Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Shock of Being (Almost) Totally Normal

20 hours down, 10 to go
The first day back in America I think, “The trip was too short.”  Believe me, I this is NOT a thought I have at hour 20 of the trip with 10 more hours to go. But while 30 hours seems like a long trip with three kids in tow, it also seems like such short a time to hop between worlds.

We get on the plane in Beijing and we get off the plane (or another plane) in Los Angeles or Atlanta in a completely different world.  The world seems too big, encompassing too many worlds. Or perhaps it is too small, enabling us to jump from one world to another in a long day’s time.

Walking through the airport, suddenly we are normal. There are so many different kinds of people that we could be almost anyone and still blend in. No one is staring at us, our white family with three little girls. Why would they stare, when there are lots of people who look like us, are the same size and shape as us, even wear the same kind of clothes as us? Three children is absolutely unremarkable.

We can understand what other people say.  It is easier to tune out Chinese speakers (unless they are yelling into a cell phone) because I have to consciously pay attention to understand.  Now I overhear dozens of conversations, and my brain tunes in because it hears English. I have to think more carefully about what I say because everyone can understand me.

Everyone gets into their own cars and drive down the road.  Of course everyone has a car. How could you survive in a spread out city like Atlanta or LA without a car?  Everyone has a car with car seats, and no one seems to have wooden-runged seat covers.

We drive past so many western restaurants.  In fact, they don’t even call them western restaurants, just “restaurants.” You can eat pizza or hamburgers or burritos and everybody thinks that’s a totally normal thing to do. You can go right through the drive through, since nobody wants to get out of their cars.

You can stop in the bathroom and there is toilet paper right there on the wall! The sink is equipped with soap and even free paper towels for drying your hands. “Don’t worry - we just give away toilet paper and paper towels. No biggie.” Want to buy a ginormous Coke the size of your small child?  No problem! So is everyone else!

The houses are huge. Even the normal sized houses.  I feel strange showing students pictures of our family houses sometimes, because they must think we are incredibly rich.  Most are single family homes, separated from everyone else. Even if you live in a neighborhood, you may only see a dozen homes from your window.  As opposed to say, hundreds right across from you.

The houses are filled with things like closets. Not just closets, but entire room-sized closets.  Bedroom closets and hall closets and entry way closets. Sometimes I’m going to have to tell our Chinese friends about the closets. They wouldn’t believe it. Not only closets, but also basements and attics.  No wonder why we have so much stuff - we have to fill up all that storage space!

Most houses have multiple bathrooms.  Most people wouldn’t dream of sharing one small bathroom with their entire family plus guests. People have whole upstairs portions of their house not even seen by guests. I realize I have seen the entirety of almost everyone’s China house, generally visible from the living room. Our students know what we eat, what shampoo we use, and how clean our bedroom is. There are no secrets.

Kitchens are huge (huge) and filled with all manner of convenience. Pots and pans and bowls of all sizes. (But no rice cooker or electric water boiler - I can’t get over that). Pantries are filled with cereal and full loaves of bread, refrigerators are filled with cheese and shoot ice right out of the door!  Ice, people!  This would be so mystifying in China.

Most houses have backyards. At this point in life, my sin of covetousness pretty much revolves around backyards. And maybe dishwashers, avacados, and boundless energy. But mostly backyards.  You literally just walk right out your door and you are outside. Boom. You don’t even have to put shoes on.

“Hey kids, run play outside. You don’t have to worry about cars, and you are close enough I can hear if you are screaming. You can scatter your toys around because you aren’t taking up anyone else’s space. Run through those puddles - get all wet and muddy - nobody will look askance. Ride your bike around - there is no one to run you over.”

You hop on an airplane and 30 hours later the things you do make sense. Nobody thinks you are weird for having three children, eating cereal, drinking cold water, letting your kids get all dirty, wearing flip-flops, using a car seat… In fact, people kind of freak out if you don’t use a car seat. Do you know how weird it is to be normal?

Of course, we still soap up our vegetables and shed shoes the moment we enter a house and speak Chinese to the guy on our flight and wander aimlessly around the grocery store. Our children still confuse the US and China flags and look suspiciously upon ice water and throw toilet paper in the trash and get a little too excited about drinking fountains and mailboxes. So maybe we aren’t quite normal.

Feeling too normal? Just hop on an airplane and thirty hours later everything you do will be weird. That’s good to know isn’t it?  There is a crazy different world waiting just thirty hours away.