The 4th of July—a day designed to bring a patriotic tear to the eye of every red-blooded American—seemed like the right time to tackle the complex topic of being an American living overseas. While abroad, my distance from the United States allows me to escape many of the worries and interests that commonly arose during my days back home. Now I spend most of the waking hours focused on the growth and resilience necessary to be successful in a foreign land.
But no matter how complex my life in Shanghai becomes, I’m aware that my concerns about the US are still there, hiding in the recesses of my mind, waiting to reemerge in an instant upon my return.
Being away from your home country for a long time arouses a host of revelations and feelings that would have remained unawakened at home. In order to take in new cultures and a new country, especially one as different as China, I find myself using my American experiences, ideals, and expectations to measure and understand the unfamiliar. Through the process of studying China, I’m actually learning a great deal about my own moral, social, and political indoctrination.
If I want to give China a fair chance, a fair assessment, I have to know my own lens or bias. It’s not always easy to examine the fibers that make up one’s cultural identity. I’ve often found that acknowledging the admirable here in China requires me to have an honest look at the shortcomings back home.
Before moving to China, people warned me about the country. They said that it was a frustrating, inconsistent place to live and that there was a good chance that I wouldn’t like it. The American headlines about China only exacerbated the concerns. Would it be possible to enjoy living in such a big, scary, communist country? It’s clear that the growing economic authority of China is a source of fear and unease among many back home.
People are threatened by China. In their minds (and also, I must admit, in mine at times) the success of China seems to mean the failure of America. Can we still be Number One if China continues to grow? Surely their messed up political system will implode before the day comes!
To make sense of China, I had to honestly examine the United States. I realized that the US and China, although governed with different political systems and described in different terms, often share a lot of the same problems. Just like the US, China has its own set of challenges, its own areas for improvement.
When I was preparing to leave home, I was so focused on understanding and exposing the situation in China that I hardly gave a thought to the situation I was leaving behind in America. To my surprise, moving to China has in its own way been a blissful escape from the drama and heartbreak of America. The lies, the wars, the thirst for oil, the fundamentalists and tea partiers and anarchists, the denial of poverty, the decay of public education—the list goes on.
I stepped off the plane last summer and POOF—all of these issues suddenly felt a little less like my own. No more being haunted by negative messages day in and day out. No more endless war against terror and women and the working class on the top of my mind all the time. At one point a few years ago, I think I was actually crying over my concerns.
I love the place where I come from (Minnesota), and there are so many things that I appreciate about America. But to live in a democracy is to be told—to believe—that you have a say in what happens. And because of this, if you’re not careful, you may end up carrying an invisible weight on your shoulders. At times, my sense of responsibility for my nation’s rotten agenda and actions left me feeling guilty, overwhelmed, and exhausted.
The 4th of July is a time for celebration, but I hope that it can also become a time for deep and honest thought about our country, a time to consider our direction and the changes we hope to realize. Because if anything has become clear since I landed in Asia last year, it’s that America still has a lot of room for improvement.