Thursday, February 28, 2013

Confoundings and Conveniences

Coming back from the States I always get into a state of confusion. Actually, I enter that state while still in the States. At some point in all my travels I usually start wondering whose couch, floor or bed I’m in/on. Not that I’m in any way angry about it but, upon waking after a day here, a week there and an overnight yonder, you can see why I would end up confused.

Immediately after figuring out where I’m at I reckon on what day it is. After last year’s nearly missed flight – well, in my case nearly missed, in Gabriel’s case missed for a fact (see The Importance of Plans, D, E and F, posted last year August) I’m not taking a chance on messing that up again.

I do get confounded. Not just about where I am or when I am but which cultural more to uphold. Is it proper to be ‘Chinese’ in America? Can I be ‘American’ in China? How about if I’m just myself anywhere I go?

Somewhere along the way, while in America, I get used to doing things the American way again. In my humble abode I shower a certain way: turn the water on, get all wet, turn the water off. Wash hair. Turn water on, rinse hair, soap bath pouf up, work up a good lather and turn water off. Wash up, turn water on, rinse, turn water off. Condition hair, turn water on, final rinse and I’m done. It saves a lot of water and it is vital for me to wash that way because in the winter I tend to run out of hot water very quickly.

Somewhere in the beginning third of my sojourn stateside I realize I am actually expected to let the water sluice on, even when I have no active use for it. Also, I start remembering how good it feels to have a seemingly endless supply of hot water. By the end of my time Stateside, I find myself lounging in my daughter’s Jacuzzi tub with all the jets blowing and water up to my chin. My China self would sniff disdainfully at such waste. My American self is already mournfully projecting the truncated showers I will be subjected to for the next eleven months.

Life in America is so convenient! Hot water flows at will with but a flick of the wrist from any tap in the house (labled ‘hot’. Obviously, if one turns on the ‘cold’ tap, only cold water will come out, unless there is a serious problem with the plumbing.) Here, unless I’m planning on using a lot of hot water (like showering or doing laundry) my water heater is switched off. When I do my dishes I just heat water in my kettle. Two kettlesful of water and I’m done with my dishes. 

In China, if I want some sort of convenience food, I have to get ready to face the world – hair, makeup, clothing (of course), and then I have to walk a certain distance to whatever food I’m hoping to score. Noodles or fried rice from a local vendor is relatively easy but if I want really extravagant junk food like McDonald’s or KFC I have to ride a bus for at least 30 minutes after running the gauntlet from the OTW community. And then there is the riding home, walking back from the bus stop, ect.

You can see why, if I’m besieged by a desire for hamburger or fried chicken I make a day out of it. No sense in going out for just a hamburger and coming right back home.

In the States, if you want a ‘junky’ late night snack, you simply hop in your car in any state of dishevelment or dishabille, shod or not and in a matter of minutes you are at a drive thru somewhere, ordering your heart’s desire. If you live in a city or suburb, it is just a matter of minutes. If you live further in the country, it might take you a bit longer but you don’t have to gussy up and face the scrutiny of whoever you might meet on the way.

Usually, while I’m lounging around in that Jacuzzi tub somewhere toward the end of my stay in the States I start thinking about how much more difficult life in China is. I start thinking: do I really want to go back to freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer? Do I really want to do my dishes and laundry by hand? Do I really want to walk or ride public transportation everywhere I go, be social when I don’t want to be and be accessible at all hours?

No, I don’t necessarily enjoy those aspects of my life here. At least, not all the time. However, living here I am afforded the chance to live the dignified life I saw for myself while still living in the States. When you’re on the other side of the world you can see the forest in spite of all the trees, so all the fallacies and incomprehension and adaptations I made in order to be able to get along in America are plainly visible to me here in China. Here I understand the way of life, the traditions, the culture. There, and anywhere else in the world I’ve lived, for the most part, I felt like an outsider looking in.  

Not that I’m saying Yay to life in China and Boo to life in America or anywhere else. While I admit I find life in America extravagant and more luxurious and convenient than life in China, I don’t believe everyone should come to China to live, or even embrace the minimalist lifestyle I feel so comfortable with here. Even while I think about how to permanently rejoin this society of luxury and convenience I know I am not serious. As soon as I get my feet back on Chinese soil I will feel more in my skin, more myself than I do in America.

Besides: can you imagine if everyone jettisoned life as they know it and came to China? Talk about overcrowding! And what of diversity? If everyone lived as we in China do, what difference would there be in being here or there? If everyone thinks the same, what would we talk about?

No, I don’t think everyone should think like me, do like me or be like me.  

I am here by personal choice, living a life that feels right to me. While I do enjoy my short sojourn into the lap of luxury and the life of excess I perceive America to be, I am always glad to be back here, to where life is real for me. That would make my perception of life in America an illusion. At times I believe it is, especially when I read about the poor who have virtually no chance at redemption or betterment, the mistreated, the misdiagnosed and the misfortunate who crowd every city and overshadow any and all aspects of American life. In fact, I do true Americans a disservice when I reduce their life into the scope of the 30-odd days I spend visiting my loved ones.

Let me always remember that. 

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