Going Back to China

So maybe my last post was a little unfair. Or a lot.

I had just returned to America after 13 months in China and I was a little shocked. You know, culturally. But I have come to terms with that: I now know that when someone tells me to move out of their way it's because they are being direct and I am in their way, not because they are presenting a challenge to fight to the death. I will walk faster. I will be on time. Thank you for your help. I didn't even throw toilet paper in the garbage can once since coming home!

I have also found that my 4 favorite phrases do not work as well in America. I am referring to those four phrases that can help one evade any social situation (almost):
"I have friends waiting for me."
"I am a little busy."
"That's not convenient."
"I have something to do."

These are the magic phrases. Responding to them with questions is unacceptable in China, and these little white-lie phrases help make life smoother for me. After a long conversation with a Chinese man I had just met, he asked me for my phone number. "It's not convenient," I replied. And it was done. Over. No problem.

"It's not convenient," I said to my mother regarding the mysterious growing stack of dishes and her request that I load them in the dishwasher. "No," I think to myself while loading the dishes after losing an argument, "You're not supposed to question me after I say that!"

"I have friends waiting for me," I say to a friend in Seattle. The response? "What friends, what are their names? Where are you meeting them?" These questions are unacceptable because I don't have the answers, I'm just looking for some time to myself.

I've found that I have been unable to use this experience to my advantage. "I have not culturally adjusted to mowing the lawn," and "Clean my room? We certainly don't do that in China," are weak arguments in a land where argument and reason trump harmony.

After all of this adjustment I'm hoping that going back will be a smooth transition. Weighing the relative merits of things will probably be a balancing act, like it was coming home. Everything was expensive here, but so incredibly easy. Everyone stands in line, but that means I don't get a chance to muscle my way to the front.

I know that I'll miss all of the people I got a chance to see again. The moment I saw Seattle I knew I wanted to go back (98% sure). I feel really connected to the work I've already done and to the work I have yet to complete in the next year. That includes the people in my community, my students, and fellow volunteers. But I also feel a distant longing to come home. It's really not quite so long this time: I have less time left than time I've served.

I think I wanted this post to be a "Thank You" to everyone for everything, but it turned into a disorganized discussion about something else. Thanks to everyone for putting me up, buying me meals, and putting up with me. See you next year!


Coming home

After days of travel I stepped into the San Francisco International Airport. This was the breakdown: Hour and a half bus from Anshun to Guiyang. 19 hour train from Guiyang to Chengdu. 3 hour plane from Chengdu to Beijing. 12 hour plane from Beijing to San Francisco. The final leg being a less impressive 1 hour flight from San Francisco to Portland.

Despite going through customs in S.F. I had to go through the general metal detector and bag-check routine before boarding my connecting flight to Portland. Standing in line was like being involved in some kind of important mission. The airport security officers were running people through the metal detectors like food in a processing plant. My turn came and a woman asked me, “Do you have your boarding pass?” I casually checked my front pocket and, after, other pockets, all without finding it. “No, it’s going through there,” I said, pointing at the bag checking machine. “Hey, Roger, check him. Make sure he has a boarding pass. Did you hear me? If he doesn’t have a boarding pass he goes back to the end of the line.” She said it with such authority; it was as if I were supposed to know something about this process. I showed Roger the boarding pass and began the process of putting all of my clothes back on (belt, shoes, etc.) when Roger yelled at me. “Pick up all of your stuff and get out of everyone’s way.” I laughed in his face. I didn’t mean to. I was just suddenly and thoroughly surprised at how rushed everyone felt. I could feel the ulcers people were developing by looking at the expressions on their faces and listening to the demanding tones in their voices. Roger’s boss came over and yelled at me next. “You heard him, get your things together. Stop picking things up one-thing-at-a-time, grab everything, and move out of the way.” I was thoroughly upset. I turned to a Chinese man who was also gathering his things and said to him in Chinese, “China is better, people here are too rushed and too rude.” Luckily Roger’s boss didn’t speak Chinese. When he yelled at me a final time, telling me to get moving, I calmly explained how my final bag needed to be rescanned and that I would like to wait for it thank-you-very-much.

This is the first thing I noticed coming home. The directness of people in their individual quests for whatever it was they were doing. How would this story be different in China? The woman would have asked if I had my boarding pass, then she would have helped me to find it. Roger would have asked if I needed help moving my things to a different place (so I would not be in anyone’s way), and I would be expected to understand that he meant for me to hurry up (and expected to politely turn down his offer). Roger’s boss would not have existed.

This is only a small part of the story that is my first time in America in 13 months. Other than this I have experienced little “reverse culture shock.” I did find myself in the bathroom at one point, wondering why I felt compelled to steal all of the toilet paper and stash it for future use. These silly Americans were putting the stuff in each stall for anyone to take! The bathroom proved to be somewhat of a double-whammy when I found that I could, without fee, use a soap dispensing box that was fixed to the wall next to the sink. I almost took a shower immediately, but instead just washed my hands before coming my hair for 15 minutes (to the surprise of several people).

Walking through the airport I laughed to myself. I was grinning for most of the time, actually. The people and prices and products all captured my attention. It was the first time I felt myself caught in wonder for quite some time. People were standing in lines. And they didn’t cut one another. Amazing.

There have been other things. I am still internalizing it all. I am still adjusting to the time. I am still a little lost.

Overall, I am happy to be home. For now.