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New Reflections on Life in America

14 Nov

Self Portrait in Shanghai

When you go on a journey, something magical happens—and it’s not just the trip itself. I’m talking about something that lasts a little longer than the present—a feeling that lingers like the scent of a roasted chicken or pie long after you’ve eaten. Every single day I spent in Asia was full of fantastic challenges and new experiences, but I didn’t discover the real fruits of the voyage until I’d been back in the United States for many weeks.

When I first returned, people asked me how I was handling the readjustment to American life. Did I suffer from culture shock? I was so happy to be back with friends and family after twelve months that I couldn’t imagine being unhappy. At first, being home felt like riding a bike–autopilot. Living in a spacious house with a full kitchen felt familiar and easy, drinking water from the tap was both completely normal and slightly thrilling, a soft, double-padded mattress was a welcomed addition to my nightly routine.

But, behind these welcomed comforts, a strange new sensation that I hadn’t had before began to creep ever so subtly into my being. It was a feeling I had rarely, if ever, felt at home: apathy, a quiet disconnection. Minnesota was my home, and yet I felt without a place there to call my own—no social routines or apartment or work or community with which I could fall into place. I was blissfully and terrifyingly dislodged.

Yes, there’s the shock of appropriating a foreign culture, but what about the decision to take or leave a past life?

I realized that stepping outside have given me a gift: the opportunity to break away from the deeply engrained habits and routines that had embodied my daily life before. The distance created by my time overseas offered me the clarity necessary to see my previous habits and routines for what they were. And once I could really see them, I was more than happy to cut some of them loose.

Turn that Racket Off
After spending time under the diligent eye of the Great Firewall of China, I found the constant political mudslinging of democrats and republicans much harder to swallow. On the one hand, living in a country with a heavy censor was frustrating and limiting, but oh the sheer joy of being released from the pointless, alliterative coverage of politics in America! I’m afraid that I’ve completely lost my taste for the constant wailing and doom of the national news.

Food for Thought
When it comes to China, the headlines about food safety are infamously attention-grabbing:

16,000 Pigs found Dead in Chinese River
H7N9 Bird Flu and Swine Flu May Combine and Mutate in China
Chinese Officials Find Rat, Mink, Fox in Meat Marketed as Lamb

But you know what doesn’t get as much coverage?

Majority of Chinese Population NOT Obese
Chinese Eat WAY LESS Processed Foods
Chinese Ride Bikes, Walk Daily
Chinese DO NOT SNACK all the Time
Chinese Eat HALF AS MUCH Meat during Meals

I think you get the picture. Our food culture in America sucks. Big time. I went to China expecting to be appalled by the food, but it’s the situation here in America that’s actually scary. It’s all the processed junk, people!

To Drive, or Not to Drive
Before I left for China, I sold my car. The act was liberating and distressing. I couldn’t imagine living in Minnesota without it. But since I’ve been back, I have in many ways enjoyed life without a car. There’s no stress from searching for parking, no insurance and repair costs, no liability of an accident, and it forces you to slow down, be more thoughtful and less go, go, go, hurry, hurry, hurry. But it’s not always easy to try and walk, bike, or take public transportation in Minnesota. The winters are harsh and the Twin Cities’ bus system is time consuming when travelling anywhere outside of Minneapolis or St. Paul. I’ve now lived in two different cities with killer metro systems: Paris and Shanghai. If only we could have such a system here in the Cities.

I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to spend so much time abroad because I know that these experiences will continue to inform my thoughts and actions throughout the rest of my life. I’ve learned that in order to see yourself and your home, it is necessary to first live elsewhere, and as others live.

The Ugly Truth about Renting in Minneapolis: How finding an apartment has become a herculean effort

15 Apr

An Apartment Building in Minneapolis

Back in 2007 when the economic struggles and foreclosures began, I had a feeling that it would become harder to find an affordable rental in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis+St.Paul). It was a logical conclusion that less people owning houses would mean more people renting. But it wasn’t until I started looking for an apartment in Shanghai that I realized how cutthroat the rental market had become back home. Akin to the fable about the frog in boiling water (toss a frog into a pot of boiling water and it will jump out. Place in a pot of cool water, raise the temperature slowly, and it allows itself to be boiled to death), I hadn’t realized what was gradually occurring all around me.

At the start of my search for a sublet in Minneapolis last summer, I thought finding a room would be a cinch. I imagined all of the places in the Como neighborhood by the University of Minnesota that would be abandoned by students who returned home for the break, along with the places that were surely overlooked during the summer months before the real moving season of August and September began.

Not long after initiating my search, my rose-colored expectations were replaced by frustration. A good apartment is hard to come by in Minneapolis! Instead of lining up a few viewings at my own convenience (like the ‘old days’ circa 2006), I suddenly felt as though I was going through a job application process: strategically writing my email inquiries, preparing my documents (including my last three paystubs) and responses ahead of time, putting on my game face like I was preparing for an interview.

How long did you live at your previous place of residence? [Spoken with demoralizing ‘concern’ face] Only six months? Did your previous landlord complete a tenant report? How long have you been working at your current job? What is your yearly salary? You’re self-employed? Hmm, that’s not good… Oh, just so you know, we have a lot of people coming to look at this place this weekend—oh, wait, here are some of them now—I’ll get back to you in the next few days and let you know who we chose.

And all for a 3-month summer sublease that I’ve offered to pay for in full up front! What do you care if I make $100,000/year or $10,000/year?

In order to secure an apartment, which was overpriced to begin with, I spent 3 weeks aggressively scouring craigslist, newspapers, Facebook, and my network; offered to pay an extra $100/month; and even took my possible future roommate out for drinks in order to smooth things over and convince him that I was responsible and socially likable. In the end, the person who’s room I was taking even had the audacity to suggest that I should let her stay for free a little while after I started paying for rent because she’d done me a favor by selecting me as her replacement. Talk about a complete 180°! Remember when subletting someone’s place was doing them a favor?

The helplessness of my rental experience in Minneapolis was amplified by the comparative ease with which I found an apartment in Shanghai. For a city where residents complain of skyrocketing rental prices, there were seemingly infinite options and armies of people ready to schedule showings and negotiate with owners for lower rent—all of them working to earn my business. The difference in experiences was so vast that I was driven to uncover the facts lurking behind my sour experience in MN.

Some notables include:

  • Minnesota is the least affordable state for renters in the Midwest
  • Rents are high and rising while wages are floundering
  • Millions of families have transitioned into rentals since the recession hit
  • Minneapolis renting is out of control—In 2012, Mpls ranked as the second worst city for renters in the US
  • Finding a place is a serious competition—less than 3% of Mpls apartments are vacant
  • Rent is expected to continue rising in 2013

Some suggest that high rental prices and lower mortgage rates will result in a rise in home purchases. But faced with a limited job market and in the wake of so many foreclosures, the risk of taking on more debt can be extremely intimidating. Paired with the fact that people today prefer to wait longer to settle/marry, I can’t imagine many recent graduates are preparing to hunker down in one place at the cost of an even larger mountain of lifelong debt, even if it means a slightly lower monthly payment. But I’ll leave that topic for a different post.

What has your rental experience been since the recession hit? Are you noticing changes?

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