Saturday, November 10, 2012

Observations on America

When I was on vacation, I didn't want to waste time at a computer so I didn't blog, but I did take some notes. I was away from the US for 15 months, the longest continuous period ever. My first three days were spent in Chicago at a wedding, every other trip home in the last four years has been spent almost exclusively on the Oregon Coast. This time around, here's what I noticed:

I felt like crying as the plane neared Chicago and they played this cheesy US customs video with all different kinds of Americans saying "Welcome" before the narrator tells passengers to fill out their customs form and don't sneak in any farm products or maybe you'll go to jail. I'm a sap!

People who work in malls are thrown off when you want to pay for something worth more than $20 in cash.

American service is really, really friendly. Almost imposingly so. "HOW CAN I HELP YOU" SMILE SMILE SMILE. I like it, but at times I felt like I might be being rude by not matching the level of chirpiness conveyed by the person helping me.

No one walks anywhere. I parked my car at a mall in Eugene and walked 10 minutes to a Barnes & Noble and regretted it. It was just after dark, but there were no lights on the sidewalk and it ended abruptly. I only passed two other walkers. They were both men who looked like they were walking because they didn't have another option. I didn't feel unsafe, just conspicuous. There were a lot of cars going by and I wondered if they wondered why I was walking. If had it to do over I would drive just to save myself the awkwardness. Take that, environment! My friend Jess had a similar realization when she moved back to the US and walked to a store that was 15 minutes from her parents' house. They told her it was too far, she went anyways but felt very weird on the way. I couldn't relate when she told me about it, but now I can.

Crappy economy or no, Americans have loads of stuff and very generous ideas about what is essential. This doesn't stem from any one thing I observed, it was more an all-encompassing feeling that permeated my journey. Airport bathrooms are really nice. So are sidewalks. Grocery stores are the best. I love American grocery stores. My Italian roommate was blown away when I told him it's possible to buy pre-sliced apples, and he still marvels at the whole instant food thing, like pancake mix. Our consumer culture is designed to make everything easy, easy, easy.

"It is so comfortable here. Wearing a dress, riding in a minivan. Things seem possible here and easy." That's verbatim from my notes. For a bit of context, it was nighttime and chilly out. If I'm in a car at night in China, it's always a cab and sometimes it smells bad and I'm usually on my guard to make sure I'm going in the right direction and doing so in an expedient manner. There's never seat belts. And the combination of Beijing traffic and heavy-footed cabbies means I usually end the trip slightly nauseous. In Chicago, the minivan driver was the groom's mother taking us to the rehearsal dinner, so I didn't even had to flag her down! And I had my own bucket seat and the vehicle carriage sat high off the ground. It was like we were riding above the road in this smooth, warm, spacious comfort bubble. Okay, I won't bang on any longer about this really nice minivan ride. Suffice it to say, it was a nicer car ride than I'm used to.

Everyone I graduated with who was at the wedding seemed to be doing something interesting or meaningful. Someone is producing for Good Morning America. Someone was getting his poetry MFA at Iowa. Someone was launching his freelance film directing career and he and I realized we'd both spoken with the same hip-hop artist on the phone (as I put it at the time: "We have an Akon connection."). Someone was finishing med school. The bride does PR for Lexus. My best friend is an account manager for a healthcare company and travels up and down the West Coast to see clients. There were a couple teachers and one domestic violence educator.  I didn't survey the entire room, and presumably people who don't have anything going on would be less forthcoming, but it was gratifying to see how much experience people gained in the last four years.

People are even more tuned into their phones than they were four years ago. Now that everyone has Internet on their phone, there seems to be full integration -- people checking sports scores, checking traffic, updating Instagram/Facebook/Twitter.

I was afraid I would have to explain why I'm leaving China, but everyone at the wedding took it at face value, because of course - to Americans in America - it's logical to rather live there. When I tell expats I'm leaving China, the reaction is often a kind of mystification - Why would you leave? Everything interesting and adventuresome is happening here! You have a job! Never mind that most expats leave. Most of us tap out before the five-year mark, and many before two.

I think there's something universal about the latter reaction. People who are staying in a place always wonder why anyone would leave. But there's something else too. Expats rarely talk about missing family. It's like part of the code. Admission that you miss being part of a community to which you truly belong is a sign of weakness. No! We are all the great, lone, intrepid traveler! You can, however, piss and moan a fair deal about missing a Western quality of life, but there's a line. We all do it to some degree but you don't want to come across as a downer or, on the extreme end, a racist.

When I left Taiwan I had a nagging fear that if I moved back to the US I would never leave again and life would be predictable and boring. I don't feel like that now. It's not like they're lifting the draw bridge and no one can ever escape again. Instead, I feel like I'm moving back for now, not necessarily for forever. But forever wouldn't be so bad. America is really, really nice.

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