I have just returned to China after three weeks of vacation in the US. I thought I’d be craving hard and stinky cheeses, creamy frosting, buttery pastries, and things like that, but instead I found myself craving the same thing again and again, every single meal: bitter leafy greens. Purple lettuce. Arugula. Spinach.  Raw vegetables are rare in China, and bitter lettuce is even rarer. The only salads I could find were colorless iceberg versions in places like Starbucks, or else massively overpriced salads at Element Fresh, which still had no guarantee of cleanliness.  Looking back over my three weeks home, among the hundreds of delectable things I stuffed into my face, the salads really stand out: arugula with French dressing on my first night home; spinach salad in the dining hall when I visited Middlebury; a tart and citrusy salad at an Alice in Wonderland-themed café in Manhattan.

Image

In the weeks leading up to my trip home, I wondered constantly about what the US would feel like after my long absence. The fact is, after spending so many months in China, I was starting to doubt my “Americanness.” Friends from Chinese and international backgrounds would ask me questions about American culture, transportation, taxes, etiquette, and other aspects of daily life, and I often found myself hesitating. Had I forgotten, or had I never known the answer to begin with? I grew up in the US, but my time there as an adult was very short. I can’t say much about taxes or politics. I never really went to bars. I hardly ever took public transportation. I never even had a full-time job. Am I even American at all? My concept of what “America” means is based entirely upon the influence of my family and my observations of the rural society around me. My childhood and upbringing were American, certainly, but “my” America is very different from the version many people know, the version with Hollywood, football, Target, and drive-by shootings.

Maybe everybody feels this way; maybe the whole idea of “American culture” is a myth, and everyone is walking around with a culture, society, and identity completely separate from the American Whole. I don’t know. All I know is that after spending seven months in China, I walked off the plane in New York feeling hyper-aware of my surroundings and hyper-conscious of every word I said. When I asked for directions, I obsessed over whether I had been polite enough, or whether the person thought I was strange. Did they really believe that I was American? Did I manage to convince them that I belong here, or had something thrown them off? Don’t stare at anyone, I reminded myself. Speak English. Be friendly, but not too friendly. In America, I am invisible—I look the part. But could I really pull it off?

As time passed, my hyper-self-consciousness gradually faded. I caught up with friends, went hiking with my family, visited relatives, gorged myself on salads and carrot cake, and started to feel normal again. I enjoyed the invisibility. I could walk down the street without anybody staring, and I could chat with waitresses and other strangers without having to explain or justify my presence in this country.

By the time I sat down to my last meal in the US—a salad (of course) with cranberries, pecans and goat cheese purchased in JFK airport—I felt solidly and comfortably American again. Now that I am back in China, I am glad to know that no matter how much I immerse myself in Chinese culture and surround myself with people from all over the world, I do have a hometown, I do have an identity, and when I return home someday, I will be able to make a life in my own country. That’s sort of a relief.

Advertisements