Home Sweet Homes

Parts of my heart be­long to both coun­tries. I want to see both places con­tinue to de­velop and over­come their re­spec­tive chal­lenges.

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Michael C. Hil­liard

Re­cently I took a trip back home to the United States.

For al­most four years, I had been liv­ing and work­ing in Xi’an in western China, only tak­ing short trips to other lo­ca­tions in China or some­times other places in South­east Asia. Why so long without a trip home? Well, dur­ing my first two years in China I worked as a teacher at a high school. Work­ing there gave me plenty of time off dur­ing sum­mer hol­i­days, but not much of a bud­get for travel. Af­ter I switched to my cur­rent job at a soft­ware com­pany, where I do English lan­guage and Western cul­ture train­ing, I had more money, but less time off to use it. When I heard that one of my neph­ews was start­ing to won­der whether I might have died, I re­al­ized I had been away for too long. Be­sides, I had been dat­ing my Chi­nese girl­friend for about a year and a half, so we fig­ured it was time for her and my fam­ily to meet and spend some time to­gether on the same con­ti­nent.

So, with money saved, plans made and tick­ets pur­chased, we packed our bags and took a whirl­wind, two-week trip to the other side of the world.

I was cu­ri­ous about how it would feel to fi­nally re­turn home. Would it be fa­mil­iar or strange? I had heard sto­ries of re­verse cul­ture shock, where peo­ple who have lived abroad for many years re­turn home and find it dif­fi­cult to ad­just, so I won­dered what it would be like for me. Af­ter all, liv­ing in a dif­fer­ent cul­ture can give you a new sense of nor­malcy.

As it turned out, the thing that felt most strange was speak­ing English in public! Af­ter years of us­ing Chi­nese to or­der food, ex­cuse my­self and ask for di­rec­tions, it felt odd to use English and hear ev­ery­one around me do­ing the same. Of­ten I would open my mouth, find Chi­nese words on the tip of my tongue and have to men­tally switch lan­guages.

But aside from mi­nor lin­guis­tic whiplash, the trip got me think­ing a lot about what’s sim­i­lar and dif­fer­ent be­tween life in China and the U.S. Be­cause my girl­friend went with me, she was able to add her per­spec­tive.

Any sort of com­pre­hen­sive or in-depth com­par­i­son of life in China and the U.S. would take years of re­search. In­stead, I took a quick snap­shot of a few things that stood out dur­ing our trip.

More Trees in the U.S.

One thing we couldn’t help but no­tice was the air and wa­ter qual­ity in the U.S. Ev­ery­where we went was filled with blue skies in the day­time and a clear view of the stars at night. The wa­ters of Lake Michi­gan and Lake Su­pe­rior were im­pos­si­bly blue and crys­tal clear. Every sun­set was spec­tac­u­lar.

We were im­pressed by the sheer num­ber and di­ver­sity of trees and plants we saw. My girl­friend said ev­ery­where we went felt like a park or a gar­den. We couldn’t say for sure, but it felt to us like the U.S. has a lot more trees than China. When we got back, I looked up some sta­tis­tics on foresta­tion. A study pub­lished in the jour­nal Na­ture con­firmed our suspicions: While both coun­tries have a lot of trees (well over 100 bil­lion each), the U.S. is es­ti­mated to have about 90 bil­lion more trees than China, and is much more tree-dense, with about 10,000

more trees per square kilo­me­ter. So, in terms of trees at least, it seems the views re­ally are greener in many parts of the U.S. With that said, China has been mak­ing big strides to plant trees and find ways to fight pol­lu­tion, so the coun­try may be on its way to a much greener fu­ture.

Bet­ter Public Trans­porta­tion in China

In the U.S. we did a lot of driv­ing. In fact, af­ter pick­ing up our rental car in Chicago, we put over 2,000 miles on it—nearly enough to drive from one coast of the U.S. to the other. All the time spent on the road got us think­ing about the ways peo­ple get around in China and the U.S.

In re­cent years, a tsunami of com­pet­ing dock­less bike- shar­ing ser­vices has swept across China, bring­ing a new wave of con­ve­nient com­mut­ing to mil­lions of ur­ban dwellers. Bike- shar­ing ser­vices have helped re­duce con­ges­tion on other forms of public trans­porta­tion in Chi­nese me­trop­o­lises, not to men­tion re­duc­ing ve­hi­cle emis­sions and pro­mot­ing ex­er­cise. The bike- shar­ing start- up trend be­comes so pop­u­lar that many cities are cur­rently drown­ing in a sur­plus of bikes from dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies wag­ing war with each other—so much so that bikes are oc­ca­sion­ally found piled up on side­walks and street cor­ners. Mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments in China are work­ing hard on the is­sue and will likely be able to find bet­ter equi­lib­rium in the near fu­ture.

Al­though some U. S. cities such as Chicago have ex­cel­lent public trans­porta­tion op­tions, much of Amer­ica is built for driv­ing. As a re­sult, peo­ple and places are more spread out, and many cities tend to of­fer poorer public trans­porta­tion and are much less “walk­a­ble” than is of­ten the case in China. In much of China, it’s easy to go to work, buy gro­ceries, take a trip to the mall or go out to eat sim­ply by walk­ing or us­ing public trans­porta­tion. Though at times the buses and trains can be crowded, it’s still a cheap and ef­fec­tive way to get around. In the U. S., all those things tend to be harder to do un­less you have a car to drive your­self.

For me, driv­ing gen­er­ally felt a lit­tle less cut­throat in the U.S., and traf­fic rules seemed more strictly en­forced than in China. At the same time, I would say China’s public trans­porta­tion op­tions are of­ten bet­ter and cheaper, and its cities tend to be more pedes­trian-friendly. Ul­ti­mately, we felt that both coun­tries have pluses and mi­nuses in terms of get­ting around.

When my girl­friend and I talk about these and other is­sues to try to see past our dif­fer­ences, we of­ten found more in com­mon than we thought, even if the meth­ods we use to try to reach them some­times look quite dif­fer­ent.

Parts of my heart be­long to both coun­tries. I want to see both places con­tinue to de­velop and over­come their re­spec­tive chal­lenges. China and the U.S. have a lot to of­fer to each other and the world, and there’s a lot we can learn from each other if we try.

We each have a lot to share, so let’s keep the con­ver­sa­tions go­ing.

The au­thor and his girl­friend en­joy wine tast­ing at a vine­yard on Old Mis­sion Penin­sula near the au­thor’s home­town in Michi­gan, U. S. A. cour­tesy of the au­thor

Au­gust 27, 2018: A train for the Line 9 and Line 10 of the metro in north­east­ern China’s Shenyang City. VCG

Kayak­ers on Lake Huron in Michi­gan, U. S. A. cour­tesy of the au­thor

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