Wednesday, May 2, 2012

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.

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