Update: I’m home, and safe, and about to go to Ken’s Donuts which at this point almost goes without saying. All told it was almost exactly 48 hours from when I left my house in Beijing to when I touched down in Austin, and right now I couldn’t be happier. I’ve got a lot of thank-yous and wrapping ups to do, but again — donuts call, so for the time being I’ll leave you with this little rant on culture shock and nationalism that I wrote up during my four-hour layover in Houston this afternoon. At the time of writing and even now I’m more than a little exhausted so take it with a grain of salt. Oh and to my Chinese friends/coworkers reading, if you think the categorization of China is unfair in any way I wholeheartedly welcome criticism, comments, debate, etc.

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Coming back through Houston elicited some weird feelings. There’s always going to be reverse culture shock with this sort of thing, sure, but before when I came through Chicago it seemed a lot milder.
Houston’s just more, eh, red-blooded-’murican than the windy city. And by this of course I refer to the presence of fat people, who are everywhere here and nowhere in Asia. That whole “sure we will put you in a wheelchair simply because you are fat and do not feel like walking around the airport” bullshit was something that I would have been happy to forget actually happened, for instance.
On the other side of it though, Houston isn’t different ENOUGH. I’ve just come from a one-party controlled security state into the Land of the Free and the first — I kid you not, the very first — announcement that I hear over the PA is about how if you joke about security procedures you will be arrested.
C’mon now, guys. Also the fact that Houston is one of the most populated cities in the States (and each person takes up relatively more volume) means that the whole ‘I am awash in a sea of people” effect hasn’t gone anywhere. Except that now I can overhear and understand all the random chatter around me; honestly it’s a little overwhelming. I’ve become pretty accustomed to really needing to focus one on speaker at a time to get comprehension but now I’m picking up snippets of three or four inane conversations at once and I almost wish that I couldn’t.

Despite this, though, there’s a reason why this country is my favorite one on the planet and I’m not sure it’s necessarily a function of being born here. My last few days in particular have highlighted that.
China and Japan are pretty much opposites — China is developing, chaotic, and boisterous. It pretty much lacks rule of law (for those with money, at least) in a lot of ways; overall it just comes off as raw and exciting, which is why it appeals to me. But as a developing country it comes with all the faults that that entails, especially with regard to just getting basic shit done; every experience is an uphill battle. From roads packed with more and more new drivers who have NO idea what they’re doing — and from what I gather from Hessler, neither the system nor the drivers themselves is improving in the slightest — to local political systems so riddled with corruption that they’re functionally unable to improve the quality of life for a huge number of people there is something about the country that is clearly very, very broken. Several coworkers and Chinese people I met who I independently asked about the state of development and the sustainability of the country’s current way of operating compared it to a sick patient who nobody knows how to cure. The problems are simply too myriad, pervasive, and interconnected to be systematically addressed. Look at the “guanxi” system of business, look at the opaque and frankly oppressive government, look at local debt and corruption; these are the very worst that China has to offer, and these are the most powerful forces in the country.

Now admittedly, I know substantially less about Japan than I do about China, but I’ve visited the country for a combined three or so weeks and I hear plenty about it from Connor, who loves comparing it to China because on paper it’s “better” by pretty much any metric you’d care to pick. That’s mainly because it’s developed and organized and well-run in every way that the middle kingdom is not. Look at yesterday’s earthquake, for instance – the last tally I heard counted deaths in the thousands. You put an 8.9 earthquake in China and you will not have 4-figure deaths. You will have six, maybe seven figure deaths especially if you put it near a coast so that you have tsunamis hitting dozens of cities. Japan is one of the most educated and efficient countries as you could ever ask for. But culturally — to me — there’s something missing. The trade-off in Japan for having everything neat and orderly, for things working when they’re supposed to work and people doing what they’re supposed to do is that you sacrifice everything that makes China fun. You can’t be loud and drunk on the street without shaming yourself (unless you’re old), you can’t find insane hole-in-the-wall stores that violate a million healthcodes but sell delicious kung-pao chicken in Tokyo. You couldn’t lie your way past world exhibition doors or try to bribe someone and be laughed away. That’d be against the rules in a county where rules matter. The important thing here is that these flaws are subjective; they aren’t actual problems but rather just the reasons why I’d rather study Mandarin than Japanese.

America, though, has the best of both worlds. We’re rich and developed and enjoy all the benefits that that confers, just as the Japanese do (aside from healthcare, where they’re kicking our asses but hey). But we also are loud and rowdy and shameless and spontaneous; America is a lot of things but culturally boring or stagnating is not one of them. There’s a reason the whole world has its eye on the states; there’s a reason our music and food and pop-culture, intolerable as the latter may be, are ubiquitous. We’re the greatest country in the world, dammit.
U.S.A.
U.S.A.
U.S.A.
God it’s good to be home.

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