One of the strangest aspects of spending two months in Southeast Asia is experiencing my own culture out of context. It’s like listening the cover versions of American pop songs in Thailand, familiar but always slightly off. We’re the only ones laughing at certain jokes in the movie theater. Thanks to globalization there’s $15 Papa John’s pizza at Malaysian malls when you can have lunch down the street for $2. There’s short-shorts for sale at H&M in a religious country where the majority women cover their legs.

It was during these weird doses of America that I heard a song that reminded me of home. And then I couldn’t find it.

We went to see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in Penang and I wondered how its typically American feel-good message resonated with the locals. I rather enjoyed it, maybe because I was grasping for the bland, anything-is-possible brand of entertainment popular in my home country. Its dreamy soundtrack sounded like a mix tape from a first love. After returning to our guesthouse, I listened to the end-credits song online, Jose Gonzalez’s “Stay Alive”:

But there was another song in the movie. A pretty melody. Some acoustic strumming, perhaps. Like something in the background at a hipster bar in Portland. A head-nodder I’d add to a road-trip playlist. I listened to the entire Mitty soundtrack. It wasn’t there.

I wondered if I had heard it when we went to see Her a week before, but Arcade Fire did most of Her‘s soundtrack. There was that one dreamy, acoustic track “Moon Song” by Spike Jonze and Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

But that wasn’t it either. I hummed the melody for Peter and realized I didn’t know a word of the lyrics. I didn’t even know the melody past a few bars. How strange that my brain had latched onto this tiny scrap of information. Needing to find the name of the song and hearing its entirety became like a craving for home cooking. The song made me feel anchored and not floating out in the world as I had been for seven months.

While there’s a lot of American culture to experience in Southeast Asia, the movies, 7-11s, and Papa John’s pizza are poor substitutes for the aspects of home I really enjoy: a funky coffee shop with weird art, old couches, and strong espresso; good live music in dark bars; back yard barbeques at my sister and brother-in-law’s house. In searching for this song I was searching for connection. I was searching in the dark for a way home.

We sat down the in almost-empty theater for The Lego Movie. I wondered how we had become so American culture-starved that we’d resorted to watching kids movies. The previews for a few bad-looking movies (which we would likely see) played and then a series of commercials. The Nikon logo popped up on the screen and there was my song.

The Nikon commercial had played before every single movie I saw in Malaysia. Possibly in Thailand too. My brain had been associating this 30-second clip of music, a song by Radical Face, with feelings of attachment to familiar jokes, dialogue, and situations. The movies comforted me, or perhaps the experience of going to see a movie comforted me, and every time I thought of the song, some synapse fired that triggered that feeling of comfort. Like a Pavlovian experiment. Like a subliminal message.

Incidentally, the song is called “Welcome Home”:

The Lego Movie was delightful. We fell for every comedic trap and giggled at every silly cultural reference like were were sharing an inside joke. It was the most entertained I had been in weeks. And now that I’d found my song after weeks of searching for the sound of home, all I want is a Nikon d7100.

Damn you, Nikon. Damn you.

5 Responses

  1. Carmel

    Aw…yeah, I know the feeling. It rained when we were in Hue and I just sat in our hotel room enjoying the sound and cool air (for once!). Even though I would normally be tired of the rain by now back in Portland, there was a familiar feeling in the air that just comforted me in a way I couldn’t explain. Funny since the rain was really ruining our plans, too. You just never know what will transport you mentally back home. Sometimes it’s as simple as a smell or sound.

    Reply
    • Lindsay Sauve

      I have been dreaming about rainy days lately. And in Portland I would dream of endless summer. I hate rain too, mostly, especially on days we have to travel. But occasionally, when we’re parked somewhere for a few days, I wish for just one rainy day I can spend inside watching movies or reading.

      Reply
  2. Michelle Peeters

    Staying 3 weeks at your current location? Yay! Pls email me your mailing address 😉

    Reply
  3. Tony K + Steph H (@20YH)

    I love that the song that reminded you so much of home was, in the end, called Welcome Home. It doesn’t get more serendipitous than that, does it?

    We’ve been in Asia for nearly 2 years now, so all of our cultural references are mixed up these days. I quite like the cheesy covers that are played most places, if only because they feature songs I actually know. When we met up with my parents in Bangkok and they kept dropping all these pop culture references, we didn’t understand half of them. Like, apparently there’s a song called Blurred Lines that’s a big deal? Who knew! (Not us, that’s for sure!)

    It’s pretty incredible how quickly a certain song can transport you to another place and another time, isn’t it? I know for a fact that there are certain albums and songs I’ve listened to on this trip that will forever be locked with a precise global position in my mind. It’s actually kind of nice to have such a swift time travel trigger!

    Reply
    • Lindsay Sauve

      Wow – I had no idea you guys had been in Asia for so long. We’ve only been here 2 months and I also don’t know what Blurred Lines is. It’s also interesting what bits of American culture people in Asia latch on to. Supposedly the song from the movie Frozen is extremely popular in Korea.

      Reply

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