, too. I was sure he'd be interesting to talk to, but was far too gauche to engage him in conversation. Mark's parents were missionaries in the Philippines, which he always considered home. After 11 years there, he returned to the America, the country of his birth. It was a strange and sometimes difficult experience for a 17 year-old, as he recounts here. 
Today, Mark and his wife Maureen live on a bluebell-carpeted ranch near Dallas, where he continues to lead a life that's part Lord Jim, part Buster Keaton, with grandchildren thrown in for extra spice. 
 Mark Walther in high school, circa 1975

It is already hot here in Texas with the expected highs this week in the upper 90's, and there's talk of hitting the century mark by the end of the week. Soon we will have the obligatory summer TV news report by a rookie reporter cooking an egg on the sidewalk. The tally sheets will come out, records will be compared, so many days over 100 degrees. It is quiet outside, silent in the mid-afternoon sun. I sit in the shade of a mimosa tree, the heat radiating off the ground like sitting in a vast outdoor oven. In the silence, memories start to stir.

Summertime, the heat and a James Taylor song always take me back to the summer of 1976.  Back to when the pain of loss and culture shock were fresh. Back to when I had just returned to America and was miserable over the friends and country I had left behind. With my long black hair and beard, I really stood out in a sea of Scandinavian rural midwestern conformity. People who could barely comprehend leaving the state, let alone the country. I desperately wanted to go home and at the same time I was excited at the adventure of being in a new country, at the prospect of what might be in store for me as I began my adult life. Yet, I was a stranger in a strange land. I had never seen so many white people all together at the same time. I longed for things that were familiar: foods, scenery and people. That summer I struggled to find my footing, re-acquainting with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The world was so much smaller in the Heartland, shrunk down to weather, crops and the State Fair. I worked my first jobs: my grandfather's farm, then at a feedmill. I learned to drive. I bought clothes at a store rather than having them tailor-made. Giving perpetual explanations to the never-ending question, "But why would you want to leave the U.S.? We have everything..." Candy bars, shopping malls, drive-in movies, Dairy Queen, pot-luck dinners and backyard barbecues. The shock of how much things cost back here in the U.S.A. Giving countless geography lessons ("So you lived next to France?"). Camping and sleeping on the ground because you wanted to. Hot running water you could use without boiling it first. American cars. Giving endless history lessons ("No, it was the Spanish-American War, not the Korean War"). Electricity 24 hours a day. TV, TV and more TV, all in English! Hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries and steaks. American girls of all shapes and sizes. A bus trip from Florida to Montreal and back again. Canned vegetables and TV dinners (why?!). Corn as far as the eye could see. Concerts of bands I had only known by word of mouth or the radio. The new world was trying to crowd out my old life. I was trapped, boxed in by decisions and choices beyond my control. I wore my memories like armor and carried them like a sword, protection from the isolated loneliness I felt in my new home, the place of my birth. But throughout that mad, hot summer, the thing that really kept me going was music.

Now, in the heat and silence 30 years later I can feel the fierceness and the passion of that teenage boy. My shoulders ache for the weight of that armor, my hand for the feel of that haft.  It is summertime and I am going to the Philippines in my mind.
  "In my mind I'm goin' to Carolina, can't you see the sunshine, can't you just feel the moonshine
 ain't it just like a friend of mine to hit me from behind
Yes I'm goin' to Carolina in my mind
Dark and silent late last night I think I might have heard the highway calling
Geese in flight and dogs that bite. Signs that might be omens say I'm going, going
I'm goin' to Carolina in my mind

With a holy host of others standing 'round me, still I'm on the dark side of the moon
And it seems like it goes on like this forever You must forgive me
If I'm up and gone to Carolina in my mind"    

from "Carolina in My Mind" by James Taylor


mimi joaquin burkhalter said...

first a word to Megatonlove: i absolutely love your blog space. this is my first visit ever.

mark, you have no idea how much i relate to your repatriation experience. i was 17 too. i thought i was going to die after having left everyone and everything, and especially the then boyfriend. the worst part of it all for me was that i believed, and rightly so, that everyone back in the Philippines had forgotten me. and here i was forced kicking and screaming to adapt and accept 2 things. 1) they forgot me 2) no one here knows me. it's 1979 and i'm forbidden from calling the boy long distance. so i cling to and constantly check the mailbox. of course eventually the letters stopped coming.

i'm going to dig up a piece i wrote referencing that chapter. it took years, i think the internet has acted as a great salve, even up to very recent years the wounds would make themselves known.

thanks so much for sharing this.

Mike Pearson said...

My first time here too - courtesy of Facebook friends.

Moving to somewhere we came from but don't feel we belong to (very simplistic description) has a name.

We are called the 3rd Culture Kids.

Look it up, parts of the "syndrome" will apply to all of us who lived "overseas". From the color of our skin - seeing too much of it (!), to having to explain our previous lives in another place (and sometimes it felt like another time and world too).

We tend to keep in touch, through time and turmoil; as Mark and I have done, all these years. Maybe that's why we like that funky music and put up with our kids when they say "THIS was your music? You listened to THIS when you were my age?!

Mike Pearson said...

I posted without finishing.

That funky music brings back a certain time; food, smells, friends, games, experiences, travels...quite natural to have them, except the memories REALLY belong to a different space and time that most of those we live around now have a hard time understanding....

Mark said...

Yep, we were 3rd Culture Kids, I guess we are 3rd culture adults (some of us anyway) now. The transition was much easier for some, I think the age, (that you left and returned) the area the person returned to as well as the support system in place for that individual helps to determine how easy that transition is. Some kids I knew completely rejected their former life, pretending it never happened or denegrating their experience.

mimi joaquin burkhalter said...

What do you know? There's a term for it/us. Thanks Mike for pointing to it. It will be interesting to read more so I will check it out.

Mark, Support systems back then? No one would have known what that meant.
"Whadya mean support system?
Welcome to the real world princess, now go get a fe*kin job."

So I didn't skip my processing of the change, I merely disassociated and postponed it for 30+ years later.

(i'm trying very hard to not have appalling punctuation)

Mark said...

My poor brothers just fell apart. It was a total shock for them. No support at home from the parents. They were used to a large extended family and when we shrunk down to just the 5 of us it was very traumatic for them. In the end they completely buried their Philippine experience and tried to fit in as best as possible. It was rough for them for many years.

Sue Schneider said...

I was born in the Philippines, so I'm never sure if "repatriation" is the right word, but moving to the US when I was 13 felt so much the way you describe here, Mark. My sister was 15 and we took different tracks to making sense of the move. She tried as hard as she could NOT to fit into our new world (Mississippi, where no one in my family knew anyone). I tried to become a Southern belle. It didn't last. I'm learning how to answer the question "Where are you from?" with less anxiety these days, but I'll always be a 3rd culture kid.

Carrell said...

Great blog -- first time here courtesy of Mark.

I spent my whole childhood in Southeast Asia (senior year at Brent) -- sent to the US to go to college. I was at a loss. So sad to leave all that was "real"behind. Took a long time to adjust (still am adjusting!). Whenever I go back to SE Asia, I just don't want to leave. It's my soul.

Naturelady said...

Hi Mark,
Thanks for sharing this!
You remember me, the German girl at Brent? I too had the many-culture thing going: grew up in places like South America and the Philippines, so I didn't fit back in Germany, but the US was quite the culture shock after the Philippines...
For many years I did not even tell people about all the different countries I had lived in as a child -- seemed too complicated, even though it helped explain why I was so different! In a way it helped to have gone to college in a "new" place -- got a chance to "reinvent" myself, I suppose!..

I was asked recently: "Where do you consider home?" and I still find that question hard to answer: I've lived in Germany for only 5 of my conscious (non-infant) years, yet Germany strongly defines me culturally. Chile and Philippines were my home during my childhood, and I absolutely loved it there, but I have to admit I was a real "gringo" there. I've lived in the US for 30 years now, and the West is where I feel most at home: from Rocky Mountain Colorado to Alaska... So, to some degree, I'm homeless, a Globetrotter, who's never completely put down roots, but would really like to...

Anonymous said...

I'll post my response on my blog, which is:


masadao said...

I don't mean to intrude...

but all these stories would really, really make a good screenplay/film someday.

i can picture a young Edward Norton, studying in Brent in the 70s (or other SE Asian country int'l school) for the first half of the film -- then gets transported back to rural america.

alienation from family, friends... agony on self-identity... peer and family pressure ... and the ever assuring, creative outlet that is writing (or other art form) as a backdrop to the dramaturgy.

Mark, write that screenplay. We'll all root for you at the Oscars.

Marianne said...

Oh, film starring Edward Norton? Yumm! Go write that screenplay!

(Meg, I'm going to be in Scotland in August/September. Where are you exactly? Somewhere in Europe?)