I’ve been shirking my blogging duties over the past several weeks, a lapse which can be attributed to any number of factors: intense amounts of traveling, a Beijing-pollution-induced illness, studying for (and taking) the GRE, visiting friends throughout the northeast US, excessive amounts of time spent interneting to find hotpot restaurants in NYC, and, of course, laziness. However, I’m now back in the metaphorical saddle and reporting to you from aboard a Greyhound bus cruising through the strangely featureless doldrums between Saratoga Springs and Albany in the upstate of New York.
I mention my location because bus travel, strangely enough, has been the part of my experience returning to America (for winter vacation) which most reminds me of China. There are some distinct differences, of course – here, the buses stop at designated spots, the aisles are not crowded with passengers, people aren’t puking or spitting on the floors, there are bathrooms and wireless (yes! on the bus!), and the passengers (at least on my bus up from New York) are in a state of high nervous stress, so tightly wound that the slightest provocation results in magnificent displays of emotional pyrotechnics. Stimulus, response.
However, many things are similar to the Chinese bus experience. The faintly unpleasant bus odor, the slightly surly drivers, and the inability to actually get places on time, as well as the simple act of riding a bus, all remind me of China, and all carry with them a feeling of familiarity and normality, a feeling which in turn makes the more American aspects of the bus ride – and of life in general – seem foreign. Yes, it’s one of the biggest cliches in travel writing, but the familiar and the foreign have switched places, the normal becomes the strange, the remembered and the forgotten are exchanged, and life turns itself upside down in a spasm of confusion.
Not to exaggerate the feelings of so-called “reverse” culture shock – a term which I truly hate, as it implies a medical disorder; a clinical problem is superimposed over what is simply an emotional adjustment to displacement – as there are many aspects of America that remain powerfully within my self-defined familiar (including, in no particular order, cheese, De$ocracy and hummus). But spending time in rural China changes your worldview. This is not simply a “this-changed-my-life-OMG” experience; it’s a total mindfuck (excuse the colloquialism) which makes you reconsider everything you’ve ever admired or held sacred. What, in fact, do I really care about and believe in? What is vitally important; what is trivial? And you start asking questions in the vein of “who am I”, but questions that run much deeper, digging into the foundations of not only who you are as an individual, but into the bedrock of your background, upbringing, culture, assumptions, ideas, thoughts, desires, needs; everything that has made you who you are and everything that you are will be overturned with questions, as one turns over a pile of compost with a rake or the earth in the field with a plow. Nothing is left untouched.
In short, returning to America has been a rather unsettling experience to me, for reasons I don’t yet fully understand. I am more patient than I used to be with things like delays, problems, mistakes, and the shortcomings or weaknesses of individuals. But I’ve become incredibly impatient with accessories, conveniences, things that aren’t necessary but – in many ways – define the modern American way of life. These “frills” of life – whether the pretension of a waiter or of a store or restaurant, the excessive range of choice at a supermarket or department store (five-cheese, four-cheese, three-cheese or seventeen-cheese tomato sauce?), or an appliance which seemingly nobody could ever actually need (go to a wine store to see what I’m talking about) – are the things that have, for some reason, made me incredibly pissed off at America. Why do we have/want/need these things while my students, after spending all day herding animals in the frigid cold, go home to tents heated by yak dung? Why do we care about such trivialities, such items so far beyond the bounds of necessity? Why do we magnify trifles into full-scale dramas? What really matters here?
Anyway, these are the things I’m thinking about as I ride southwards through the limbo-like landscape. Gertrude Stein had her own ideas about Oakland, but in truth there is a there here, and a there there, and a there pretty much everywhere; theres which make being here that much more confusing. Places, too, have identities and thoughts and actions and emotions, baggage and association enough to result in us feeling such emotions as attachment, separation, desire, withdrawal, and disorientation. All of which have accompanied me on this long journey home to (and through) the United States – a journey which has proved to me, in its own way, how little we really know ourselves.