Learning From A Close Encounter With Death
Brandon Fong
81

I am so happy for you, Brandon! I had the same experience when I was 18 years old, 38 years ago. The family I stayed with lived in Nuremberg, Germany (actually Nürnberg…but we change the names of most foreign cities so we never have to learn anything about languages, like Cologne, Germany: Köln — I always wondered how they thought that one up). You see in India, they’ve said “F*ck English” and renamed their cities to original names, Kolkata, etc. I think that is cool. Do you know only 30% of Americans have passports?! How can they live like that!?

My host family taught me, “one does not do that” when I tried drinking from the bottle of Coca-Cola instead of using a straw, at the opera, and they bought me my first McDonald’s beer. When I felt embarrassed for America when several servicemen walked down the street swinging cases of beer from their hands (they sell beer in the plastic cases we use for milk in America — they’re easy to stack, and we used to store record albums in them when I was your age). The servicemen were drunk, yelling at German girls along the street; one actually stopped an older person and pretended to speak, blah blah blah? blah blah blah blah? and they all laughed! My god, I wished I were dead, I was so embarrassed. There are my people, I thought. But my guest father explained (we only spoke in German, my host family and I) to me when I told him how embarrassed I was that day — I reminded him of the incident because he saw it, too. He said, you have to understand, these boys are 18 or 20 years old, the are thousands of miles away from home for the first time, and they don’t even speak German. So they’re sad, they’re lonely, they’re drunk, and you see the way they acted today. I understand that! And he smiled, laughed. He was very pro-American, he said, and he even belonged to a group of “American Friends” who invited service people out to a meal each month, which of course included beer (he was into beer as much as I was)! Obviously, they hosted me, so they must have been caring people.

They also explained to me, the mother, Margret, saw I had a cut on my hand. I wrapped something around it because I couldn't find a band-aid. No! You go to the doctor! I told her, no I would never go to the doctor. My family were poor, and we could not afford to go to the doctor or dentist, just any time we wanted to. She exclaimed about that, and explained to me, here, you go to the doctor if you get a cut like that (it was a pretty good cut — I still have a scar). It doesn’t cost anything. If your tooth hurts, you see the dentist, free for everyone. Even me? I’m just visiting! She said, of course! Now don’t do something like that again. My first understanding of socialized medicine, in 1978 Germany had already figured it out. In America, Republicans pray each night that everything President Obama does, fails, or they can undo it in some way, ESPECIALLY the Affordable Care Act.

Lastly, I visited Berlin when there was still a Berlin Wall (it finally came down in 1989) separating East from West Berlin. West Berlin hosted my group of students to a special dinner and we all stayed in a youth hostel there for a week. At the dinner, waitstaff in uniform served us each course from the lefthand side, each with a white towel over his left arm. It was the fanciest dinner I have ever had. The mayor of the city spoke, and said all Germans want to thank America, and the American Allies, because they literally kept Berlin alive with the Berlin Airlift after World War II with daily food drop-offs at Tempelhof Airport. It’s complicated, but if you know your history, you may have learned about this — Berlin is surrounded by then Soviet Union controlled East Germany, and Russia was trying to starve them out, basically, and subsume the city into the communist country, and we helped them avoid that. I almost cried from pride instead of embarrassment that night. After dinner we walked around, the students, and scored some hash to smoke, the “bad” kids (me and two friends) and saw the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächnis Kirche, the remains of the old one with its clock forever at 9-something o’clock when, ironically, WE BOMBED THE SHIT OUT OF IT fighting against Nazis in WWII, and the new, modern church next to it, in the city center. They let it stand as part of their national “Never Again” attituded toward Naziism and that type of shit. Germany has free press, etc. but some things they do not tolerate. If you display a swastika there, or throw up your arm and say Heil Hitler, ha ha — they throw your ass in jail. That was my life-changing experience of traveling abroad at a young age, Brandon, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

During my life I have visited about 15 different countries. My wife and I lived in Hangzhou, China from 2006 to 2009 for work. She worked for a German company there (I spoke more German in China with her coworkers than I had since I was a kid :-), and I was a substitute teacher at Hangzhou International School, a well-paying, but flexible job that allowed me to travel with my wife on business trips, and for pleasure. We visited The Maldives, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. We had a lot of visitors from America, friends and family. Our daughter graduated college and afterward she came and stayed with us for four months, & her boyfriend stayed a couple of months, and they traveled alone to Hong Kong, & Thailand, and many places with us.

We took all of our visitors to the Great Wall near Beijing, and my wife’s dad to Qingdao; it was near Olympics time and the water events were there, and my wife’s mom to Xiamen, another little city on the coast with its own island. We went on a 10k walk with Katie and David on the wall. We were such experts (and I had studied Mandarin at the university in Hangzhou for one semester, but intensive, Mon — Fri, 8:30–11:30, with at least 2 hours homework each day) we hired a private driver to drop us off at Jinshanling and we walked 10k on parts of the wall that few foreigners have seen, and he picked us up 5 hours later at Simitai. Living in China, we learned even more about differences among cultures, for which we are forever grateful, and we miss China every day.

We still travel. I’ve ridden my motorcycle from Mexico to Canada. My wife and I have been to Canada together, and to Mexico several times. We’re taking a cruise to the island of Bermuda in May. What’s even more awesome if our daughter Katie, now she’s married to David. After college, the backpacked across Europe, staying in hostels, from England, to Italy, to the mandatory stop in Amsterdam for college students the world over to the famous coffeehouses there. In grad school my daughter took a class over summer break in Prague, Czechoslovakia. She chose Prague because nobody in the family or in her circle of friends had ever been there. Can you imagine how much fun she had!? I can. A beautiful, intelligent young American woman traveling alone to Czechoslovakia to take a course in Literature. That’s who I helped to raise. You could kill me now, and I’d be satisfied, because I have seen and done and loved and befriended more people than any one man deserves in a single lifetime.

That is what I wish for you, Brandon! You are off to such a successful start that I know you will achieve one of your goals to experience and learn more about human beings and their variety of cultures. Good job, representing! Americans are good people, friendly, kind, inquisitive, and caring of others, interested in, and respectful toward the culture of others. Many of us are. Thank you for your inspiring story, again, Brandon. “Those young people, these days”, some people say; young people RULE! Each generation better than the last, more educated, kind, and open-hearted.

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