My first thought waiting in line for USA’s customs was honestly, “wow, I haven’t seen this much cleavage in a long time.” You can blame it on the jet lag, or maybe it’s just how America rolls, but that thought hit like an epiphany as I tried not to stare at the people around me. My surroundings began to really sink in after that, and I realized that this was probably quadruple the amount of white people I’ve seen in the last 10 months that were all in the same place. I was shocked by the massive men with their spiked up hair and one-size-too-small shirts, and it took me a moment to remember that bro culture is the norm back here at home, as I waited in line next to my fellow countrymen. I’m pretty sure I had stared at several people for slightly too long, having drawn this conclusion from the one bro who had territorially puffed out his chest at me. I made a note to myself afterwards that I’d need to remember not to Beijing-style, visually lock on to somebody; unless of course I was trying to be confrontational. It’s ironic because when I’d first gotten to Beijing, I too had postured and grunted aggressively when I was stared at, though with the infinite amounts of people grilling me in China, I had been conditioned very quickly.
Talking with the customs guy was surreal. I began to say hello to him in Chinese, and every question he asked me caused my subconscious to prime a response in Mandarin. He kept asking me why I would live in China, and “because I wanted to” didn’t seem to be the answer he was looking to hear. I wasn’t sure how to answer him when he asked if I’d worked in China, because my specific VISA made it illegal to work there, and I figured it’d be best to play the privileged white kid role. Even with certain stereotypes, the Chinese never overcompensated with authority like Americans do, and I can definitely say I did not miss cops. He kept pressing me for answers and getting ones he didn’t like, but eventually he frowned and allowed me through without any further inspection.
As I began to board the tram that would take me to the terminal of my transfer flight, a Chinese man unnecessarily shoved me out of his way to board as well. I made a small protest and gave him a look, and he responded with the same haughty grunt I’d heard so many times in Beijing, when the Chinese would push past me with an ethnic entitlement to board the subway or get to a ticket counter first. I grumbled Laowai in an annoyed voice, a term that meant foreigner or outsider, purposefully loud enough for the man to hear me. He turned to stare at me and I could see him visibly thinking it over, deciding whether or not he should be upset, when it dawned on him. He gave me a look that acknowledged understanding and humility, while also resembling the same disgusted face I’ve seen people make who had accidentally drank spoiled milk. Having had the term Laowai, which would never be considered positive and could even be offensive in certain situations, spat at me for ten months, it’s not surprising that the first thought that had come to mind afterwards was a victorious scene from Django Unchained. The tram arrived at the next terminal soon after, at which time I smiled humbly and motioned for him to get off before me, telling him in Chinese that I was in no rush and allowing him to regain some of his face, an Asian term for self respect and personal image. The tables had turned, and damn it felt good to be the king.
As I walked through the airport, another thing that really stuck out to me was how much Americans posture and strut. Chinese people barely use any body language and never understood mine, and now that I was surrounded by it again, I couldn’t help but be stunned. Stuck out chests and pulled back shoulders, chins and jaws jutted out tightly, noses pointed up towards the ceilings, the side to side swaggers, backs straightened upwards in confrontation; having been dropped into this deep contrast has caused me to notice all of it in clarity.
I woke up in the early afternoon on account of my biological clock being turned upside down, and hung out around the house watching TV. I considered contacting some friends, but decided against it since they’d all be sleeping. In the mid-afternoon one texted me, and my first thought was ‘it’s really late, something must be wrong because he works at 7am and would never be up this late.’ That was when it hit me, that I was no longer 12 hours ahead of everybody I talked to, and that this friend was in the same timezone as me and it wasn’t 4am in the USA anymore… I was in the USA right now. It’s funny how much the little things like that can blow your mind. Later I went to the mall, and it was disappointing how little the ladies walking around checked me out. In general, I almost felt invisible as I walked through the crowds. It dawned on me that I was no longer a novelty, and now just another normal face. Who’d have thought I’d miss the old man that stopped and stared, turning his whole body to continue watching me as I walked past. On second thought, maybe I wouldn’t miss that, but the feeling of constantly being a spectacle was gone and it’s absence was quite off-putting.
Phrases like 没事, 卫生间在哪里, 想要这个, and 谢谢 were on the tip of my tongue as I became reacquainted with the states, and multiple times I hadn’t caught myself until those Chinese phrases were already halfway out of my mouth. I felt bad for the little Asian lady who’d been running one of the mall’s bodegas, because the sight of her destroyed what meager mental blockades I’d had holding back my Mandarin. Chinese spilled out of my mouth at a woman who had been born here and didn’t understand a word of it, and afterwards she looked at me like I’d just attempted to make a racist joke. I bought my gum and hurried out of the store, shamed and feeling like a jackass.
Eating in a packed restaurant was awkward, everybody was speaking English and being able to understand it all was almost overstimulating. I wondered if this was how Jean Grey had felt when the Phoenix manifested, already close to a headache from all that was going on. And the damn waitress was taking too long. Three times I’d almost raised my hand to wave her over, though I had been civilized enough not to ever belt out “FUWUYUARRR!”, Mandarin for waitress, at the Beijing standard volume of ten decibels. One of my fake outs of a wave actually did catch her eye, and she awkwardly approached our table with a violated look on her face. I’d contemplated explaining to her that I’d been abroad and was still in the process of adjusting to the states, but those thoughts also led to the realization that I would actually need to tip her, and I pettily figured we were even now. Tipping just wasn’t a thing in Asia, though neither was good service, and I’d left that restaurant feeling pretty stingy.
Going about your day and understanding everything you’ve heard perfectly was still a very new feeling to me, and it led to questions that wouldn’t arise in any other situation. Are Americans assholes and ruder than the Chinese? I hear the mean things they say, did the Chinese act this way? Would I have even known? When I was contently drinking my coffee at a cafe, were the girls next to me plotting to poison somebody? How many times did a store attendant reply rudely and it passed over my head? Also, are all Chinese people smart, or did the fact that I struggled to understand even 40% of their sentences make them always seem smart to me? I listen to my fellow Americans and hear stupidity thick enough to clog my ears, and this made me realize that I never once thought a Chinese person was stupid. Maybe conniving, or shady, but honestly never stupid. I guess not having been able to even communicate with them caused me to regard myself at a lower level subconsciously, because I’m pretty sure I had to have encountered many idiots, but I guess I just was never educated enough to tell them apart. I was just worried about getting the number right and not overpaying.
I’m pretty sure I seriously creeped out the girl at Quiznos. I went to pay for my sandwich, and noticed the quarters were thinner or maybe smaller and lighter than before. I asked if they’d changed the quarter recently to make it smaller, and she looked down and away, almost hiding her face under her uniform hat, shaking her head and telling me she had no clue. I pressed the topic though, saying I was pretty sure these quarters were smaller somehow, and that I remembered them being bigger. When she responded again saying she really wasn’t sure, her voice quivered a bit, and I suddenly realized how weird I must’ve sounded. I wonder if she saw my tattoos and assumed I’d just been released from some form of facility. She was overly tan and obviously fake baked, which Chinese people dislike to the point of actually using umbrellas to avoid sun exposure, so I guess we’re both weirdos somewhere. And it should be even weirder that I’ve noticed myself judging fellow Americans by the standards of Chinese culture several times now. Re-assimilation may be harder than I thought.