Home Sweet Homes

August 27, 2018: A train for the Line 9 and Line 10 of the metro in northeastern China’s Shenyang City. VCG

Recently I took a trip back home to the United States.

For almost four years, I had been living and working in Xi’an in western China, only taking short trips to other locations in China or sometimes other places in Southeast Asia. Why so long without a trip home? Well, during my first two years in China I worked as a teacher at a high school. Working there gave me plenty of time off during summer holidays, but not much of a budget for travel. After I switched to my current job at a software company, where I do English language and Western culture training, I had more money, but less time off to use it. When I heard that one of my nephews was starting to wonder whether I might have died, I realized I had been away for too long. Besides, I had been dating my Chinese girlfriend for about a year and a half, so we figured it was time for her and my family to meet and spend some time together on the same continent.
So, with money saved, plans made and tickets purchased, we packed our bags and took a whirlwind, two-week trip to the other side of the world.

I was curious about how it would feel to finally return home. Would it be familiar or strange? I had heard stories of reverse culture shock, where people who have lived abroad for many years return home and find it difficult to adjust, so I wondered what it would be like for me. After all, living in a different culture can give you a new sense of normalcy.

As it turned out, the thing that felt most strange was speaking English in public! After years of using Chinese to order food, excuse myself and ask for directions, it felt odd to use English and hear everyone around me doing the same. Often I would open my mouth, find Chinese words on the tip of my tongue and have to mentally switch languages.

The author and his girlfriend enjoy wine tasting at a vineyard on Old Mission Peninsula near the author’s hometown in Michigan, U.S.A. courtesy of the author
The author and his girlfriend enjoy wine tasting at a vineyard on Old Mission Peninsula near the author’s hometown in Michigan, U.S.A. courtesy of the author

But aside from minor linguistic whiplash, the trip got me thinking a lot about what’s similar and different between life in China and the U.S. Because my girlfriend went with me, she was able to add her perspective.
Any sort of comprehensive or in-depth comparison of life in China and the U.S. would take years of research. Instead, I took a quick snapshot of a few things that stood out during our trip.

More Trees in the U.S.

One thing we couldn’t help but notice was the air and water quality in the U.S. Everywhere we went was filled with blue skies in the daytime and a clear view of the stars at night. The waters of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior were impossibly blue and crystal clear. Every sunset was spectacular.

We were impressed by the sheer number and diversity of trees and plants we saw. My girlfriend said everywhere we went felt like a park or a garden. We couldn’t say for sure, but it felt to us like the U.S. has a lot more trees than China. When we got back, I looked up some statistics on forestation. A study published in the journal Nature confirmed our suspicions: While both countries have a lot of trees (well over 100 billion each), the U.S. is estimated to have about 90 billion more trees than China, and is much more tree-dense, with about 10,000 more trees per square kilometer. So, in terms of trees at least, it seems the views really are greener in many parts of the U.S. With that said, China has been making big strides to plant trees and find ways to fight pollution, so the country may be on its way to a much greener future.

Better Public Transportation in China

In the U.S. we did a lot of driving. In fact, after picking up our rental car in Chicago, we put over 2,000 miles on it—nearly enough to drive from one coast of the U.S. to the other. All the time spent on the road got us thinking about the ways people get around in China and the U.S.

In recent years, a tsunami of competing dockless bike-sharing services has swept across China, bringing a new wave of convenient commuting to millions of urban dwellers. Bike-sharing services have helped reduce congestion on other forms of public transportation in Chinese metropolises, not to mention reducing vehicle emissions and promoting exercise. The bike-sharing start-up trend becomes so popular that many cities are currently drowning in a surplus of bikes from different companies waging war with each other—so much so that bikes are occasionally found piled up on sidewalks and street corners. Municipal governments in China are working hard on the issue and will likely be able to find better equilibrium in the near future.

Kayakers on Lake Huron in Michigan, U.S.A.  courtesy of the author
Kayakers on Lake Huron in Michigan, U.S.A. courtesy of the author

Although some U.S. cities such as Chicago have excellent public transportation options, much of America is built for driving. As a result, people and places are more spread out, and many cities tend to offer poorer public transportation and are much less “walkable” than is often the case in China. In much of China, it’s easy to go to work, buy groceries, take a trip to the mall or go out to eat simply by walking or using public transportation. Though at times the buses and trains can be crowded, it’s still a cheap and effective way to get around. In the U.S., all those things tend to be harder to do unless you have a car to drive yourself.

For me, driving generally felt a little less cutthroat in the U.S., and traffic rules seemed more strictly enforced than in China. At the same time, I would say China’s public transportation options are often better and cheaper, and its cities tend to be more pedestrian-friendly. Ultimately, we felt that both countries have pluses and minuses in terms of getting around.

When my girlfriend and I talk about these and other issues to try to see past our differences, we often found more in common than we thought, even if the methods we use to try to reach them sometimes look quite different.

Parts of my heart belong to both countries. I want to see both places continue to develop and overcome their respective challenges. China and the U.S. have a lot to offer to each other and the world, and there’s a lot we can learn from each other if we try.

We each have a lot to share, so let’s keep the conversations going.


The author is a senior training specialist at Objectiva Software Solutions.

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