Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ferocious Animal

Boulder, Colorado was a cool city where I could bike from the main drag to an awesome hiking spot. After hiking to flatiron 1 and 2 then to the royal arch, I found these ferocious little animals. After pulling out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I thought I would be covered with these tiny rodents like Veruca Salt in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I am still have a bit of jet lag but am not grumpy. I tend to wake up around 2 am and can't fall back asleep. It is all right though since I am a morning person. Never knew I was such an early early morning person though.

Monday, August 30, 2010

James Turrell Skyspace (Seattle)

When I was in graduate school, I would always visit the Henry Art Gallery on the University of Washington's campus. It was free for students. I wanted to go again, but felt it was kind of expensive for a Peace Corps volunteer so I bargained down the price to half. Well I guess I didn't really bargain since the entrance fee has set prices but also has the footnote- admission is by suggested donation. I suggested something else and got admitted.

The best part about being back in China are my friends. I feel a great sense of comfort and ease talking with them. The food is an added bonus.

Grand Junction Tree

Because I was traveling I was unable to keep up my photo blog, but now that I am back in China I have more free time. I did take a few pictures from each of the places I visited; however, not all of them turned out really nice. I will only post the USA photos that I find visually pleasing, then back to photos from China.

One thing that I noticed while being back in the states was the amount of gratitude and verbal thanks everyone was giving. It made me uncomfortable because I wasn't sure if I was saying thank you enough. In China, Americans tend to say xie xie (thank you) way too much and we make our friends and host families uncomfortable. In China, it is unnecessary to say thank you especially to friends and family. It is implied that everyone is grateful for helping each other because you have a close relationship and there is no need to say thank you. To strangers I think saying xie xie is polite. (I am not 100% sure if what I have written is correct. I'll have to ask my students to explain the culture around xie xie. If you know the answer, leave a comment.)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Who am I?

I have spent four years jumping from country to country searching for me. I moved from one culture to the next believing that by being super flexible and adaptable, that by presenting a censored me, I was being a phony American peer pressured to do my best to fit in without revealing my true self. I feared I wouldn't be able to integrate, wouldn't be accepted and would eventually be run out of the country if I revealed all of my labels. There is some truth to my fear; however, I've wrongly believed that I've been lying about who I am.

I've often written about trying to find the answer to the question who am I? Living in other countries I feel that I've been chasing a memory of me, have been chasing a ghost, a Jennifer whom I thought I was, who I thought that by being in the USA I would become again. In the states there is a freedom to be open in ways I can't be while living abroad, so I always assumed that if I returned to the USA I would be a more truthful side of myself.

I went back to the USA for a month, returned to China and while eating a bowl of noodles, my first meal back at site, watching the street, what did I discover?

No matter where I am, I am me. There I am. All those labels, the ones I hide, the ones I present, the ones I change, the ones I become aren't me. My history, education, genes, clothes, beliefs and labels don't define my identity. My identity exists right there, undefinable, just there. When I peer into me, I know it, but there are no words to describe it.

My insecurities and fears cause me to think I don't know who I am, cause me to think that I am presenting a phony censored identity, cause me to defend that which is me. But there is no need because I exist, not because I think, not because I can write and write describing who I am.
I exist because I am not dead.
I exist here, now.
Look inside.
Close your eyes.
Can you see yourself?
Can you hear yourself?
Can you feel that quiet sense of being you?
Then you know what I am talking about.
That being is you.
This being is me,
no longer wondering who am I?
I am me.

Back Home (China)

I find it funny that one month back in the USA could change my attitude towards China. Two years ago I had a lot of patience for China, but one month in the USA and boom, feelings of frustration and argh hit.

When I first got to the gate in San Francisco full of Chinese people waiting to go to the mainland, I felt giddy. I was once again amongst short, black-haired people, people who look like me. I was once again Chinese, feeling like I belong because I look like everyone. I was once again amongst a language I sort of understand, can filter out, and can live in the silent isolated bubble of a foreign language. As a tribute to my last hour in America, I sat on the floor, something you NEVER do in China.

In Beijing though... boom...

I got so frustrated with it all...

  • the signs that make no sense as I was trying to catch my plane to Xian
  • the new terminal that is like two miles from the terminal I needed to be at
  • having to squeeze on a crowded bus to get to the airport terminal
  • the inefficient lines full of thousands of people
  • getting an expensive zippo gift for the waiban confiscated because lighters are not allowed on checked baggage
  • standing behind the travellers with their bags full of liquids, waiting as the security people ran their bags a million times
  • waiting five minutes for women to finish in the toilets
  • thirsty with only boiling water to wait to cool off

After a month in the USA, I lost my ability to wait. Somehow the time scale in the USA had speeded up my time scale thus losing my ability to be patient with the uncertainties and different time scale of a new culture.

Actually though, now that I have arrived back into the safety of my apartment, I feel better. Plus I received good news. I thought I was going to have to lesson plan all day on Sunday to start teaching on Monday. Of course in China, nothing is 100% certain. Nothing is 100% scheduled. Things change in an instant. Even though everyone told me to be back to start teaching on the 30th of August, guess what. Classes don't start till the 6th of September. Yay for me! Now I can relax, get over jet lag, finish knitting my sweater, and go on bike rides.

I am once again happy.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Back to China I Go

The silence of my blog may have got y'all wondering, "Where in the world is Jen?"

  • I was riding in the bike friendly city of Ft. Collins and sleeping at a farm full of fat turkeys, a few horses, and egg laying chickens in a town nearby.
  • I was in a tent in the middle of the aspen forests of Crested Butte sleeping by a rushing creek.
  • I was at my family's home at the base of a mesa of Grand Junction.
  • I was in a rustic cabin in the foothills of the surrounding area of Denver that only had the modern convenience of electricity.
  • I was in an awesomely decorated apartment full of artifacts from around the world.
  • I was hiking and biking in Boulder.
One more night in Seattle and then back to China where I start teaching on Monday.

Colorado was a land of soul searching because of being in nature and around family and friends. In the solitude, I think too much. Being distracted by the kindness and conversations of people makes me feel like I belong and can start a life in the USA.

What kinds of debates and questions came up in my head?

1. There is the old quote "You can choose your friends but you don't choose your family." When you're a kid you don't choose your family and in my special case since I was adopted I was specially picked out; however, when you become older, the question that pops up is Now that I can make my own decision, do I choose family back? Is the shared history, enough to overcome a lack of common ground? I choose friends because we have something in common. Why is family different somehow?

2. Is it better to face rejection in order to have a truthful, honest relationship with people by sharing everything and revealing oneself or is it better to keep the peace and hide? Can one have meaningful relationships based on hiding one's secrets? As I travel the world, I often have to censor myself or change to fit in. In Africa, I was a married woman. In China, I try to be a harmony driven Chinese teacher with western teaching characteristics who is too old and too educated to get married. In the USA, I've always hoped that I could be me, but is it worth being me and face the possibility of rejection?

3. Do I prefer solitude and isolation or being around people? In the mountains of Boulder, I went on my first hiking experience alone and it reminded me of the isolation and solitude of Africa as well as the bike rides into the countryside of China. I felt the peace of being me without the pressure of cultural norms, without the stress of being judged and making cultural mistakes, without the feeling that I don't belong. But then I also hung out with such wonderful accepting people that I felt the joy of being around friends and family.

4. Whom do I want to date? Whomever I pick as a partner, I think if they are full of joy about life, the little things, the flavor of a spice, the way the light hits the earth, the craziness of people and their long commutes in their cars, the way a plant survives and offers beauty to a dead area due to fire, a joy about life would be an excellent quality to have.

5. Am I ready to return to the USA? My dreams have been accomplished and at 33 sometimes I feel umm... now what? What else is there to do? Am I really ready to enter the working force of the USA, to work till I die, to have a car, to eat fast food, to watch TV, to worry about health insurance and retirement? The visit to Colorado helped me realize that there is hope for a life of creativity. There is hope to create a life for myself that is inspired from within. I don't have to get trapped into the stereotype of all that makes America ugly for me.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Feeling More Like Home

I spent four days biking around Seattle in the silence of my head, a loner taking to the dreary streets of Seattle, but then the sunshine, pink sunsets, and snow capped mountains came out. I spent the next four days biking Seattle to hang out with friends. Today is my last day in Seattle before heading off to Colorado and I am feeling more at peace with being back in the USA. I don't feel a heavy weight pulling me into a downer mood, nor do I feel so much like an outsider anymore. There are friends and potential community here that I enjoy, wish I could spend more time with, and discover. There is a conflict between the Jen who finds happiness and peace being alone with the Jen who finds happiness and peace with the right friends and community. Today I am feeling a great sadness of having to leave people I connect with. Tomorrow though I am sure a new happiness and sadness will arise. That is the way of life.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Age 33 Crisis

As I have grown older, I have realized at each cross-roads of adventures, the root of my decisions is to try to answer the simple question, Who am I?

I've looked in the USA.
I've looked in Africa.
I've looked in China.
What have I discovered?

That instead of narrowing down the answer into a nice neat little packaged Jennifer who is confident about who she is, the world travel has just made her more and more complicated. Instead of a nice concise list documenting her identity, now there are a thousand different Jennifers, each being as flexible as needed to fit in wherever she is living. At sixteen, she was limited by her few experiences and was the good Christian girl. After that though, the variety of interests and identities that she took on blew up into a million little segments of personality. She is happy in each of her roles, in each of her personalities, in each of her interests and passions, in each of the different environments but when faced with the decision to choose one of them and to try to pick the next adventure, it becomes impossible. You may think... just try to fulfill as many of the different parts of Jennifer as you can; however, there are conflicts between the different Jennifers. There is the traditional Jennifer and the totally non-traditional Jen. There is the English speaker, the Chinese and French speaker. There is the knitter and the construction worker. There is the athlete and the TV watcher. There is the non-materialistic camper and the computer user. There are just too many choices!

What am I going to do after Peace Corps?

I bought a book. What should I do with My Life? by Po Bronson

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Reverse Culture Shock

Living abroad for four years, my "real" life has been on pause, and I feel like I've been living in some fantasy world called Africa and China. I am disconnected from the "real" world. It is like being a time traveler and jumping four years into the future. One wouldn't think the world would have changed much in four years but it has. I've been on pause, and everyone else has been on fast forward. Or maybe I am the one who has changed. Everything is fascinating, but I feel somehow out of place. I can make tons of observations and comparisons between this world and the world I've been living in, but it isn't the obvious physical or subtle differences between African, Chinese, and American culture, customs, traditions, and cities that make me feel out of place. It is the fact that I am American and somehow don't fit in America.

For example, at a coffee shop I listen to the small talk of the regulars with the baristas and feel like a fly on the wall who just wants to be swatted, remembering when I used to be a regular. Or on Greenlake, watching people play Frisbee, volleyball, participate in boot camp, I feel like an out of place foreigner remembering when I used to do sprints and pushups. Or when I am walking and a guy slows down, tries to make eye contact, and I feel the energy of someone wanting to chat, instead of feeling complimented, I put my pretend wedding ring back on my ring finger, disliking the pick up culture that I remember from undergrad or going to Freaknik in Atlanta.

How do I explain what I am feeling?

I am not talking about missing China or Africa either. I don't feel a homesickness for those countries, nor do I wish that at this very moment I was just back in my Chinese hometown. I like America. I've been enjoying all that America offers. But my heart, my eyes, my ears, my head, just feel weird, feel sad, feel depressed? Something is weighing me down, and I can't put my finger on it. This one month home leave is neither heaven nor hell more like purgatory, a holding place until I get back to my Chinese life where for the next year I will be preparing for the next big adventure.

I've been looking up web articles about reverse culture shock and think fluff... more fluff... too obvious, not the answers or solutions I am looking for. Jwong's college course science paper, "There and Back Again... Re-Entering Reality," though is one of the more interesting explanations.

"This definition of post-travel-abroad depression, whether it is an equivalent to reverse culture shock or not, is a clear indication that significant alterations in depression-related chemicals in the brain occur as a result of neuromodulatory alterations in behavior... Feeling an overwhelming sense of discomfort with reality seems to make sense in relation to the idea that these students no longer possess a clear sense of normalcy in their lives. An interesting reflection on the topic of drastic environmental changes and disconnect between reality and one’s expectations is the concept of solastalgia. Coined by an Australian philosopher, Glenn Albrecht, the recently formulated term defines a form of depression or homesickness that combines the concepts of nostalgia, solace, and desolation (Skatssoon). Albrecht uses this term to explain the sometimes overwhelming sense of distress over a loss of “community” or “endemic sense of place” as a result of environmental change; however, these same emotions and the depression caused by imagining a lack of control over one’s destiny are emotions and brain patterns that can also be associated with the concept of re-entry shock after being abroad."

As the world turns...

Yesterday I discovered a cool Shoreline bike trail that runs parallel to Aurora and I wonder if I had just missed it while living in Seattle or if it is new. Up on Aurora, I wanted to visit a pawn shop and try some Korean food. (Korean food has lots of crispy veggies right? Yes.) It was gift buying day, so I could leave the stuff at my friend's house before heading to Colorado. Hope people in China like Ferrero Chocolate. I am assuming they do since supermarkets stock it in the import section, and it is super expensive at least in Chinese terms. I also visited a Korean restaurant which had delicious yet not very spicy soft tofu soup and lots of small side dishes with barely cooked or pickled eggplant, tofu, spinach, cabbage, bean sprouts, and potato. In the evening I stopped by the old coffee/crepe shop that is across the street from where I used to live in Mapleleaf then I biked down to Greenlake. Wow... Greenlake was full of people, and it made me jealous of how active and outdoorsy Seattle is and made me homesick for sporty Jen. The dessert of the day was getting to have a homemade dinner with an old lab mate who was one of my really good friends while in graduate school. It was nice to catch up and to see that the world still turns in America while I am living in China.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mailbox and Eating

Walking home from the store, I saw mailboxes and realized oops... I had forgotten that when one house sits, one is suppose to take in the mail. Made me laugh that four years abroad made me forget the luxury of having mail delivered to your house.

I am a good eater. I can eat and eat and eat. I have a bottomless tummy. Chinese banquets, do I ever feel full? Not really. I can always finish the last course, a bowl of noodles. But in America, wow... The portions are huge and the food is heavy! I can eat and eat and eat, but I feel painfully full. I am learning that it is easier to just take home half the plate, and eat it for dinner. Also, I feel like I am eating unhealthy. I am lazy. I don't really cook for myself. For five years in Seattle, I ate lunch on the Ave and dinner on Broadway. In China, I eat out almost every day, but I eat a lot of vegetables that feel like salads. The eggplant, green peppers, celery, leafy greens, tofu, cucumbers, and potatoes aren't raw, but they are still crisply crunchy after cooking.

I've Changed

I remember sitting in downtown Seattle wondering how would moving to Africa change me. I didn't know that I would stay away for four years, moving to China after Africa. I didn't know that a volunteer could do Peace Corps for more than two years, and I just recently heard of a guy who has committed to serving six years in PC, went from Africa, to China, back to Africa. The longer I stay away, the more I wonder how does living abroad change a person?

Hanging out in Fremont then at Gasworks Park under the sun watching the planes land and take off of Lake Union with the Seattle skyline as the backdrop, I realized that Africa and China has changed me. I feel safe and peaceful within the isolated silence of one. I have spent four years learning to be by myself. I am not so good around people anymore. I am a bit quiet and quite socially awkward. I am used to sitting for hours, just waiting, taking paper out and sketching whatever is around me. I don't seek people or community for company but find ways to amuse myself.

Walking home from the store, I realized that Africa and China has changed me. I no longer rush. I remember writing a blog post while living in Seattle about why don't people run from place to place:

Sunday, February 04, 2001

Why do we walk everywhere? Why don't we run?

Yesterday I was running everywhere. Running to catch a bus that just passed me but was stopping a block away. Running down blocks and blocks trying to make sure I caught the 12:14 am bus.

I think we should run everywhere instead of walking. It is much more fun and you get more exercise.

I used to pride myself for being a fast walker. After living in the heat of Africa, I am like why? Why walk fast when it is so hot? Slow and steady is the mantra. In China, I do get frustrated by being stuck behind the hundreds of slow walkers. Because there are so many people on the sidewalks, walkers tend to just mosey on. Everyone follows the same pace and don't have to worry about dodging in and out of the crowds. I must have picked up the habit of walking slower. Today while walking back and forth from the supermarket, I realized that I walk at a peaceful pace.

My taste buds have also changed. I have always had a sweet tooth, but for some reason I am not eating sweets when the stores and coffee shops and cake shops are full of them. Instead I drink coffee, black. I eat salty food like a bagel and lox. I don't feel a strong urge to eat a sweet. I find it a bit strange and feel kind of happy that no longer do I feel the need to drink coffee with a doughnut, to stop by the ice cream parlor, to eat chocolate. It is a bit weird though coz in China, there are many instances when I feel an urge to eat a sweet. How does one explain that?

The last thing I have noticed is my inability to spend money. I am angry that at the supermarket you have to have a card or else everything will cost twice as much. I don't go to the movie theater just to watch a popular sci-fi action movie because the ticket is $10. I probably would pay the $10 if it was a unique film that might be hard to find again. I prefer to bike rather than spend $4 on a round trip public bus ticket. I don't mind spending a lot of money on a special dinner or on books, but everything else just seems really expensive.

I've changed over the four years. My taste buds have changed. My spending habits too. I have become quieter somehow, more of a loner, and I don't rush or try to be time efficient. I just be and know that no matter what, everything will work out. I wonder how long it takes to change back to the American I once was.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Ghost of Dr. Popham

Wandering around my old haunts, I feel like a ghost watching live scientists and students discussing research, studying, and typing up papers on computers. The old coffee shops that I went to daily and just loved hanging out in hit me in a wrong way. The people watching isn't as interesting as in China and Africa. Everyone looks the same. The same clothes, the same bags, the same cell phones, and computers, the same sad lonely bubbles of one. In China and Africa it is really rare to see a person sitting by themselves. The Capitol Hill coffee shops feel full of rich yuppies, wearing their expensive clothes that are made to look worn out and it makes Seattle feel rich and privileged, makes me feel like a loser for not wanting the same things.

The best part of the coffee shop experience is the music and art on the walls. The background music in China is bland pop drivel repeating the same Chinese love and relationship vocabulary over and over again.

The gray sky is a poor motivator to get out of bed. I am cold and don't want to get up, but the gray sky is perfect weather for biking. Sweat turns the gray into yellow happiness. Riding the routes from the north past old rugby fields to the Burke Gilman passing the IMA and the stadium, riding the routes of the Seattle marathon around Lake Washington and touching base again with the Jen who went to a gym, ran, and biked felt nice.

Today while speaking French, eating Senegalese food and drinking iced bissap (hibiscus tea) a flood of images touched me in such a I miss Africa and want to go back way. I wonder why I don't mind facing the memories of Africa compared to facing the memories of the scientist who died five years ago upon graduation.

It is weird.

I ran into an old group member who had just arrived in town a few days ago from NYC where he is doing a post doc. What a coincidence. Does it mean anything?

Library and African Food

I love the place I am housesitting. It has book shelves and book shelves of books that I enjoy reading. I don't even have to go to a library. I can just sit here, drink tea, and read. My friends have the same taste of books. Currently I am reading Neil Gaiman's 2008 The Graveyard Book.

What is on today's agenda?

Bike down to Seward Island/Ranier Valley, a 26 mile trip, to eat Senegalese food for lunch.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Back in Love & Tidbits

Biking: Seattle is a biking city and I absolutely love the fact that I can bike from place to place running errands, visiting coffee shops and bookstores. I love riding a bike that is easy to get up a hill instead of a bike that I have to walk up. My friend's bike is super light. I didn't realize that my Chinese clunker goes slow and takes more effort because it is so heavy. In Seattle, I don't care that cars don't beep to warn me that they are there because if they see you most of the drivers respect you, slow down, wait for you, and go around you. The bike lanes help too. It is not the bigger animal wins mentality. The biking makes Seattle worth moving back for.

I think if I had more of an opportunity to bike in Alabama as a method of transportation, it might have changed my interest in Alabama as a place to move back to. The heat though is really hard. Seattle has great weather for sports enthusiasts. Slight cool drizzles are perfect for athletes.

Coffee: I forgot that good coffee is not bitter. My sitemate swore by Americanos so instead of the usual latte, I've been drinking a daily Americano. They are yummy. The instant nescafe of Africa and China is ugh... I can't believe I've been drinking the stuff for the past four years. No wonder I add so much milk and sugar. Americanos are delicious black.

Food: I've been having trouble spending money. In Alabama, my parents generously treated me to restaurants and let me try to eat a dent in their stockpile of food that fills two freezers, a fridge, and a walk-in pantry. Now that I am living on my own, I have a really hard time spending more than $5 on a meal. I ate pho which was relatively cheap. Instead of getting a bagel sandwich ($7), I just ate a toasted whole wheat bagel with butter along with soup ($3). I don't mind spending money on coffee though coz it feels cheap compared to buying a cup of coffee in China. I don't know why I am feeling so frugal. I have the money. Shouldn't I be eating it up while I am here?

I think food is less interesting this time because Chinese food is pretty good. After Africa, I was dying for a variety of food. This time my palette seems to only want to feast upon American bread covered with French cheese. Desserts don't really tempt me either. They just seem way too sweet and need to be shared rather than eaten by one person.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs): I've been people watching and sometimes think, hmm... I wonder if that person is a RPCV. There is something about them that is different, a piece of clothing, a bag, jewellery. I bet Seattle has a lot of RPCVs. If we loved the fashion of the countries we lived in, how long does it take for us to totally stop wearing those clothes? In China, I tend to still wear African pieces of wrapped cloth as skirts and African shirts when I exercise. In Alabama, I wore all the sundresses I had tailored made using African prints.

Jet Lag: For some reason both in Alabama and in Seattle, I feel wide awake at midnight, wake up at 4 am and then feel exhausted by noon, taking a LONG nap.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Warming Up to Seattle

Seattle is dreary. I think it takes a little time to psychologically adjust back to the gray, but adjusting I am. Today the big plan is to bike to REI, to Elliot Bay Book Company which I rarely visited while living in Seattle because it was downtown but has moved to Capitol Hill replacing my favorite Bailey Coy Books, and back to Northgate where I am currently house sitting. It should be about a sixteen mile loop with plenty of inclines as well as bike lanes. Then maybe depending on the weather I might go to Shakespeare in the Park.


Returning to Seattle is like visiting an ex whom I dated for five years except that Seattle is exactly the same person I broke up with four years ago, and I am not exactly sure if I still like the city. There were reasons why we broke up and re-uniting is kind of weird. Memories flood the body, busing from Northgate to Ballard, walking the Ave and moving from Capitol Hill coffee shops down to the Space Needle. I'm amazed how little the city has changed. Very little has closed (exception my favorite bookstore). All the old restaurants, stores, and supermarkets still exist. Bus 44 is still a mix of college students and the homeless.

It is a city of past memories, of a younger Jennifer who feels nostalgic for the past but can't see Seattle in her future. She loved Seattle and who she was as a student in this cool hip healthy exercising city. But now? Now... she feels old. She feels out of place. She feels Seattle has remained the same, and she has just gotten older with a desire for something new, a new adventure. She doesn't feel the desire to live in the past of a younger Jen.

Maybe it is time to try making money. Is that an adventure? Instead of picking a place for an adventure, try what the rest of the world is doing? Working a nine to five? With no passion to guide her to a new place, no questions she is trying to answer about herself, maybe it is time to just give up, settle down, and put money into her Roth IRA.

Questions of self-discovery have always led her from place to place, from jumping to one dream to the next. It started with college. What will it be like to live independent of her parents amongst a minority group of the USA? Then, the question is she a city West coast (Pacific Northwest) girl? led her to Seattle. Africa helped her answer the question will she be able to thrive and enjoy living with only the basic necessities of life without modern conveniences? Currently in China she is discovering, is she Chinese?

At 33, she feels like she has run out of questions to lead her to the next quest. Instead she is left with the natural life progression of an American citizen, job, house, life partner, family, retirement. Will her next adventure be work, feel tired, flop in front of the TV, dream of retirement when she'll be free again?

Friday, August 06, 2010

Goodbye Alabama, Hello Seattle

Add Image
I spent ten days visiting family and hearing story after story about rental properties and tenants as well as comparing our lives abroad. I visited my friends who have the sweetest twin boys. I went running in the countryside and biked on trails. I spent a lot of time in a car accompanying my mom on daily errands. I ate refried beans for breakfast and blended iced drinks every day. I spent my initial reactions to cultural differences from China in the South.
Picture 1: sister, Jen, dad
Picture 2: Jen, mom, sister
Goodbye family, hello coffee shops and Shakespeare in the park...It is time to leave for a new place, Seattle...Will there be more reverse culture shocks?

House I Might Buy

Recently a tenant stopped paying rent and eventually after $2,000 of debt told my parents that he would move because he couldn't pay anymore. We spent the morning cleaning out the house. I filled five garbage bags and the pregnant girlfriend of dad's worker filled the back of dad's truck with kitchenware and furniture. There is still a ton of furniture and boxes of books left. Things that my mom felt were valuable and usable entered our house like shampoo, body wash, vitamins, Christmas decorations, clipboards, coins, and a piano. I felt like I was in a show that my parents talk about, "Hoarders: Buried Alive."

Dad bought this house, a total wreck, for $20,000 at auction. He cleaned it up, rebuilt a lot of it and rented it out for fifteen years for $350-390 per month. Now he wants to sell it. He might wait a year and try to re-coop the money he is spending to put on a new roof and fix up the floor.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Chinese American in America

I haven't lived in the South in a really long time, but since living abroad I've always had the optimistic hopeful expectation that white America was finally recognizing and accepting minorities as Americans rather than foreigners, immigrants, and illegals. I thought that minorities have made a showing to America that we exist as Americans. We are on TV, in movies, in schools, in politics, at church, in the workplace. We are visible. We are actively participating in American society, living in America, speaking English. Our cultural instincts and customs are American. I thought America was ready to accept us as Americans regardless of skin color.

Sitting on a bench in a supermarket waiting for my mom to finish her errands, a white haired man sat down and started to make small talk.

Man: Is it hot enough for you?
Jen: It sure is.
Man: Is it as hot as where you're originally from?
Jen: Well where I am working now, it isn't as hot. (Thoughts: originally from? What if I was born and raised in America, generations and generations. Why does my skin color label me as an outsider, who has an original country when everyone even the white people have their original countries?)
Man: Are you from Korea? Is it hot there?
Jen: No. I was born in Taiwan but I've lived most of my life in America.
Man: Oh Taiwan. Do you visit often? Is it hot there?
Jen: Umm... I don't remember I was too little. I am working in China though with the American Peace Corps. I'm on home leave.
Man: Oh China. Isn't there a lot of flooding there now?
Jen: Yeah in some parts. I've gotta go. Here is my mom. Bye.

In China, I always observed that I was perceived as Chinese first and never as American. My Chinese students would always tell me that I could become even more Chinese if I learned the culture and spoke the language, but my white American counterparts even if they lived longer in China, spoke better Chinese, and knew the culture better would never be Chinese because of their skin color. I always thought it was absurd because isn't it your actions and language more important than skin color that labels which country you belong to and are a citizen of?

Apparently not.

Even in America, a place that was built by immigrants and slavery, a country that has had to deal with the diversity of its population, my skin color labels me as a foreigner, an immigrant, maybe an illegal, an outsider, not American. Today is there still a perception amongst the US majority that American citizens are white and everyone else isn't? If certain laws start passing across the USA (laws like in AZ " that called for police officers to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws and required immigrants to prove that they were authorized to be in the country or risk state charges"-NYtimes), will I be assumed to be illegal until I can prove that I am not? Will my skin color be used against me? Will I no longer be an American, but be an illegal foreigner until I can prove otherwise?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Lost Jennifer

I can see myself fitting back in with English speakers, finding the people I connect with, creating my own voice to express my thoughts, no longer limited by my Chinese novice language abilities. I can see myself enjoying being able to express myself, instead of always having to censor myself talking only about safe subjects. But right now I feel kind of lost, not exactly sure how to express myself, not sure what my voice wants to say. I feel like my thoughts and voice are like a turtle, slow and hidden away in a shell.

I've for so long tried to fit in the best I can to African and Chinese culture that my individualistic American personality with its freedom to be whomever I want has been forgotten. I don't know who I am as an American, as an individual influenced from within me rather than allowing the peer pressure and cultural norms of a different country to shape who I am. I feel like a waiting silent seed who hasn't bloomed into an individualistic, bold, opinionated American yet. I am still just a quiet observer, making comparisons, and like for the past four years trying my best not to make waves.

Many Americans are not silent. They are opinionated, loud, talkative, create conflict by arguing and defending their thoughts. They are not into creating harmony by sacrificing their beliefs and wants to agree with the majority. I've been practicing creating harmony for four years and have lost my individualistic voice, have lost me.

I was excited to come back to America where there is a freedom to be me, instead of the censored me, but I've forgotten who I am. Instead of being this world traveller with adventure stories, of being a queer liberal American, I am a mute human being who goes through the motions of staying alive. I may be reflective and talkative on paper, but in person I feel like I am on the bottom tiers of Maslow's hierarchy of needs: physiological and safety levels.

Penny Candy

Owning a lot of rental properties, my mom has to run a lot of business errands driving all around town, dropping off receipts, collecting rent, visiting the bank and the utilities. I spent 2-3 hours in a car accompanying her the other day. Most of the time we could just use a drive through like at the bank or at fast food restaurants. Going to the utilities though, we had to get out. Aren't bubble gum machines cool?

Driving and Horns

Driving an automatic car is like eating. You just do it without thought. It is like playing a video game except you don't need three extra lives coz you're careful. You've only got one life. Don't risk it by being a crazy driver.

Driving in America feels somehow simpler, easier, safer. There is an order to the driving that in China was hard to figure out. American people basically follow the laws. It feels ordered and safe like we are sheep being herded by a border collie. In China, the roads are a mess of confusion and noise making it impossible even after two years to make sense of the number of people going their own chaotic way.

Most of the time while living in China, I felt that the people are less individualistic following a mass order of things except when it comes to the road. In the USA, a major feature of our mass following culture is our cars. We may diverge from the mass with our individualistic thoughts, fashion, and politics but when it comes to cars we are united in our experience. In China, I feel that there is a mass following of fashion, politics, and thinking, a traditional culture where students' essays reflect one unified thought rather than something original or controversial; however, when driving, walking, or biking there is no mass order. Instead there is a huge population each taking their own mathematical random walk. Being on the road is hard to predict. In America as a driver I feel safer with the expected regularity of the roads.

What do you think the original purpose of a car horn was? They were used as warning devices. In America, they are used as "I'm mad at you." In China, they are used as warning devices. I feel a bit scared on bikes in America. In China cars will honk to let you know that they are there. In America, they silently pass and scare me. On a bike, I like being warned by noisy horns. On American roads, I feel a bit unsafe because of the silent moving killers.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Plastic Bags

Countryside seen on last night's bike ride. Riding on a bike with gears is like riding a motorcycle compared to riding my Chinese gearless bike. I actually could bike up a hill rather than walk it up. I could ride super fast and feel the power of movement with the wind blowing through my hair. It was fantastic. It definitely motivates me to buy a GIANT when I return to China.

I went to the supermarket for the first time since coming back and it was HUGE, empty of people, full of too many choices and had a tiny produce section full of super expensive fruits and vegetables. The cheapest fruit was Georgian peaches for $0.99 (6 RMB) a pound. I think if I was back for good, I would have to adjust to the expensive fruits and veggies and would have a really hard time spending money on them.

I bought some instant pudding boxes yesterday as a present for my Chinese tutor who ate some at C's women's club and really really liked them.

As we were leaving the store, mom asked, "Where's your plastic bag?"

Oh... Her question made me realize that I was doing what I do in China. When I don't have enough to fill a plastic bag, I always answer the supermarket worker, "No bag," and I just carry it out.

Plastic bags in China cost money.
Plastic bags in America are free.

The baggers will put one thing in one bag and the next thing you know an American's shopping cart is full of plastic bags with 1-2 items in each. In my Chinese city because very few people have cars, what you buy you have to be able to carry. Everything goes into one bag and on a rare occasion if you have a friend with you, everything might go into two bags, one handle for each person, one bag's weight being distributed over two people's hands. The groceries are then walked home. Because plastic bags cost money, many people bring their own cloth bags.

Reverse Culture Shock

Moving to China, I expected differences in culture and customs. I expected that when I returned to the USA, there would be a few American customs that I too would notice and feel, but I never expected that there would be SOOOOO many!!!! The degree of reverse culture shock that I am feeling is pretty shocking. Having lived in America for over 20 years, I assumed that America would be familiar. With the click of my fingers, I would be instantly changed back to being an American. Instead I am realizing that I am super flexible and have absorbed a lot of Chinese culture and customs making American ones feel strange. I am feeling more like an international citizen who has the tools to observe different countries' customs, make comments about them, and then adapt to them.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Steak and America

Yesterday we drove two hours to Lake Guntersville for a $14 all you can eat brunch that had an omelet, waffle bar, and a guy in a white uniform with a chef's hat slicing huge slaps of rib-eye. Guess what I got! Thank you America. The only thing missing from the buffet was vegetables. There
was a ton of meat, fish, chicken, beef, but veggies were really scant- a salad bar and canned green beans.

It is incredible to realize that a majority of a Chinese meal is a variety of veggies. Americans often complain that in China there are no salads. Well it is true, no lettuce salads (lettuce goes in hot pot), but there are a lot of cold dishes full of crispy raw veggies. Plus the cooked vegetables are not mushy but fresh and crunchy.

I miss the humongous chunks of beef that Americans serve.
I miss that the main portions of a Chinese restaurant's meal are crunchy vegetables.

I am not sure how I feel about American waitresses. At yesterday's buffet a blond with a Southern drawl hovered at our table asking questions every other minute:
What do you want to drink?
I like your hair. My sister has a similar haircut.
Can I refill your water glass?
How is everything?
Can I get you anything?
More coffee?
Here's your bill. (We didn't even have to ask for it.)

The people at the meat buffet eat super fast! Instead of drawing out a meal for 2-3 hours, they grab 3 plates of food, 3 plates of dessert, shovel it in and are done in 30-40 minutes, stuffed and hurting with a stomach ache. My family ate for about an hour, but because of the cold air condition we left the table earlier than I would have liked.

Commercials on American TV are driving me crazy especially the infomercials.
  • For $20 and the cost of our diet food, you can lose weight. "I lost 45 lbs."
  • Are you weak and unbalanced? Then buy this bracelet that will put your body into the right frequency. Look at these real people and how they become stronger and balanced when wearing this magnetic bracelet.
  • Buy this juicer and you'll no longer have to eat solid unhealthy food.
I feel bombarded by false information that only costs $9.99. It gets into your head. A phone is dialled. A credit card is charged and some gimmick sits in the closet for years only being used once. How do I know? Look in my parent's closet.

One thing that I totally forgot about that is an absolutely brilliant invention that can be found anywhere is an ice cold water fountain. I love them and had totally forgotten about them until yesterday when after a two hour hot drive, I was thirsty, with no 1 RMB bottled water in sight.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Today's Tidbits

Inside my family's Southern country house full of knick knacks

If you work indoors and because of car culture, it is rare to feel the Alabama heat as people are shuffled back and forth from one energy cooled place to the next. Jet lag is tough. I woke up at 3 am, ate 6 spoonfuls of ice cream, and a piece of cheese. I went running at 5:30 am to escape the heat, yet during the 50 minute run I still lost about 3 lbs of water. The morning had a gorgeous sunrise over rolling fields of green covered with a layer of a ghostly mist. I realized that no matter where you are in the world there is always something beautiful to be felt.

Jet lag is tough. After helping my family clean out a rental place and after eating hamburger helper, instant scalloped potatoes and canned chicken breast, I crashed for three hours.