It’s 5:17am and I can’t sleep anymore. What better way to enjoy the early morning jet lag hours than to write another post about China, or rather, about being home from China? It’s still dark outside. Crickets are chirping and it’s 75 degrees. A few birds are awake, but they apparently aren’t convinced it’s morning because they only pipe up every once in a while.
Coming home has been strange. The journey took more than twenty-four hours and three separate plane rides. Exhausting and disorienting. Being home is strange, too. Everything I see, I filter through my China experience. The weather, that’s a great place to start. It’s cool here in Illinois. I’ve been able to sit on my porch and relax, read a book, type on my computer. This is stunning to me. The relentless heat and humidity in southern China were tough, compounded by the fact that I had few places to do the things I love most–read and write. Coffee shops were either far away (and a long, hot walk), or they didn’t open until 10am. My husband said once that the Chinese don’t seem to get it yet about coffee–it’s not a status symbol, it’s a need. You don’t need coffee (or a coffee shop) at 10am, you need it now. Another option could have been a library, but the only one near me required that I have an escort – a local student or faculty member – and, given how hard it was just to score breakfast each morning, I didn’t put a lot of energy into trying to find someone to take me to the library. I’ve always said my favorite places are libraries and forests, and those two things were scarce in China.
Another strange thing about coming home is how happy I am to be here. Since I was young, I’ve gotten antsy about being home, about being in one place too long where people try to tell me what to do. I feel confined. All those old cowboy songs about needing space and freedom, I’ve always loved those songs. I also love people, though, so I’ve never truly wandered off on my own for a lot of time alone. I know it sounds weird to say it’s strange that coming home makes me happy, but I like to roam, and for anyone who has listened to me complain in the past three years, it has taken me a long time to settle down and enjoy Illinois. Plenty of good libraries, but not a lot of forests, unless you count the tall cornfields at this time of year. But yes, I am so happy to be here.
So, coming home from China, I see everything in terms of China. Yes, there’s the weather. And there is the food. My husband and I did a big shopping trip yesterday to re-stock the pantry, and we spent over $200.00. I don’t think I spent that much on food the entire month I was in China. I shop at a local organic food coop, and I was appalled at how expensive everything was, even the raw foods like produce and bulk grains. In China, I let go of my vegetarianism completely. I also let go of my concerns about GMO’s and organic foods and buying locally. I had no control over those things while I was there, so I had to let go or I would have felt crazy. Being back home, those things are again important to me, but I see how much they are concerns of privilege. I am a wealthy white person living in one of the richest countries in the world, and the things I get to worry about seem pretty frivolous in the larger picture I have now of the world and its worries.
Another thing I noticed when I came home is how quiet it is around here, how empty. I live in a small-ish college town. There are few high-rises and few traffic jams. I own my own home, and I have a grassy lawn and mature trees in my yard. These all seem like amazing luxuries now. In China, if you have a good job with a good income, your housing options are still limited and expensive. Even if you could afford a place in the Chinese version of suburbs, you would pay the price every day in terms of traffic. There are so many cars and so many people in other parts of the world, and I just had no concept of that until now. In China, actually, relatively few people have cars. Still, though, the traffic is terrible. Which leads me to the next thing…
Air quality. We got lucky in China–almost every time we arrived in a new city, it had just rained, which meant there wasn’t a lot of smog. After a few days, though, of high temperatures, humidity, exhaust from vehicles and coal electric plants, the air would take on a milky, yellow haze. I found myself taking shallow breaths when I was walking outside, and I had to constantly remind myself to breathe deeper. I felt confined to buildings with A/C, which I hate. When we left China, we flew to Seoul, South Korea, for a layover. When we first arrived, it was morning, and it sort of looked like the airport was covered in an early-morning fog. But it was yellow, and it never cleared. The visibility was so low that you couldn’t even follow the planes as they took off from the runway. I don’t know all of the factors that affect air quality, but I do know that on a deep level, it feels wrong to be in a place where you can’t see, where you can’t take a deep breath. I had a choice–I was coming home to the US, to my little quiet college town with green grass on my lawn and clean, fresh country air. I can’t imagine not having the choice to live somewhere that I can take a deep breath, or even worse, not realizing that I deserve to have clean air and water because it’s been so long since either of those were readily available. This morning is the first time I haven’t had a tissue full of colored snot when I blew my nose. I was sick the entire last week of being in China, and of course I wonder how much the poor air quality had to do with it.
Oh, China. I’m sorting it all out. I will be for days, weeks. That’s what a big trip like this does for you. That’s what I wanted when I decided to go–the chance to see and experience something really different, the chance to come back and see my world, my life, in a new way. Now that I’m back home, I have access to YouTube, so I’ll leave you with some music. It’s a song written and sung by University of Illinois students, welcoming their Chinese friends to town. Enjoy!