Back in The States, My First Trip Home

I just completed my first trip home to the USA since moving to China in October 2013 and I am left feeling different in ways I’m not quite sure. On the surface there are some obvious differences being back in the States, like understanding what people are saying, the ability to read signs and the simple act of crossing the street without fearing for your life. But beyond the obvious there is something else, something that comes from no longer being of one place, and one place only; I am now standing with my feet in two different lands, in many ways, two opposite lands. I’m looking at the world through a different, more complex lens.

When I first arrived in China everything was unfamiliar and foreign, but now, after five months of living in Shanghai I have picked up some of the day to day habits of the Chinese: I present money and credit cards with two hands, not one. I look both ways even when crossing a one way street, because Chinese scooter drivers have no respect for one way signs, and when confronted with an oncoming pedestrian I am just as likely to move to my left as I am to my right because the person approaching me is not bound by the western convention of moving to their right.  A new habit I’ve developed is, upon awakening,before opening my eyes, asking myself  ”I wonder if I can see across the river, today?” (it’s only 300 meters away).  Melinda and I have become very good at guessing the AQI (Air Quality Index) based upon how far we can see from our bedroom window and what shade of gray the sky is at the moment. In Seattle, on most days, we could see well over 50+ miles to the Olympic Mountains; in Shanghai, on many days we can’t see 500 meters to the Puxi side of the river.

So, after five months in Shanghai here are my observations:

I walk, or take the Metro everywhere and not once since arriving in China have I felt uncomfortable, or concerned about my safety no matter where I am, day, or night: Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, hutong or lilong, I cannot say that about Seattle, or New York, or any other American city for that matter. On our first night back in Seattle, Melinda and I walked from the Hyatt on 7th Avenue and Pine Street to the Pike Place Market, but crossed  over to the opposite side of the street because of a rowdy crowd hanging outside McDonald’s, on the corner of Pike Street and Third Avenue. The site of more than one stabbing in the recent past.

I never intentionally drank tap water in China. Ever. Even if it looks clear  and smells fresh it is probably contaminated by heavy metals and or toxic chemicals. Only 3% of Shanghai’s rivers and lakes are considered safe for human consumption and only 25% of the soil beneath them was free of heavy metal contamination. I have never lived anywhere in the United States that had anywhere near that kind of water pollution. (But then again,  I have never lived in West Virginia). The first thing I did when I got to the hotel in Seattle was drink a big glass of tap water!

I have driven in most major cities in the United States: NYC, Chicago, Boston, DC, LA, Miami  and most points in-between, without a problem and without fearing the other drivers. (And that includes a two year stint driving a yellow cab in Manhattan during the early 80’s!) Nothing scares me. Well, nothing that is until I moved to China. Witnessing the drivers in China is truly terrifying, it’s like a game of Grand Theft Auto where all the players suck at it. There is a complete lack of adherence to basic traffic rules. Left turn yield? Not in China. People making a left turn across oncoming traffic have the right of way, or, if they don’t have it, they seize it by cutting across all oncoming lanes of traffic! Don’t pass on the right? Not in China. Passing on the right and passing across a solid yellow line while playing chicken with oncoming traffic is common, practiced by bus drivers, cab drivers and young women driving Porsche’s. Pedestrian has the right of way? You guessed it, not in China. In fact, the pedestrian occupies the lowest rung on the food chain (and not surprisingly, China has the highest per capita rate of traffic fatalities.) Cars accelerate to make a right on red, U-turns are made wherever a driver feels like changing direction, and cars stop everywhere and anywhere they feel like it, including the right lane of a busy highway during morning rush hour in order to get out and take a pee. 

During our week in Seattle we got the New York Times, The Seattle Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal from the lounge, every day. Now, I have always been a news junkie, since I was a kid, but there is something about living in a totalitarian political system with state controlled media that makes you hunger for news. Yes, we have CNN and BBC on satellite television, but they are not without their restrictions and we rarely, if ever see a news story about China. And all the English language newspapers are part of the same government news bureau, so we get a lot of headlines like: “China has plans to deal with air pollution” or “Water polluters given stern talking to,” but we never get any actual news.

But it’s not all dystopian chaos in China: I can get food delivered from almost any restaurant, at any time for about $3 USD. I can ride a clean, bright and on time subway system for .50¢, or $1, depending on how many stops I travel (In Beijing it is even cheaper .33 cents anywhere the metro system goes). I t safe to go anywhere in a city, at any time of the day or night. While there are some panhandlers in certain neighborhoods, they are few and far between and rarely aggressive. Street crime is virtually non-existent. And despite the pollution of the air and the water, the streets themselves are cleaner than most streets in American cities, thanks to an army of street sweepers with their brooms fashioned from tree branches (unfortunately, I’ve witnessed  too many people willing to throw their trash on the street knowing that someone else is going to clean-up after them.)


As many people have said before, there is nothing that will make you appreciate your own country like going to visit another country. New Jersey drivers really aren’t the worst drivers in the world.


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