Lauren & The Big Move Back to the USA–If my current life were a children’s book, that’s what the title would be. These first weeks back in the U.S. on Home Leave following the conclusion of our China tour have been fantastic. Like, walking-on-air-fantastic. I can’t even articulate how good it feels to be home, even if only for a few weeks before we migrate to our sister continent to the south.
Still, wonderful as it is to be State-side again, I’ve already noticed a few re-calibrations may be necessary before I’m fully at one with my home culture again. Here are a few areas where I could use an adjustment:
- When waiting in line, you shouldn’t stand right behind the person in front of you. In China, this kind of aggressive queueing is a necessary survival tactic. I learned quickly that if you want your “turn” in China, you’d better be pretty feisty—and physical—about establishing your spot in the queue, because there are literally billions of people ready to take it. But in the USA, where personal space is highly valued? Well, standing close enough to your neighbor that you can identify her deodorant brand is likely to get you a glare. If not a punch in the nose.
- No one thinks I’m adorable when I speak the native language. In China, when I tried to speak the local language, I got one of three responses: 1) a refusal to acknowledge that it was Mandarin I was speaking; 2) blinking incomprehension of my bad Mandarin; or 3) an indulgent smile clearly communicating my conversant’s thoughts: Aw. She has the Chinese of a drunken toddler, but bless her heart (insert equivalent Chinese phrase here), she’s trying! State-side, nobody’s wowed if I speak the native language. No one gives me an impressed or approving smile. No one tries to generate more conversation so we can practice our different dialects. Now I’m just one more English speaker ordering a coffee, soliciting dry-cleaning services, inquiring about gym fees.
- Cross-walks really are a safe-zone. In China, it’s a dubious line that divides the spaces where pedestrians and vehicles travel. Traversing sidewalks and crosswalks is like entering a life-sized version of Frogger as one dodges bikes, scooters, and even cars. Cross-walk signals are but the loosest of suggestions, to be navigated with extreme caution. So it’s required a re-boot to believe that if I cross with the signal and stay reasonably aware of my surroundings, the odds of survival actually are ever in my favor.
- Your health isn’t at risk when you eat a salad. Or sushi. Or fish in general. Concerns regarding the safety of food production in China tends to cause an inversion of the classic American concept that eating veggies is good for you. Certainly meat offers its own health-hazards, but fish (raised in water with DDT run-off) and vegetables (particularly leafy veggies whose multiples surfaces make them hard to clean) were the higher risk foods. I blame the extra hurdle involved in finding safely-prepared lean foods like salad and fish for the 5 (10?) pounds I gained living in China. That’s my story and I’m clinging to it. Of course, now that I’m back in a spot where health food really is healthy food, I’m about to lose my excuse for choosing a burger over a salad….
- Cash or card? At least in our Southwestern slice of China, credit cards were rarely an option; it was cash or nothing. This has left me stumbling over the concept of using a credit card at all, let alone for small purchases like a $5 cup of coffee, or a $3 pack of gum. The all-cash thing could be inconvenient, as it required keeping a steady eye on your cash supply and necessitated multiple runs to the cashier. But it did help keep me more aware of what I was spending. A quick swipe of sleek plastic just doesn’t have the same effect as a wallet growing too light, too quickly.
- I can articulate shades of emotion. As I may have mentioned a time or two, my Chinese is pretty rudimentary. My level of Mandarin allowed me to express brilliant sentiments, like “I am happy,” or “I am not happy.” It’s like a new lease on my linguistic life to be able to again communicate ideas above a 4-year-old level: “I really appreciate how clean your car smells” (see no.7), “I appreciate how quickly you made that happen,” “I’m going to need to have these tires delivered on X date.”
- Appreciating the little things. It’s been a struggle for me not to sound like a crazy person. (If my husband’s reading this, he’s probably thinking that ship’s already sailed.) All I want to do is ooh-and-ahh over workaday wonders like blue, pollution-free skies; taxis that don’t smell like cigarette smoke; stretches of long green lawn rather than a concrete jungle. But if you spend too much time saying “look, the sky is blue!” people start wondering whether you’ve left a bit of your brain behind you in China. Because yes, you’ve never appreciated the blueness of the sky until pollution has obscured it for 2 years of your life, but this is not new information. You probably should’ve been aware of this blueness for 25+ years now… and your family’s a little worried that you only now seem to be coping onto this fact.
In short, Lauren & the Big Move Back to the U.S.A is a story of culture shock, though the fact that it’s a re-adjustment to my home culture means it involves more “Oh yeahs!” and fewer “Whys?!” I suspect the sequel–Lauren & The South American Move–may be a little more action-packed.