Nostalgic Return

September 8, 2008

I've just met deadline once again for Chinese travel magazine World Vision. Every month on the 8th I'm supposed to deliver an article about my travels in China of at least 2,500 words. Every month I procrastinate--but always pull it out just before deadline.

Most of what I've been submitting over recent months has been repurposed content from this weblog. This article is fresh, so I figured I'd post it here as well.

In other news, I'm off to Altai tomorrow. Altai is the area I had been hoping to spend more time exploring when I came across the border from Kazakhstan this spring. I have something of a romantic notion of Altai: Meadows. Nomadic Kazaks, Mongols, and Tuvans. Lakes. Mountain ranges. The borders of four countries (Russsia, Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia) coming together. Everybody I know who has spent time around Altai loves it.

I should be back in Urumqi after the coming weekend.

The minibus careered down the highway. Hands free of the wheel, the driver barked into a mobile phone protruding up out of one hand. A cigarette dangling down from the other hand balanced the act. I smiled softly. I was back in China.

A few minutes earlier, upon exiting the URC international terminal I felt immediately happy. Touts called out to me, each trying to get me into their own taxi. I ignored them and strolled over to the domestic terminal. I knew there would be a cheap 10-yuan minibus to the city waiting outside the other terminal.

What made for my good mood was not that I was saving money by avoiding the taxi touts and riding the minibus. (I actually could have made my trip into the city cost even less by walking a little farther to catch a local city bus.) What lifted my spirits was the familiarity of everything I saw upon returning to China after several months away. In my initial moments back in the country I felt charmed by all the routine habits and insignificant aspects of life which I hadn't realized I had been away from.

Drivers touting their taxi. Smoking while driving. Speaking into a mobile phone while driving. These are all such unremarkable aspects of everyday life anywhere in China--indeed over much of the world. However, I was returning to China after a summer spent in the U.S.. I hadn't seen any of these behaviors in three months. There was a soothing familiarity in the smallest details. I felt like I was back home.

As the minibus sped down the road, the couple seated across the aisle from me carried on an uninteresting conversation in Mandarin. I was rapt. I had spent the entire summer speaking English. I hadn't realized that several months had passed since I'd last eavesdropped on a conversation in Chinese. The two weren't talking about anything special, but I listened keenly. The tones sounded beautiful.

As the driver negotiated the road, he smoked cigarette upon cigarette. He took several calls on his mobile phone. I chuckled. In the U.S. I would have been nervous or frightened to ride in a bus with such a distracted driver. Not here. Local behavior and local laws vary. The state where I had just spent summer in the U.S. prohibits use of mobile phone handsets while driving. That same state also bans smoking in any public place--including in bars and restaurants. There would be no way for a bus driver to be either smoking or talking on a mobile phone while driving. Seeing all three happen at once I couldn't help but smile.

None of these behaviors are the aspects of life in China which have drawn me to make repeated, extended journeys here. Rather, they are the ordinary things which I forget about--until I'm back once again. In the immediate period after arrival, I find being suddenly back in the middle of it all delivers a charge. Everything around me sends another reminder that I'm now somewhere different and life elsewhere has been left behind.

Munching on Mooncakes
Each time I cross a border--whether for the first or tenth visit to another country--I feel this heightened sense of my surroundings. Small details jump out. Sometimes it's just paying attention to obvious differences. Which scripts appear on signs are one of the first things to capture my attention. When the roads are of a markedly different quality to those of the country from which I just came, that fact will always register. In daily life I seldom pay attention to fashion. But when I step into a land where the colors and textures are subtly or vividly different from what's worn in the country I just left, it's hard to not gawk a little.

My favorite times entering a country are the times when I'm stepping back into a country in which I have previous experience, but have been away for some length. Those are the times when my observations are tinged with nostalgia. A brief period away will always bring perspective back. This is the case every time I come back to China. Having lived here so many years, few things I see upon returning after a few months spent out of the country strike me as completely unknown and novel. But that first time I see some familiar behavior or custom after a trip away it always excites me. "Oh yeah... I remember that. I forgot about that!" I'll reflect on the most mundane observations with a grin.

This state of seeing ordinary things anew often lasts for several days after my arrival. None of what I'm describing are those exotic attractions that people--Chinese or foreign--would ever mention when asking which places I've visited or what I've seen around China. I'm not talking about seeing the Great Wall. I'm not talking about seeing giant pandas in Szechwan. What impresses me in the initial days after returning are the many small details that together speak, "You're no longer in the U.S.. You're back in China, now."

Below is a list of things that have stood out in my mind since coming back to China a few days ago. They should strike anybody raised in this country as ordinary, unremarkable aspects of life. These are all things that were familiar, normal parts of my existence as well while living here. It's only after three months away that I again perceive them as being special, different from life elsewhere:

The aspect I find strangest about this heightened attention to details over my first days back is how fondly and nostalgically I look at such normal aspects of life. I find affection even for things I normally dislike. For example, I generally avoid both people smoking cigarettes and people talking loudly on mobile phones in public places. However, taking that crazy minibus from the airport into Urumqi somehow felt like the perfect "Welcome Back!"

It's good to be back in China.