I’m not as American as I once thought. My four years in China have changed me. And I didn’t realize how much until I came back to the States.
Whenever I have a conversation, I can’t help but mention China. That’s where I’ve been for the last four years, and that’s my context. But people who have never lived overseas can’t really relate. And I guess I can’t relate very well with them either.
Probably the most common question I get is, “Are you fluent in Chinese?” I wish I were. Perhaps it’s a natural assumption that I would become fluent after four years. But teaching English and being around foreign teachers is not the most ideal situation for learning Chinese. Living with a Chinese family or in a village would certainly have forced me to use Chinese more.
I miss the beautiful view I had from my apartment in Huangdao. On a clear day, I could see the esplanade curling around the bay and the vast ocean beyond it. Sometimes I could even see the humpbacked peaks of Lingshan Dao (Spirit Island) rearing their heads in the distance.
With an oceanfront view and mountains in the background, it was a beautiful place to live. Sure, pollution has intensified over the years, and some days in the winter, the wind would pierce through every article of clothing I had. But it was still an ideal place to be, and now it is but a memory.
I miss the spontaneous, frenetic energy of living there. Life in America feels too structured and orderly. People actually plan ahead, even years in advance. Somebody must be making plans in China, but most of the time, it seems like impulsivity and spontaneity are more the norm.
Americans actually follow traffic rules (for the most part), and pedestrians have right of way, which seems baffling to me after living in China. In China, it’s survival of the fittest. Whoever’s bigger and stronger gets right of way. And if you get in the way, you won’t do that more than once. When drivers in China start giving the right of way to pedestrians, I will be astounded.
I think I’m going through a secondary, post-adolescent self-identity crisis. I’m not really sure where I fit in anymore. I could never have become wholly Chinese in China, but neither am I a full-blooded American anymore. I’m somewhere in between.
I talked recently to a woman who had reentered American life after living for several years in China, and she said that we’re like green triangles. We used to be blue circles, then went to a country full of yellow squares, and now we’ve come back as green triangles.
So I guess I know what I am now – a green triangle. A strange hybrid of East and West. Will I ever go back to China? I would love to. Will I ever reacclimate to life in America? I hope so. Regardless of what the future holds, I’ll know I’ll never be the same. China has changed me.