Tag Archives: Habits

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.

Do you know how to cross the street?

22 Dec

A Chinese friend told us a great story the other day that has stuck with me ever since.

Charles (his English name) had recently arrived for a summer program at UC Berkeley when he went for a walk in the neighborhood surrounding the school. He waited for the light to change to red, the walking signal to alight, and then began to cross the street. Halfway through he noticed a large truck approaching to make a left turn in front of him. He immediately froze in his path, waiting for the truck to barrel past. But instead of driving, the truck came to a halt in the intersection. Charles also stuck to his spot, unsure of what the heck was going on. Everything remained at a standstill until the driver finally rolled down his window and shouted Are you going to walk? It was then that Charles realized that the truck was waiting for him to cross first.

When I heard this story I laughed because I understood how years of darting out of the path of vehicles could result in a deep sense of surprise at having the right of way. Expats in Hangzhou (including me) often complain about the crazy drivers here, and the terror of crossing a large intersection with buses, taxis, electric scooters, and so on roaring at you  and weaving within arms length of crowds of pedestrians. I appreciated Charles’s story not only for its funniness but for the fact that it spoke to the topic of culture clash and the altered habits that accompany this change.

A common topic at language school has been that of habits, hobbies, and traditions. I think that they write it into the textbooks because they think that talking all of the differences through will suddenly make us all a little more aware of each other, and therefore more at ease. But do hobbies and traditions bring us together or push us apart? Sometimes I find it frustrating when my Chinese instructors ask me what we like to do for Christmas or birthdays in the US. It’s not always easy to be so far away from familiar faces and settings during days that were previously laden with traditions. But I’m starting to realize that there’s something worth considering when it comes to the subject.

More than any other place before, China has challenged the habits that composed my everyday life in Minneapolis. A lot that was familiar in Minnesota became so habitual that I didn’t even realize the way it steered my life. At first (and still occasionally) differences really threw me off—more accurately, they upset me. It was always the little things. Why does the market have tape but no dispenser? or Why do the Chinese write their address in the opposite order in the opposite place on an envelope? or Why do Chinese people spit bones on the table? Suddenly I had become a sort of stuck-up ambassador, complaining from my democratic throne about the inefficiencies of this backwards country.

I found myself shocked with how quickly being placed in such an unfamiliar country could occasionally transform my voice into that of some colonizer I’d read about in an undergrad lit course. I’ve learned over the past four or so months that the essential antidote to the grating effect of new and different experiences is to give up the fight—that, and forget the way you did things back home. Most places here don’t sell what you’re looking for because nobody does what you do. Many times I found myself ready to scream, feeling like I’d been personally insulted by the fact that women in Hangzhou don’t use tampons or crochet hooks or blonde hair dye or tomato paste. All I can do is take what I see, buy what’s on the shelf, eat what’s on the menu, and leave it at that.

There are some hobbies, however, that I have managed to sustain across the ocean, and I find a strangely deep solace in them. After a few determined searches I finally tracked down some wool yarn and I’m making myself an emerald green scarf. I’ve also managed to circumvent the Chinese preference for “white coffee” (consisting mainly of powdered milk and sugar—instant) with the help of friends and family who have sent us the real stuff and a Vietnamese coffee filter. I may not have milk in my coffee anymore, due to the fact that we have no refrigerator and the milk here tastes eerie, but that damn cup of black coffee is the highlight of my morning.

Above all, there are four essential hobbies I’ve managed to keep:

  1. Music: No matter where I stand or sit or walk, when I listen to my beloved Charlie Brown Christmas album or latest American release, I am home.
  2. Writing: Although my internet connection is shoddy (WordPress is blacklisted here—damn you, firewall!) and my VPN stopped working during the Chinese “election”, I still have my computer, journal, and email to find some release.
  3. Reading: I limited myself to three books in my suitcase. Lucky for me, there are a few bookstores in Hangzhou with English sections!
  4. Boyfriend: I’m here in China aren’t I? In the end I had to lay it all down to stay with the person I love, and I can’t imagine life here, or at home, without him.

Although I mourn the loss of things such as the ability to shop enjoyably, communicate with strangers, or snuggle up with a book/computer at Spyhouse during a snowstorm, the balance of life is fair and I inevitably gain new interests. Because most of my previous sources of amusement have been curtailed, I’ve tried new things. For instance, Instagram is apparently the only social media site that works on my Chinese phone. Relaying my journey through pictures is fun and different. I’ve also adopted an interest in Chinese paper cutting, which can yield surprisingly awesome visual results.

When I start to think about this Christmas and New Year and how different it will be on the other side of the globe, I find solace in the fact that the absence of old traditions fashions new ones. In the spirit of the new, I’ve decided to go to Hong Kong and spend the holiday there. I will miss my family, but I will also have a memorable Christmas full of rich new experiences. I hope that you too can enjoy the comfort of the familiar and the excitement of the new this season.

Happy Holidays!

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