Lisa Goes to America

Now You Are Lisa, my newest book of fiction, set in Beijing, is now available in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon.


Lisa, the English name of my Chinese wife, and I recently took our first trip to the United States together. Knowing that this was her first trip outside of China, I was curious to see her reaction.

Some reactions I expected; others I didn’t.

For context, we started the trip visiting an American friend who lives in the northern suburbs of Detroit, in Oakland County, one of the wealthier counties in the US. We then spent three days in Chicago, one of America’s greatest cities, smack dab in the middle of the Loop, just off of Michigan Avenue.

I’ll give you the summary first. While Chicago is a world-class city and the weather was absolutely perfect while we were there, she wasn’t wowed. “This is Beijing, but older.” And she’s right, which might wow those of you who haven’t been to Beijing lately more than those of us, myself included, who love Chicago.

What she was not prepared for were the American suburbs. They literally have no counterpart in China; nothing even remotely close.

While I despise class distinctions of any kind I have to wade into that treacherous water simply to give you some context. You obviously weren’t with us and the American suburbs run the gamut.

The American suburbs. There is nothing quite like them in China. My wife, I should say, thoroughly enjoyed the open space and greenery.
The American suburbs. There is nothing quite like them in China. My wife, I should say, thoroughly enjoyed the open space and greenery.

My friend lives in a middle to upper middle class suburb – senior engineers, lawyers, dentists, the like. Not McMansions by any stretch but very nice homes with some lawn to mow and plenty of trees and plantings to provide a very comfortable patio for the weekend barbeque. And given the time of year everything was lush and green.

When we first entered the subdivision we saw a man mowing his lawn on a riding lawnmower. Pretty typical, for sure. But Lisa couldn’t comprehend it. “His lawn is very small. Why does he need a ‘car’? In China they would cut a lawn that size by hand.” And, of course, she’s right. Cutting grass by hand, or by using power trimmers, remains common in China. (All grass, however, is commercial. No one actually lives surrounded by grass.)

When we went out and about to buy mobile phones, etc., the expected response surfaced: “Where are the people?” The form of the observation, however, was not expected and shed new light on the American suburban way of life.

There were a lot of people out and about. Traffic, by American standards, was terrible. What you see, however, are cars, not the people inside. Where there are sidewalks, they are virtually empty. There is no direct visual sense of the presence of actual humans.

Think about it. In the suburbs, we leave the house, enter the attached garage, get in our car, back out, close the garage door with the electric door operator, and drive to wherever we’re going. And the same in reverse.

In China, by contrast, a large segment of the population stills walks or rides a bicycle to wherever they’re going. And even if they take mass transit, they have to get to the bus stop or subway station. The sidewalks, as a result, are typically teeming with human bodies.

On the surface, Chicago and Beijing aren't all that different. Glass towers and people everywhere. Chicago, however, retains a significant amount of famous historical architecture. That is largely gone from the mega-cities of China.
On the surface, Chicago and Beijing aren’t all that different. Glass towers and people everywhere. Chicago, however, retains a significant amount of famous historical architecture. That is largely gone from the mega-cities of China.

Chicago, of course, was a different story, particularly on a sunny Sunday in the Loop. People were everywhere. While there were still more than enough cars, the sense of humanity was much more obvious. (A good portion of it, incidentally, was Chinese. We had no difficulty finding people to speak Chinese with, a marked change from my last visit to Chicago a decade ago.)

In the end, I probably had more observations/surprises than my wife. The Chinese are very adaptable and don’t sweat the small stuff.

And that provides the perfect segue to my own Ah Ha!

At dinner with a friend and business colleague one night in Chicago, his wife asked me what I would miss most about living in China. I had a ready list of answers – commitment to family, architecture and art, close friends, etc. etc.

What came to mind, however, rose out of the blue.

I’ve written at length about the inductive worldview of the Chinese versus the deductive worldview of the West, including the US. Where this difference is most obvious is in the general level of angst and hostility (or lack thereof) between the people you encounter in China and those you encounter in the US.

In China, anarchy rules the highways. Everybody cuts everyone else off. It’s a given. But in my entire time there I have yet to witness a single case of road rage. While riding in China I’ve often thought that guns would be drawn if the driver were to pull that particular maneuver in any city in the US. Never once, however, have I seen anyone offer so much as an obscene gesture in response.

Of course there is a lot of honking of horns in China. As there is in Chicago. The difference is that in China it is not personal. It’s all pretty benign. ‘I am here.’ ‘I am coming through.’ ‘Watch out.’

In the US, by contrast, when a driver honks his or her horn he typically lays on it and the message is something closer to ‘You _sshole’ than ‘I am here.’

The unexpected expression of that difference, however, is that I simply sensed a lot more stress and angst in the air of the US than I do in China.

And after giving it a lot of thought I have a hypothesis. Remember, I am a Baby Boomer. And no generation worked harder to achieve the American dream.

But there is a difference between pressure and stress, whether self-induced or imposed. Stress is a function of a sense of a lack of control. And while we, as Baby Boomers, put ourselves under a lot of self-induced pressure, we generally felt in control of our futures. Work hard; work smart; and you can achieve your goals.

That, however, is no longer true. Our lives are increasingly out of our control. And our collective social values have only added fuel to the fire.

The simple fact, that the current US presidential election is bringing into stark clarity, is that most of us are no longer in control of either our lives or the ‘successes’ that society appears to value. (The Kardashians come to mind.)

As a result, everyone is stressed out. People are physically aging at a rate I don’t recall when I lived here. And the angst is everywhere – in race relations, our politics, the back-biting that dominates the American workplace; virtually everywhere we live and work.

The millennials, I sense, are rejecting this state of affairs. As my generation learned in the 60’s, however, it is one thing to reject a mindset and quite another to articulate a set of social values to fill the resulting vacuum. Nonetheless, I cheer them on. They sense something is wrong and they are right.

So that’s a wrap up from Lisa’s first week in the US. We return to China a week from now. But I am confident it will be a week filled with enlightenment – and more than a few sighs of both understanding and a bit of sadness.

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