Wednesday, March 27, 2013
This is a post-script to my 2012 series about my environmental experiences living in China as a visiting American environmental law professor. (For the full series background, see the introductory post, reflections on China and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, an account of air quality issues in China, an exploration of water quality issues, a review of Chinese food and consumer product safety, differing Chinese and American conceptions of the human relationship to nature, cultural approaches to conservation, stewardship, and scarcity, and parting musings about the philosophical roots of some of these differences and the processes of cultural change.)
My family and I returned from Qingdao to Portland, Oregon months ago, but the experience remains vivid. As the Year of the Snake begins, we find ourselves poignantly missing our friends and adopted family members across the Pacific. Yet as news reports broadcast apocalyptic levels of air pollution in North China this winter, we are also grateful to be home. This essay is about the experience of coming back to the United States from China, or perhaps more generally, returning to the developed world from that which is still developing. It mixes deep gratitude for the blessings of the American bounty with queasy culpability over the implications of that bounty for international and intergenerational equity.
(Note: To contextualize our experience returning to the U.S., I include photographs depicting our contrasting experiences in China.)
The Long Journey Home Begins. In departing Qingdao, we flew to Seoul, South Korea, then on to Los Angeles, and finally to Portland. It was a long trip, but the transitioning away from China began immediately. Seoul is barely an hour’s flight from Qingdao, but the airport was already worlds away—eerily foreign from that with which we’d become accustomed. Surfaces were shiny and clean (and strangely well lit), as though everything had just been wiped down. Airport shops sold unimaginably expensive perfumes, gadgets, and chachkis. We devoured the best sandwiches we have ever had in our lives from a Quizno’s free-standing cart in the middle of the airport corridor. We didn’t speak for the entire meal; we just savored the fresh lettuce, tomato, and avocado.
And I should note that despite this overly indulgent reunion, I was intensely aware of no longer being the fattest person in every room that I occupy.
On our second or day back, I went grocery shopping with my four-year old son. I was mentally prepared for how psychologically fraught this might be. I had often heard tell of the experience from the other side—what it was like for Chinese and other foreigners to walk into an American supermarket for the first time. I knew it would be overwhelming, with fifteen brands of nearly identical peanut butter and every possible signal of over-consumption. I believed that knowing this would steel me for the experience, but I was wrong. I walked in with my son and within seconds I felt dizzy and confused. Everything was so sterilized, and there was just so much of it all. No animals roaming around or strung up on a rack, but so much light and color and so many brands... So much electronic activity, so much everything.
I dropped something, and I froze in my tracks like a crashing computer, because I couldn’t figure out whether to pick it up (the correct response in the U.S., to avoid littering) or leave it on the ground (the correct response in China, where things that have touched the ground should not be touched with clean hands). It was all I could do to lead my baffled son back out the door and collect myself on a nearby bench.
I shut my eyes, centered my breathing, and considered how much we wanted those strawberries. And then, after just a moment’s recovery, I weirdly just walked back inside and went shopping. Like I had never left. In fact, I knew exactly what to do. I plucked a sani-wipe from the dispenser, cleaned the handle of a shopping cart, plopped my son in the front, and roamed the aisles collecting milk, toilet paper, and just the right brand of peanut butter. Suddenly, it wasn’t so strange after all.
Which became its own haunting experience: was all this excess really my personal norm?? So help me, it was. This was my normal, and normal for everyone else now around me, auto-piloting through this most basic American chore. But why didn’t they know how abnormal it really was? Don’t they know what the rest of the world eats and where they find it? That most people alive today (or at any time in history) could never imagine a place like this? Why aren’t all these people moving distractedly around me more upset about the imbalance, the gluttony, the unfairness of it all? Why are they just walking around like there’s nothing weird at all about any of this at all, when EVERYTHING about it is completely bizarre?
Strangers in Our Own Land. Navigating the rest of our renewed American lives continued along the same strange lines of being simultaneously refreshing and disturbing.
It was hard to get over how clean the world suddenly seemed. Like a movie set, because it couldn’t really possibly be that clean. The streets and houses are clean. The air is brilliant; sweeter than I had imagined. Colors seem brighter because the air is clean, without the billowing Chinese particulates that dull the visual edges of everything in sight. We revel in immersing ourselves in a bathtub once again, and running the clothes dryer is a guilty pleasure. Our clothes no longer smell like air pollution, inevitable as they hang to dry amidst those plumes of particulates. But of course, running that American clothes dryer is probably adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere in ways that rival particulate pollution.
There is not so much litter here in the U.S., and not so much dust. We were amazed to discover that our house had less dust on its surfaces after having been left alone for an entire year than we experienced on a daily basis in China. (No exaggeration: our East China home dusted in the morning was saturated again by evening. But then again, we all know what dust is mostly made of—dead skin cells. There are more than a billion people crowded along China’s East Coast; you can do the math.) Nature in the U.S. is spectacular. The grass really is greener; the sky improbably blue. The moon is no rounder in America (as the Chinese sometimes joke it must be), but here you can find the man in it. And yet we also have to remember not to look directly at the sun, as we so often could in China.
This was a hard lesson for my son, who had become used to gazing openly upon that smoky, blazing orb in the sky. But oh, how his eyes lit up to once again play in a public playground—that monument to the carefree, whimsical freedoms of childhood! We never once found a children’s playground in China (at least one that wasn’t gated into the grounds of an expensive private school). And in his own preschool yard, the children were required to follow a prescribed order of activities, one at a time, during outdoor play: up the rope ladder, down the red slide, and then back in line, single-file, to wait your turn for another chance.
My son loved his Chinese teachers, who could not have been more loving or patient with him, and he gradually adjusted to the controlled style of Chinese schooling. But back in Portland, we enrolled him in a local Montessori preschool, where learning activities were largely self-directed. At first, the teachers didn’t know what to do with his hesitation to act independently. “He asks permission to do everything!” one said, openly exasperated, “I’ve never seen anything like it!” After I explained the up-the-rope-ladder, down-the-red-slide nature of his previous experience, she began to better appreciate the depth of his transition. And perhaps more about the infinite cultural differences that follow from these deeply contrasting starting points.
Cultural Pride and Cultural Shame. Public safety and sanitation is different here. It took a while for us to trust that cars would truly stop for us in crosswalks and were not likely to pull up and park on the sidewalk we were walking along. I’m happy to no longer scour medical offices for unclean surfaces and unsterilized needles, as I had learned (the hard way) to do in China. I no longer worry about giving my child medicine when he is sick. That said, after a year of regularly assuring our Chinese friends that not every American owns an assault rifle, we returned directly to the Clackamas Town Center mall shooting that took place just a few miles from our home, and then the unspeakable tragedy in Newtown. I have never been more speechless, and so filled with national shame, trying to explain these events to some former Chinese students studying abroad here.
But there are also moments of immense cultural pride. I cannot boast enough about American tap water, with which we are all hopelessly in love. Drinking directly from the sink never gets old, and Oregon water is especially heavenly. My husband’s workmates found him drawing a mug from the bathroom faucet and reminded him that there was a filtered cooler somewhere in the office—and he laughed until he almost cried. We now understand that there is nothing in the world better than lukewarm, reliably running, municipally treated American tap water. Nothing! (And we need to do better to protect this hard-won feature of modern American life against backsliding regulation that would endanger it.)
Still, it has been confusing for me to wash dishes and water plants with this perfectly potable water. It feels excessively wasteful. It boggles my mind to see people using it to sprinkler lawns and wash cars. “No, no,” I think, “are you crazy? You could drink that!” But here in the U.S., all water that flows from a municipally-linked faucet is treated to be drinkable—even what gets used at the carwash. Which is obviously insane, especially in the arid West. I hope Americans will come to understand how incredibly fortunate we are to have drinkable tap water, before we end up not having it anymore.
At Home in America. Our neighborhood is lovely with trees and grass and wildlife, but strange with people. It’s weird the way we all drive to our individual houses, press the button on a garage door opener, and then drive into our homes without ever even getting out of the car. If you don’t walk a dog, it’s easy to never see neighbors face to face. In China, families take purposeful neighborhood walks after dinner, where they see friends and spontaneously mingle with strangers. Public spaces are alive with community in China, but here, we are much more isolated. We live close to our neighbors, but with little random interaction. With Tivo and Pandora, we don’t even partake in the same real-time broadcasts—no longer united in this last vestige of shared experience.
Americans are so alone, my visiting Chinese students tell me from their disbelieving vantages points. Public spaces are so empty by comparison. The country is so empty, with vast unpopulated tracts of land. “And I am so lonely here,” they almost always say, anxious to return to the thick sense of community they left behind. One student has his own room for the first time in his life—and he hates it. There is nobody to talk to. Nobody to care if you are even there or not.
While adjusting to being back in our own house—and as a reaction to how careful we were about not eating anything that had been in contact with anything that had been in contact with a floor—we became unreasonably nonchalant practitioners of the “five second rule,” to an indefensible extreme at first. But after eating and breathing for a year in China, we returned with the impression that it didn’t really matter what we put in our bodies anymore. A little dirt won’t hurt, we tell ourselves; how bad could that floor really be? (There’s barely even any dust!) And for that matter, why bother with organic? Why sweat the preservatives? After our year abroad, we have been fully absolved of the illusion that our bodies are temples.
But our house—goodness gracious—is ridiculously, shamefully big. I was deeply embarrassed when my Chinese students came to visit us in December. I wanted so much to host them here, while they were alone in a strange land and unable to be with their own families as Americans celebrated unfamiliar holidays. But at the same time, I cringed at the thought of showing them where I live. I didn’t want them to think about what it represents, in terms of the differences in our lives that were invisible while I lived in the boxy Chinese apartment in which my own family members nearly killed each other for lack of personal space, and which was about twice the size of the apartments that my students lived in with their families their entire lives. True enough, their eyes nearly left their heads when they arrived, and I somehow managed to never show them the master bathroom.
That said, I have never loved a material object more than I love my own oversized, coil-spring, pillow-top, all around over-the-top American bed now that I am back in it. It is soft, and it doesn’t hurt my bones the way every Chinese bed I slept in did while we were gone. I returned from China with bursitis in my hips because Chinese beds are so hard. But it isn’t just my American bed that has me in thrall: here there are comfortable chairs, with back support and arm rests. There is wall-to-wall carpeting, with padding beneath. On my first day back, I sank into the family couch and realized with astonishment that it had been a full year since I’d been physically comfortable. Embarrassingly, my body wilted into the cushions like a crying child to her mother. My fallen arches stopped screaming about the constant concrete floor underfoot.
Of course, this too is purely a matter of culture. One of my visiting Chinese students confessed that he had been sleeping on the floor since his arrival in the US because American beds are all too soft. Everything in the US is so unbearably soft, he complained—even the floors are soft! “Why are Americans so soft?” he asked innocently, honestly unaware of the gravity of his question.
Freedoms for Granted. The night before we left Qingdao, I stayed up past midnight with some of my favorite students talking about everything we could fit in before my departure, everything we hadn’t spoken about yet. Tiananmen. Terrorism. When NATO accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Serbia during the Clinton administration. What our parents tried to teach us about our roles in the world.
My students told me that the number one message their parents had tried to impart to them was to stay out of trouble: keep your head down, don’t stand out, don’t call attention to yourself. In the wake of Tiananmen, these were survival instructions. They described how their parents lovingly prepared them for their world by teaching them to disappear as much as possible into the background. Then they asked me what my parents taught me while I was growing up. I answered hesitatingly that my parents had raised me to never be afraid, to believe it was my responsibility to speak out, to stand up for what was right, and to change the world if necessary. We collectively stared at each other from across this enormous gulf of cultural experience, with both affection and amazement, as the significance penetrated.
In the air between Seoul and Los Angeles, while scribbling purposely vague notes about these conversations, it suddenly occurred to me that I no longer needed to be so vague. I could write freely. I didn’t have to be purposely ambiguous about connecting names with events or statements. I could make full sentences rather than mnemonics. For the first time in a year, I didn’t have to worry about my notes being found by uninvited visitors to my apartment, as I’d been warned to possibly expect at our orientation in Beijing. I didn’t have to worry, as I had meticulously done all year, that the details I recorded would bring trouble for my friends.
I had the same experience during my first telephone conversation with my sister (a sibling—so un-Chinese!) on arriving home. After a year’s worth of careful email and skype communication, always aware that what I had to say could be unintentionally interesting to someone other than my intended audience, I could suddenly speak freely. My Chinese friends had warned me to assume that my phone calls in China were not private, and I experienced at least one clear instance of intercepted email. But now, nothing I said could hurt anyone anymore. I could relax! But no, I couldn’t relax. It took a long while for me to shed the feeling of carefulness that must be part of the fabric of communication for many Chinese.
Between Worlds. So yes, the paradox of our homecoming has been this disjuncture between feeling so at once lost on return and like we never left. Supermarkets aside, it was remarkably easy to rejoin American culture. Just as one never forgets how to ride a bicycle, it turns out that I had no trouble at all remembering how to drive a car, even after my year as a passenger (in a culture with unrecognizable traffic rules). I knew how to use a credit card, seek directions, and chat idly at the checkout line—at just the right level of detail, and for just the right amount of time. I knew how to watch television, program the remote, read the news, operate a dishwasher, cook in an oven, and do all the other things I had not done for the full year away. I knew how to operate American culture like an expert. It was easy to return, seductively comfortable, and mercifully welcoming to one already on the inside.
Yet reverse culture shock sneaks up on you. A few weeks after we got back, I fell into what I can only describe as a brief but intense depression. I had heard that culture shock on return could produce something like this, and I figure that’s what it was, because it seemed untethered to anything else I could point to. I was delighted to be home in my soft bed and comfortable chair with my candy bowl of grape tomatoes, breathing fresh air and drinking tap water, using my clothes washer and dryer. Reasonable expectations of privacy, food and drug inspection, pedestrian safety, political freedoms—hallelujah, we were home!
But these were guilty pleasures, most, because of course life is nicer in the first world. Back now to that dizzy place. How to feel about all this? What about those we left behind? So strange to have worked so hard to find a way to fit in to this vastly different country—to penetrate the language, politics, and cultural traditions beneath the surface most tourists encounter—and then to just seemingly leave it all behind.
Then again, I know I’m not really leaving it all behind. Each of us will remain a bridge between the two cultures in our own ways—me as a teacher and scholar, my husband in his own career, my mother in her study of Chinese poetry, and my son as a child of two worlds now.
Indeed, in the weeks after we returned, my son spoke Chinese fluently and frequently, confused when his efforts to engage strangers in Mandarin failed. As time wears on, his moments of Mandarin are fewer and farther between, even though I take him to a Saturday afternoon class for children at the local community college. As the Year of the Snake began, he proudly adorned the scarlet New Year’s suit that our Chinese friends had given him at Spring Festival last year. He was so proud to be Chinese again, if only for the day. The next day, he was happy to be an American again, romping freely around the neighborhood playground. So yes, he is a clearly a child of two worlds now.
And in some smaller way, I guess I am too.