I thought I was immune to culture shock. Attending American schools, K-12 (albeit in Kuwait and Egypt) meant I was familiar with the lingo. Even though I spoke some Arabic at home, I never formally studied it at school, which translated into reading, writing, and dreaming, in English. What’s more, I had gone to college in the United States - so I didn't really expect much of an adjustment period when, around ten years ago, I made the US my home.
But, my college years in (in Washington, DC) were a kind of reactionary blur, where I’d spent most of the time with my nose buried in a book, experimenting with things like philosophy and silent fasts instead of taking in the New World around me. Seasons came and passed without my noticing, and I would go back home anyway at the end of each semester. So, when I decided to move stateside I was, for all practical purposes, living in America for the first time - the same way they say that you never know someone till you live with them.
Thus, in spite of all my early Americanization, landing in Miami airport, in early 2006, I felt like an untitled and near penniless version of Eddie Murphy’s African prince character in the 1988 hit comedy, Coming to America. A series of cultural confusions during my first year of disorientation, featuring my then-college-crush and soon-to-become wife, convinced me I was still “off the boat” and that Project Integration was very much underway.
Sure, America had changed, and I had too, since those college years (this was the tail end of the Bush Years, and pre-financial crisis) but somehow I had not wrapped my mind around the basics last time I was here: like the credit system. So, when Diana(my spouse-to-be) disclosed to me the amount of her mortgage ($115K) I was genuinely scandalized. After I candidly told her I thought such debt was criminal and she should do time for it, I gave her another piece of my overwhelmed mind. “In Egypt, we have a saying” I volunteered: 'extend your legs to the extent of your blanket.' Meaning if your blanket/means are limited, no need to stretch/splurge.” She heard me out, patiently, and brushed the whole thing off, assuring me I was over-reacting.
As a fledgling poet, I used to send out countless packets of my work to magazines across the country, like quivering arrows, in hopes a lucky few might hit their target. One day, Diana brought back an envelope to me. “You need to include the state and zipcode,” she said. “I did,” I replied. “No, you didn’t,” she continued matter-of-factly, “you just wrote Portland.” “Oh no,” I shot back, rather smugly. “I read that one very closely, my dear. It clearly stated either Portland or the zipcode; and the ‘or’ was even written in caps!” Very slowly, as though addressing a small (dim-witted) child, she let me know that OR stood for Oregon.
Meantime, I was looking for work and without much success, when I came across what seemed like a plum position. I could hardly contain my excitement. “Dianaaa,” I nearly hyper-ventilated into the phone “come over, this instant, and check out this job!” She tumbled into the room, also breathless, like a happy puppy. “Where, where, let me see…”
“You’re going to need to sit down for this,” I warned, presenting her with the job description. As she scanned the form, I volunteered: “I know, I know, it’s a military job… But, I’m willing to swallow my principles [I’m a die-hard pacifist ] for a salary like that… I'll just sell my soul to the devil for a short period, in order to buy my long-term freedom.”
“What are you talking about?” she ventured, cautiously. “Keep reading, please.” I bounded across the room and pounced on the page, forefinger landing on the key paragraph: “There!” I exclaimed. “401K,” I mouthed it like a miracle. “Can you imagine, for an editorial job? I’ll do it for a couple years, then quit! Plus, they can keep that extra one thousand dollars…” She gave me a look - half incredulous, half pitying - then burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
Author collage (shortly after arriving to Florida) with his wife, Diana C. Restrepo
*I was soon to learn, a 401(k) is a standard type of retirement savings account in the United States, and has absolutely nothing to do with my fantasies of fortune and early retirement.