Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On the road again: A month back in America

Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been traveling on airplanes, mostly to visit my mom’s family in the Midwest. I used to get airsickness back then, but somewhere in my teens I finally got used to flying. Recently it’s become even more a part of my routine, as I generally take a trip every few months. The last month has been quite a whirlwind – hence my failure to write since I first arrived in the US – filled with many flights, bus and train rides. I’ll share some of the highlights here, beginning with a summary of my trip in numbers:

79 friends & family members visited
55 hours of flying
34 hours of bus rides
30 days of travel
24 blue-sky days
15 nights out with friends
8 US cities
3 hiking trips
2 coastlines
1 priceless experience

First, I want to give a shout out to everyone who hosted my on my tour around the US, especially Don Parris, who has become like an uncle to me after generously hosting me three times on my various trips through LA. In Maine I staid with my lifelong friend Riley Roland and his parents, then with my sister in Baltimore, Lasha Leonov and her boyfriend in NYC, my brother in Amherst, and Artem Efremkin in Boston.

It was a strange and yet comforting experience meeting my parents in the Greyhound bus station in Phoenix. After 25 years of living in Maine, they had made the big move to Phoenix about four months earlier, but in a way it felt like we were just on vacation there. I spend a relaxing week with them hiking (in the Grand Canyon and mountains surrounding Phoenix) and sitting by the pool.

From Phoenix I told a bus back to LA, then a red eye to Boston and finally a bus up to Maine, to arrive just in time for Easter dinner with my dad’s family (but not before I collapsed on my grandma’s couch for a quick nap). I spent a relaxing few days in Maine, tossing Frisbees, getting re-acquainted with the beautiful New England countryside and slow-paced way of life.

Then it was off to Baltimore to visit my sister (who was originally going to meet me in NYC before she got sick). In one day I spent about 14 hours on and in between three different busses traveling half way down the East coast (note that in China that distance probably could have been covered in 5 hours on a high speed train). Still, I had the pleasure of watching and comparing the skylines of at least four major east coast cities, especially marveling at the uniqueness of the New York skyline and the new, almost completed “freedom tower.”

Two days in Baltimore with my sis. Two days in NYC visiting several friends. A walk along the Baltimore harbor front and bar hopping in Baltimore’s bar district. An NYU house party, coffee with a cleantech guru and drinks in the financial district. Then shipping up to Boston. Everything seems to be moving in fast motion now. Wish I had taken more pictures.

Six days in Boston & Amherst, and something happening every night. Drinks with my brother and his friends, then a hike to a hidden bunker the next day. Back to Boston and drinks with my cousin downtown, then Fenway Park 100-year anniversary tour the next day. Cleantech networking event and the Tufts Energy Conference. So nice to go to the Tufts Energy Conference and not have to worry about organizing it. Thanks to Conor Branch, Dan Resnick and Katie Walsh for keeping the legacy going, and great job to all this year’s organizers!

Then back to LA and up to San Francisco for a few days. In San Francisco I finally had a chance to meet a world famous parapsychologist and long time friend of my family (he went to high school with my grandmother!) named Stanley Krippner. Stanley was recently featured on the cover of the San Francisco Weekly and has done some pretty amazing things in his lifetime, not least of which was conducting dream experiments and being good friends with most of the members of the Grateful Dead. Also met some of the Beijing Energy Network founders, as well as another cleantech veteran, Caitlin Pollock.

One more day in LA with Don and my good friend Lisa Gilson, and then boarded a plane back to Shanghai, where I caught the train back to Beijing. Whew, what a trip.

To those of you who I didn’t have an opportunity to see, I wish you the best and look forward to crossing paths again at some point. For the near future though, I’m done with traveling for a bit and will be bunkering down for the summer in Beijing. I’ve still got a lot to accomplish in China before I consider a permanent return to the US. 

Reverse culture shock

Walking down the street, I spotted a small, hole-in-the-wall electronics store and peered in the window. Like so many of these in China, it contained just about everything you might expect: cell phones, smart phones, headphones, sim cards, memory cards, batteries, and much more. As I walked in I began trying to remember the Chinese words I would need to describe what I was looking for, and prepared myself for the blank looks and stubborn refusals that would inevitably follow. But as I walked up to the counter I realized I had entered a different reality. The clerk smiled at me, and speaking fluently in English, politely asked me what I needed. When I replied, he said “Yes, we can do that for you right away.”

Oh yeah, I’m back in America.

This is not meant to be a statement of patriotic pride, but simply to point out one of the key differences between my American and Chinese experience. While I was certainly happy to be back in America, in some ways southern California, where I first touched down, felt more like a foreign country to me than China. And it was about to get even stranger as I headed for Phoenix, where I’d be spending my first week back in the US with my parents.

During my first few days back in the US in a year and a half, I couldn’t help but start comparing things I like better about the US with those I like better about China. Here’s the short list I came up with:

Better in China
1.     Trains & subways: they’re newer, faster, cheaper, cleaner
2.     Busses: they leave and arrive on time
3.     Electronics: they’re cheaper
4.     Jobs: there’s more of them
5.     Fast food: it’s more abundant (you read correctly) and if possible, a little healthier
6.     Negotiating: everything can be negotiated
7.     Strip malls: they basically don’t exist here

Better in the US
1.     Customer service (restaurants, shops): it exists
2.     Banking: it’s faster and there are less restrictions
3.     Diversity: there’s more people who are different – on many levels
4.     Pollution: on a sunny day, I can always see every building less than a half a mile away
5.     Equity: you don’t feel like everyone is constantly sizing you up and fitting you into their narrow view of the world
6.     English: it’s not a struggle to communicate on a daily basis
7.     Space: you’re not constantly being squeezed into somewhere

It’s as if I’ve put my China life on hold, traveled through a time warp, and ended up back about where I left my American life in the summer of 2010. The time-warp lag is especially strong in this case, but after several days memories and habits of my old life started to come back to me. I’m sure by the time I return to China I’ll just be starting to feel right at home again.