This past weekend I helped my sister Grace move into her new apartment in Atlanta. Atlanta seems like a cool city, and the area she’s living in really impressed me as being so green. Trees and grass galore. The really bad part about life in Atlanta seems to be the horrible traffic.
I hear from different people about “reverse culture shock,” a phenomenon experienced after one acclimates to a foreign culture and then returns to one’s home country. Since I’m not home to stay, but only visiting, I don’t think reverse culture shock applies in this case. But after spending almost four years in China, there are certainly aspects to life in the US of A that stand out.
There are two big ones that slam me in the face as soon as I arrive at the airport, and they can be summed up in a word each. Diversity and Obesity.
America: strength in diversity. When I taught a college-level American Society and Culture class in Hangzhou, I used to emphasize the role of diversity in American culture. It really is pervasive. It explains much of our mindset and behavior, and I think it’s something that’s hard to understand if you live in a mostly homogeneous society such as China’s. China’s “56 ethnic groups” really pale in comparison to a society built by people from all over the world.
And yet when I return to the United States and see all the different skin colors and body types, when I hear four different languages spoken within a span of five minutes and it’s nothing unusual, it doesn’t cause me to reflect upon the various achievements of such a diverse population. It just makes me feel warm and cozy inside. Because America is like that — it’s diverse — and diversity is good.
America: land of the obese. This is a topic that’s been discussed to death, but I find it so fascinating to revisit it again and again because it’s so complex. It’s about our advertising industry, our food culture, our image as a nation, our societal subcoscious. Every time I come back to the United States, I’m confronted physically by the same old question: Why the hell are Americans so damn FAT?? There’s no simple answer.
Today in the car on the way back from Atlanta, I was listening to some comedy on tape. The comedian was talking about diet programs, and one in particular that he’d like to market. It was called the “Stop Eating, You Fat Bastard” program. I have to admit, that’s largely the way I feel about the issue after having lived in China for so long.
Besides those two staples, I’ve had some other minor observations. All the greenery in Atlanta was one of them. It was so refreshing.
I am also very unused to strangers greeting me. You know, the random guy you pass on the sidewalk that looks you in the eye, and for no reason at all just gives you a “how’s it going.” In America, strangers say hi to you for no reason at all. Crazy.
And then I was eating in a deli-style restaurant with Grace on Saturday. I was almost done with my drink when I stopped to ask her, “are there free refills?”
Looking at me like I was a bit simple, she responded with, “why wouldn’t there be?” Ah, America, Land of the Free Refill, I have missed thee…
After that meal I got chastised by Grace for leaving my tray on the table. Oops.
In a week I’ll be back in a country where restaurant staff are bewildered by customers who clear their own tables.
But I don’t quite miss it… yet.