Monday, March 12, 2007


When I arrived in JFK airport in New York City, I had been abroad for just over a year in Thailand, Cambodia, and China. I hadn't slept during the 13 hour flight from Beijing, and had barely slept the previous night in soft seat class from Shanghai to Beijing. Depending on Daylight Savings Time there is a 13 hour difference between New York and China--I left China at 1pm on January 21st, and arrived in America at 1pm, January 21st. I was excited to see my family, but was also feeling a little exhausted and apprehensive. The first thing that struck me, besides the English in the airport and Caucasian overdose, was that I could see small changes in my family. I had never been away long enough to see differences, and my 10-year old brother Matthew in particular was noticeably taller and more mature. My other brother Erik, 21, was away for job training but my grandmother also came along from Long Island to see me. The entire first day in particular felt surreal, as I observed America with the eyes of a quasi-outsider. Little things struck my interest that just aren't seen in China, such as my father trying to give a tip to a man who retrieved a bag I had left behind. Prices were even more shocking than expected, and Americanisms like "buddy" truly stuck out.

From the airport, we drove the 3.5 hours back home. My hometown of Binghamton, New York has the unique talent of triggering no emotional response at all. I had come home for the people, not the place, though I'm very fond of our house itself. It's really just the city I don't care for, as the surrounding countryside is nothing to criticize and positively bursting with nature in comparison to China (the picture is from a local park). I don't mind my "plank bed" in Zhangye, but my bed home was fantastically comfortable. The comforts of home were immediately apparent--a well-stocked refrigerator, television I wanted to watch, and high-speed Internet. In public, I could buy bus or train tickets with ease, and bathrooms had toilet paper and had not only been cleaned, but probably pretty recently. I over-indulged in food I had missed, particularly anything Italian, but after the spice of China much of it lacked punch. Our eating habits are exceptionally different from the Chinese, and dramatically less healthy. "Dessert" as we know it is just about non-existent in China, and I sometimes wonder what food Chinese children beg their parents to give them. I had never second-guessed it before, but I was constantly wondering why as a nation we have so little real interest in keeping a healthy diet. People looked different to me as well. Besides the obvious weight and health problems in America, much more obvious to me now, American features looked almost alien, and I noticed something that Asians have always focused on--we have big noses.

I spent four weeks in America. Most of the time was spent relaxing at home, but I also traveled every weekend to see some of my friends who had left Binghamton (which includes essentially all of them). I covered a fair distance, from the subways of New York to the grad student apartments of University of Notre Dame to the palm trees and Spanish influences of Miami. The Miami trip was the least expected, as a family trip to the Everglades enabled me to also visit my farthest close friend. My best friends remain those from high school, and time with them was short but well worth the journey. There were reminders of what I liked about America that I had left behind--playing live music, crossing state lines for a Shins concert, enjoying a cold Guinness in a pint glass, good conversationalists.

However, my interest in China never faded while home. I studied Chinese, I read about China, I watched movies about China. "I guess it's all China all the time?" my mom remarked at one point. I researched China Studies graduate programs, something I still have a serious interest in. As expected I also had a few China encounters. Interestingly, while Chinese citizens often overreact to a Chinese-speaking foreigner, the handful of Chinese in America I approached in Mandarin showed only faint surprise and interest. Only one mirthful old woman, from Xi'an and just visiting family in America, was happy to have a conversation with me in Chinese. While we visited family in Florida I also met an aunt's friend and her 3-year old adopted daughter from China, who had left at age 1 and didn't speak Chinese. She was certainly a child of America, interested mainly in playing with the cat and getting dessert. When her mother asked what she wanted to learn in Chinese from me, she shouted only "cupcake!" with arms outstretched towards the kitchen. The irony of me teaching a Chinese girl the Chinese language did not go unnoticed.

I said goodbye to my family in Florida, taking a flight from Tampa to New York in time to catch my plane from New York back to Beijing. I had been away a long time and there were friends and family I didn't have a chance to see, but I was also ready to go back. America feels like home and I'll probably be back for good, but in the meantime China has a powerful hold on me yet.

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