Lisa Comes to Mei Guo II

As regular readers know, my Chinese wife and I recently moved back to the US, to the state of Michigan. So one reader suggested that I turn my lens around and share some of her observations of her new home. It sounded like a fun idea.

Having never left China before she came here with some trepidation. All she knew of America came from American movies and Hollywood doesn’t generally paint a very flattering picture of life here. She expected nothing but drugs and violence.

In the end, however, she was pleasantly surprised by what she found here. The fresh air clearly tops her list of positives. And she has taken a liking to the food although the portions are colossal by Chinese standards.

She does wonder where all the people are since even in a congested area most people are in their cars and largely invisible. There isn’t a lot of hustle/bustle on the streets except in major cities like New York and Chicago.

She also laments the lack of public transportation since she has never driven a car. She can get a driver’s license here but they only provide the booklet and the test in English, and while her conversational English is pretty good, reading a foreign language is another matter. (As one friend noted, “You would think they would want foreigners to read the rules in their native tongue to make sure they really understand them.” Fair point.)

She does think that Americans are generally bored, which is her explanation for the number of churches here. And she still doesn’t understand why the clerks at national retail chains won’t haggle on the price or skip the sales tax if she’s willing to pay cash.

Ironically, however, her overall impression of America is that we have too many rules. The irony, of course, comes from the fact that she has lived in China all of her life, a country that most Americans assume is an authoritarian police state.

I do see her point. It took us almost nine months to get her green card and although it is the most official of official documents for an immigrant, most people who want to see ID here in the US want to see a driver’s license, not a green card. And they do enforce the traffic laws pretty strictly here. On the roads of China, anarchy reigns supreme, although the rules of the road are pretty much the same on paper.

And if you don’t think the government has done enough to combat the threat of terrorism here in the US, you should be an immigrant and try to open a bank account or obtain a state ID card. There is a very specific and exhaustive list of documents you must provide and there are no exceptions. (Part of that, of course, is the fact that everything is automated and despite all of the talk of empowering employees to improve customer service, the people on the front lines have been virtually stripped of any discretion whatsoever in the name of automation and risk management.)

If you need to prove your residence, for example, they will accept a utility bill that has your name on it but they won’t accept an actual deed to the property. Which is a bit disingenuous since if I was inclined to do bad things I might willingly add your name to my phone bill, but I probably won’t be willing to deed you half of my house.

One observation that I’ve been struck with is how little most Americans know about China. When we had dinner with a couple she hadn’t met before recently, the hostess began questioning her about the number of children she has. Of course she has one. (The hostess has four.) And when she explained the one child policy to her, the woman was aghast and exclaimed that she had never heard of such over-reaching government control. (That’s true and not. If they hadn’t done anything to control population growth they would be in a very different place today. Still, I think it’s time to re-think the policy, as they are. The cost of raising a child in China will probably have the same impact the policy does.)

We were reminded of this disconnect again last night while watching the Summer Olympics in Rio. Michael Phelps, the superstar of the pool, had obviously had cupping on his shoulder recently. This is a common practice in Traditional Chinese Medicine and virtually everyone in China undergoes it with some regularity. The explanation offered by the American commentators, however, was very over-simplified, at best, and quite literally inaccurate. Perhaps they were trying to keep it simple but they didn’t do much to help Americans understand the Chinese perspective on health and healing.

The one observation she has had that even I wasn’t expecting came recently in regard to the new subdivision where our townhome is located. The developers obviously put considerable effort into avoiding the visual repetition of a 1950’s suburb. The buildings, each housing 4-6 townhomes, are positioned so as to maximize privacy and to provide the sense of being in an old European village, with lots of turns and windy roads.

She claims, however, that it hurts her eyes. “It looks like a mess. Why don’t they just line the buildings up in neat rows so that it looks more professional?”

Go figure. There is obviously more to the row after row of apartment buildings you find in the newly developed areas of China than just cost or the lack of artistic sensitivity. They apparently like it that way.

She has, however, had no problems finding Chinese people to chat with in her native tongue. We even get a Chinese newspaper. And while I know a lot of Americans won’t agree with me, I think that’s a good thing for America. Whether we like it or not, we’re part of a much larger world now and we should learn as much as can about it.

Contact: You may reach the author at understandingchina@yahoo.com