Thursday, February 28, 2013

Interlude. Or: Things That Freak Me Out in the U.S.

Just as I get acclimated back to Chinese life and doings I reflect back on my time in the states, time that passed far too quickly. A while back I wrote about things that, even 2 years into living in China still freak me out (see eponymous entry, posted May 2012). Now I will share the things that freak me out when I go back to the U.S.

No people: Living here and going about, you get used to seeing people everywhere. Pedestrians striding either purposefully or meandering leisurely. Women dancing in the street at dusk and men playing checkers or poker. Seniors sitting and absorbing sunshine or chasing their grandchildren, Children of all ages scurrying about. Buses are crowded, malls are crowded, restaurants are crowded, markets are crowded. In short: people everywhere.

In the States nary a soul can be seen. Wide, paved avenues suffer traffic only at peak times a day or special occasions. Mall parking lots are half empty except on prime shopping days like Black Friday or the day after Christmas. Sidewalks for the most part are completely devoid of pedestrians. In Albuquerque I literally felt like I was in a ghost town for the lack of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Not even a meandering dog, let alone a pack of them to be seen. Of course it was Superbowl Sunday when I was there but still… In Albuquerque and everywhere else I wondered. WHERE IS EVERYBODY???     

This observation comes from having visited no fewer than 10 cities on this trip alone, but this experience is not unique to this visit. Every time I have returned to the States the biggest crowd of people I see during my sojourn stateside is at the airport. After that, the people just seem to disappear.

High countertops: because I visit my son’s house first I always exclaim over the height of the counters in his kitchen and the vanity in the bathroom. Being used to thigh-high countertops here and having made my peace with them, I am literally shocked to find these gargantuan-height countertops while stateside. Even after staying with Darrell and Sammi for 10 days before moving on to the next loved one’s house, I marvel at the height of the counters everywhere I go. Whereas here I’ve resigned myself to chopping meat and vegetables at arm’s length, stateside I actually have to bend my arms at the elbow to prepare food! The awe persists through the last visit, usually my daughter’s house on the other side of the continent from Darrell’s house. That means that, all across the country I walk into kitchens and bathrooms and gasp in wonder at the height of their surfaces.

For everything a gadget: one of my favorite stateside stores is Bed, Bath and Beyond. They have EVERYTHING!! There is a tool, implement or gadget for anything you might want to do from scrubbing vegetables to giving yourself a neck massage. And kitchen gadgets! Not only is there a gadget for everything, but they are displayed from floor to ceiling!

My kitchen, considered luxurious and appointed way beyond what is necessary by Chinese standards, would be seen as primitive by the standards of the homes I visit while stateside. Pantries full of food! refrigerators bigger than I am, loaded to the gills and with extra deep freezes in the garage! Cabinets sheltering glasses and dishes for all occasions! Flatware enough to allow twelve to dinner and not have to wash a single fork between courses! Crockery and cookware housed below those dizzyingly high countertops! Small pots, big pots, stock pots, dutch ovens, 3 or 4 different sizes of frying pans! How is it that I only get along with one wok and one pot? 

Strainers, grinders, food processors! Garlic press and tea eggs! Egg separators, egg cookers, egg poachers, egg carriers and 2-minute microwave egg cookers. All that, just for eggs! Imagine what all there is for meats, vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, breads, snacks and beverages. It just boggles my mind, all the things that I do without over here. And I haven’t even talked about baking gadgets and bowls and dishes and pans and appliances yet!

I feel downright deprived. I actually considered buying some gadgets stateside and bringing them back with me but… so used am I to one meat cleaver, one paring knife, one filet knife and one all purpose knife to use on either my plastic cutting board (for meat) or my wooden cutting board (for everything else) that I’m afraid I’d get back here, pull my gadget out of my suitcase and find no use for it.

Besides, most or all of those things are made in China anyway, so if I really wanted anything, I could buy it here. Metro has some pretty cool kitchen stuff. I just haven’t found justification enough to part with the cash. Metro stuff is pretty pricey. Stateside, gadgetry is kind of inexpensive.

Excess: going hand in hand with the ‘gadgets galore’ phenomenon that takes me by surprise every time I visit the States, the excess of everything leaves me dumbfounded as well. Not to say that there is no excess here. Quite the contrary: the Chinese are rapidly catching up in the excess department the more capitalistic/materialistic they become. Food excesses in particular.

I say this just having come back from a birthday luncheon that cost over 1,000yuan. Perhaps 25 to 30 people in attendance.  

Here we were, in the fancy restaurant at the biggest table I’ve seen since being here. The lazy susan alone was at least 2 meters in diameter and the whole tabletop must have measured 3 meters across. Food, food and more food! The wait staff kept bringing dishes: duck, fish, this soup, that stew, braised pork and fried bread and glutinous rice balls and… I had to stop counting. The ‘bai jiu’, that clear wine reminiscent of moonshine was flowing like water and, being the only foreigner, I was toasted as much as was the birthday boy (Sam’s father). I begged off after only 2 glasses, citing conflict with my allergy medication.

At the end of the dinner, all bai jiu bottles now empty and a few bottles of red wine drunk too, the waitstaff came in to clear the dishes… but not before Sam’s parents asked for takeout boxes. Discreetly, after all the guests had left they packed up all the leftovers and took them home. I’m certain they will get eaten, if not by the household members then by friends and/or neighbors that drop by.

That brought sharply to mind the time while I was at a loved one’s home and the fridge got cleaned out. Stacks of plastic containers housing leftovers were emptied out… into the garbage. Why, those leftovers were barely 3 days old! Why throw so much food away? And “This is past its expiration date: into the garbage it goes!” – even if the product is still good. I couldn’t get over that.

And the list goes on: whereas I’m wont to reuse a paper towel till it is no longer useful, that same paper towel in the states would only see one usage before being discarded. Of course it depends on the towel’s usage. I wouldn’t reuse it if I had just cleaned up something potentially dangerous like blood. But if I’m only mopping up some water, why not let that towel dry and reuse it?         

Medicine for everything: losing your hair? There’s a tonic for that. Suffer from anxiety? There’s a pill for that. Erectile dysfunction? Lowered libido? Inhibited hormones? Heart palpitations? Arthritis pain? Depression? Digestion? Dry skin? Dry eyes? Chapped feet or lips? Step right up, folks! We have something for everyone! Don’t listen to that disclaimer that says your toenails could rot off or your lungs collapse or your liver or kidneys could fail or you could experience dizziness or blindness or an altered genome if you take this product.

I am perpetually amazed that there is a drug for every condition. Most drug commercials are a minute long because of the FDA mandate disclosure of all possible side effects and the urging to consult with your doctor before taking these medications or engaging in these treatment plans. “Only your doctor can tell you if (insert name of medication here) is right for you…”

Don’t get me wrong: in China there are also advertisements for treatments and there is medicine available here. Matter of fact, one can buy antibiotics without a doctor’s prescription. OTC brand – yes, that does stand for Over the Counter offers pretty much everything you can imagine, very little of it requiring a prescription. If I’m not mistaken, sexual enhancement drugs are not promoted in any way here (there might not be any, for all I know). Most television commercials cover innocuous drugs like nasal spray for allergies or analgesics for pain. Mostly we see commercials for herbal remedies, none of which urge you to consult your doctor.  

Prior to leaving the States, one of my favorite movies had been Blast from the Past. I found it a great story about a family that lives underground for 30 years, coming to the surface only because food stores are getting low. Brendan Frasier gets on that lift, emerging in what used to be his backyard but is now a new age church. Having been trapped underground, in the gentle existence his parents knew in the mid-sixties for all of his life, imagine his shock at finding out what the world was really like!

With the help of his ‘girlfriend’, played by Alicia Silverstone he brings his parents to the surface. Of course he could not introduce them into mainstream society so he spent some of the money from the bonds he had cashed to outfit an exact replica of their belowground living quarters above ground. But for one frenetic time when his mother witnessed what the world had become and got totally freaked out by the experience, the parents spent the rest of their days in their tranquil nest.
That is how I feel when I return to China after my frantic month in the States. It is wonderful seeing everyone but life there is… well, it is now too alien for me. I need my low countertops, minimal meds, enough food for 3 days with no waste, and people everywhere.    

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