My first view of Los Angeles, from the Northwest Airlines jet that flew my husband and me from Seoul to the city, was unremarkable. As the plane dipped toward the Los Angeles international airport, I saw through the window a stretch of gray, unengaging landscape, broken into monotonous grids with sparse spots of greenery. Having seen singularly spectacular aerial views like those of Katmandu and Hongkong, Los Angeles looked dreary from the air. My husband said the area sits on a desert.
At the airport, a friend of an in-law, Stephen, who is a resident of Long Beach, fetched John and me and drove us to the apartment that he wanted us to see in Lakewood. A caretaker showed us the place. John and I at once liked itnot far from the main road, in a safe neighborhood, quiet, fully furnished, sunny and airy, with lots of storage space. Stephen had an appointment for us with the owner at three.
He then took us to his parents' house, two blocks away from the apartment we had just seen. Stephen's parents amiably welcomed us, giving us bowls of fruit salad to snack on and offering us a room upstairs where we could rest or have a shower. John and I did both and counted our blessings. We thanked the family for their generosity and Stephen for having taken time and effort in helping us. He said that our in-law was a special friend of his and he would help us the best he could.
A few minutes before three in the afternoon, we proceeded to the Lakewood apartment where we would meet the owner. The woman, her blond hair secured by a hairnet, came late, citing her appointment with a dentist. She appeared to be in her 70s, slightly bent, but she moved with an air of strength and dignity. After the introductions, she declared, "I'm a retired professor, and I know that teachers (which John is) pay on time." Her tone had a ponderous quality to it that reminded me of school mottoes.
After twenty minutes of discussing details with the woman, we thought the terms and conditions were fine, and we told her we were ready to lease the apartment. She took out a sheaf of papers from her purse and laid them out on the table. As she signed her name in the contract, she emphasizedagain, in that tonethat we should pay attention to her name in writing down checks: "It's spelled capital l, a, capital n, o, r, LaNor West."
By now, I had identified her tone: it belongs to teachers. I've heard it so many times before. It is loud, but the loudness is effortless. It has a steadiness that can only be gained through years of practice. There is a very subtle oratorical edge to it, suggestive of authority.
I also thought here was a woman who knew how to define herself; she has gone to lengths in making her name different, unique, unrepeatable. Is she a prototype of the American "individual"? She addedonce more, with a solid voicethat the contract and the house rules were no invention of hers; they were the official documents of a housing group she belonged tothe Apartment Association of the California Southern Cities, Incorporated. The group's name and logo are printed on the application sheet, contract and accompanying documents. Seeing all these, I was impressed by the place's degree of self-organization and self-protection.
After that, we paid the deposit and a month's rent, while she gave us a receipt, the house rules and regulations, and a sheet stating that the paint used in the apartment had no lead. Towards the end, her voice came down, signaling what seemed to be an afterthought, "Oh, I must tell you, the sink is clogged up, but one of my sons will come in later in the day to fix it." The transaction stalled the sleep crawling up my eyelids. It felt like a well-choreographed stage play, complete with a denouement.
Stephen then drove us toward the central part of town to locate a local telephone company. At GTE, the receptionist told us to go to one of several telephones on the counter to call a number. The paperless transaction, lasting only ten minutes, promised us we would have a line that evening. I saw John's face, earlier shadowed by exhaustion and lack of sleep, light up with the prospect of a phone call to his family. (Back in 1990, when I left my home country (the Philippines) for the first time, I was convinced South Korea truly belonged to the Big League when I got my phone line one day after applying.) I thought I must give GTE, the telephone provider, sterling points for speedy, paperless service.
We called it a day at that point. We went home, enfeebled by jet lag, but exhilarated neverthelesseverything had worked out well so far. Once inside the house, John and I jostled for the navy-blue sofa squatting in the living room. Reclined on the overstuffed three-seater, we sized up the apartment. We realized we got a good deal for our money, and that it was far better than what we had expected. The apartment looked very functional, no frills, but we could use our creativity to spruce it up and make it cozy.
I thought that here was a place where people trusted each other, where people did not worry about trespassers.
There's no fence in the front lawn, but there's one that separates the row of apartments from the adjoining compound. I noticed that fences are mostly between houses. In 1997, when we first came to the U.S. to visit John's family in Atlanta, I found the unfenced frontage of houses refreshing. The open front yards, laced with green grass, looked welcoming. I thought that here was a place where people trusted each other, where people did not worry about trespassers. Having seen the side fences in our neighborhood, I was about ready to change my mind.
I thought that, maybe, in this middle-class neighborhood, the imagined threat does not come from outsidersrobbers and burglarsbut neighbors themselves. Earlier in the day, I heard over the radio about a child being wounded by gunfire coming from a neighbor who had an argument with one of the child's parents. I concluded it was an isolated case, and it was too early for me to make assumptions.
I was deep in this thought when the landlady's son came in to fix the sink. He also cleaned out the oven and said the stove worked, but not the oven. He said he would send an electrician. In the course of our brief conversation, he said he was a police officer, doing night patrols on elementary school grounds. He said that schools have computers and TV sets which tend to attract burglars.
I noticed that when the man spoke, his voice boomed. His mother's voice carried authority, but it was not as loud as his. It made me feel that we were in an auditorium, and he was speaking to an audience of at least a hundred people. After the man left, I told John that perhaps one thing I should learn this early in America is to speak more loudly. It seems to be the natural order of things.
Or, could it be that in a working democracy where self-expression is paramount, people have to literally have a voice, that is, develop their vocal chords, to be able to defend their rights?
That is one of my earliest observations in this place: people speak with the full force of their voices. I imagined that in the olden days, when everything you saw was wilderness, when a man's yard stretched to several acres of land, and neighbors did not see each other, men and women had to use their voices in order to be heard by others. The vast expanse of the frontier muted the human voice, and I guess people had to shout to be able to get past the physical barrier.
Or, could it be that in a working democracy where self-expression is paramount, people have to literally have a voice, that is, develop their vocal chords, to be able to defend their rights? In a community where everybody wants to assert him/herself, the voice is their first and most available resource. In Seoul, where crime against persons is low, men argue on the streets, shouting on top of their voices, each one trying to outscream the other, but they hardly end up in a scuffle. In other places, places where democracy is unknown and dialogue is not valued, many people find the fist or a gun more accessible.
Towards nine in the evening, I tried the telephone, and the dial tone came as GTE had promised earlier. I called up my sister who lives in Buena Park, northeast of Lakewood and Long Beach. She sounded excited, and, yes, loud. She has been in the U.S. for more than ten years.
But, at the same time, the loud voice somewhat bothers me. I imagine that the voice has to do with efficiency.
This early, I like the straightforwardness of people, the efficiency and the little acts of generosity. But, at the same time, the loud voice somewhat bothers me. I imagine that the voice has to do with efficiency. To achieve efficiency, one needs to be understood, and to be understood one has to be straightforward, and to be straightforward one has to be clear, and to be clear one has to speak in a loud voice.
This may not explain it at all, but I will observe and listen some more in the next few weeks.
© Loreta M. Medina
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