Okay. I'm cold.

After five months in Thailand and more than a year in summer weather, 50 degrees Fahrenheit feels like stepping in to a freezer.

The guy at the airport whose job it is to help people on to the shuttle between terminals huffs and blows and stamps his feet in the cold. "You should have got here last week," he tells us. "It's cold now."

I'm wearing a thin but long sleeved t-shirt and Dan's got rugged hiking pants, but the wind is brisk and I can sense the air is different.

I taste fall.


America hits me in the face like a tradewind.

I'm blown away by the choices, by the noise, by the sound of the people talking.

I can understand everyone I hear. Strangest are the hispanic workers in the Mexican restaurant my friend Laurel takes us to on our first day in Portland. Like a song I haven't heard in years, I can hear them in the kitchen talking, and understand. Part of me I forgot existed.

Three days before we were in a Laotian village watching barenaked toddlers run and play on the dirt highway. One day ago we were in clean, orderly Tokyo watching business people calmly pedal their bicycles through storybook streets. Today we're in America, and it's a little bewildering.

First of all, there's the strain of talking so much. I love it but, Damn!, we are tired. And the issue of being polite—I'd known in theory, but in practice forgotten, just how many 'sorrys', 'thankyous' and 'haveanicedays' are required in American functional talking. I remind myself to home in on this in my lessons when we begin teaching in China again in February. In a lot of the world, I've gotten by on just my smile. Here, it looks like I've got to use my voice to go along with it.

Dan seems even more at sea. His accent confuses people. “What would you like on your sandwich?” the young woman at Subway fast food restaurant asks him. “Salt and pepper,” he replies quickly. She's confused. “What's pep-ah?,” she asks. “Pep-PER” he throws in. She nods and gives him the sandwich on a tray. “No, we'd like that takeaway—I mean, 'to go,'” he says. He learns fast.

* * *
Laurel is a great hostess. She's determined to show us a good time in her city. The first night features burlesque dancers and $4 Guinness. I start to fear Dan won't want to leave.

We accompany her to a lot of Portland eateries, thrift stores to buy warmer clothes, bars to sample microbrews (beer not made from rice! Yipee!) a Halloween party at a friends home. I meet up with my roommate from college. I can't believe 9 years have passed. Does her bathroom still look like a Mexican barfight? I forget to ask her fiance.

We are tired, hungover, freezing, feeling poor, but happy when my parents pick us up a few days later.

This is America.