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.