Whenever I come back to California, what I consider home-home, people always ask me what’s different. To say “just about everything” would be a cop-out, and not exactly true. I’ve lived abroad for almost a decade now, visiting every summer and most Christmases (except for a few Covid casualties) so it surprises me that I can still have so much culture shock upon reentering the States. For example:
- People say hello a lot more.
Having lived in Hong Kong for five years, walking home from work daily, taking public transportation constantly, and taking long walks/runs nearly every night, when in the States I’m always shocked at how (what seems) oddly and overly friendly Americans are in the public sphere. I’m used to a quick stare at the other person, watching them look me over (my inner monologue running “are you staring because I’m white or chubby or sweaty?”), and then moving on to the next person. The population as condensed as it is, there is simply always someone new to look at.
In the States EVERYONE says hello or nods, or makes a quick comment if I’m with the dogs. Sometimes this turns into a full-blown conversation at the check-out if they ask me to sign up for something and I am not quick enough to just say “no thanks” but accidentally say something like “oh, I don’t live here.”
The other night at Trader Joe’s an employee approached asking if I was alright because I had been wandering for a good fifteen minutes. I was looking in hope for anything pumpkin spice, and he replied I was way too early, but I explained I lived abroad and was hoping to take some back. This led to a 15 minute conversation about how his grandparents were from China and had raised him in Ohio so he didn’t know Cantonese and neither did I but he understood wanting to take American-flavoured things back to Asia for sampling and suggested Amazon.
2. Men with facial hair. And taller and bigger than me. MM-Mm-mmmm. I appreciate you. But I see that both sides of the pond still need to work on their online dating bios.
3. Food and options in general.
Going to the grocery store or Target or Walmart is a freaking delight. The size of my normal grocery store in HK is maybe a two-bedroom apartment. Because my own flat is so small, I have to visit every other day or so to keep my proportionally appropriate kitchen and pantry stocked with food for one. I also visit the wet markets for fruits and veg and 7-11 probably would collapse without my regular business of Coke Zero and beer purchases (and Oreos and Ritz crackers and “ooh what’s this new weird kind of chip from Japan?” to sample with chopsticks).
To walk into an American grocery store feels like a designer gourmet experience. EVERYTHING is there in 40 different varieties, and always available, no matter the season. It’s displayed nicely and spread out enough that you could pirouette through it, and organized in a way that makes sense, and usually comes with a flower stall, Starbucks, deli, perhaps a garden center or a tire shop. It’s incredible.
If Safeway ever sold out of bananas/meat/milk/cheese/towels one day I think Americans would think their XYZ amendment was being violated but that’s a regular occurrence in most places around the world, even super rich places like Hong Kong.
4. So much less cigarette smoke.
5. Curiosity about where you’ve been and what it’s like.
People often take the piss out of Americans for not having traveled very much and being pretty ignorant about the rest of the world. While I won’t defend the population that is decidedly ignorant and just thinks America’s the best so why bother learning about anywhere else, to be fair, America is freaking HUGE. California, my home state, is a good 13 hour drive from top to bottom, which would get you through 4 or more countries in Europe, so there is a good reason why it’s deemed too far to travel other places by most people. Plus we have huge oceans on either side and an embarrassing two weeks of vacation a year, so no wonder more people don’t get out.
I will say that the delightful difference I’ve seen more of this summer is being home is Americans wanting to know more about Hong Kong and different places I’ve been to and how things compare with a (mostly) open mind. When I’m abroad, most people just assume I know all the things about the USA, often teasing me about different things, or expecting me to have an expert opinion on every news item – as they feel their consumption of Netflix series or following politics on the news is enough to form an educated stance on all things American.
6. Dry heat. It’s a dry heat out here on the West coast. Dry heat.
7. Driving and all the thoughts about driving.
Hong Kong has an incredibly clean, easy, thorough transportation system. I’ve grown used to climbing on a bus and tucking in to take a quick 5 minute snooze leaning against a stranger before alighting at my home stop. Some weekends I have to taxi, ferry, bus, walk to get to a friend’s house, and that’s okay.
Back home in California, there are parts I love about having a car – buying more than one can of soda at a time because you don’t have to carry it too far to your house, keeping a sweater somewhere, scrounging through mom’s console for spare change and lip gloss colors to try, but I’d forgotten how all-consuming it is to have a car. No one can shut up – there’s gas prices, traffic, where are the keys? and you guys – I almost got hit when – and what’s the best way to get to the airport? Where’s the best place to park, do we have enough seats for everyone and the dogs, have you checked Waze for any accidents, change the radio stations, can I charge my phone now? Don’t forget to put the reusable grocery bags back.
I’m mostly distracted by the rescue animal sanctuary on the side of 680 and trying to catch a glimpse of the zebra and the new camel. So. Please don’t nominate me to drive anywhere. I can make a bombass playlist, though.
8. She’s a 4 in Hong Kong but a solid 7 in the USA.
One of the many things I loved about living in Brazil was how sexy I felt all the time. Sometimes it got creepy, but overall it was such a body-positivity culture, an accepting culture – exactly the confidence boost I needed after a terrible breakup and reevaluating my entire life as I turned 30 and wondered what was next. My friends and I wore what we wanted, experimented with styles and colours and makeup and felt celebrated and free to do so. Living in Hong Kong? Not so much. I have walked into stores and been told point-blank “we have nothing in a size for you.” I once bought slippers in a male’s extra large at the JHC (equivalent of a Rite Aid) and took them home and they were too small! Kids and adults regularly assume I’m pregnant. It’s nearly impossible to buy any makeup in my skin tone. Even deodorant comes with whitening in it, as that’s a cultural norm here.
But in the Bay Area? My Tinder lit UP. And I get looks on the street and feel like a normal-sized woman; I get asked questions and smiled at and told I look nice. There are always clothes in my size, I order everything with extra ranch without fear of judgment, no one assumes the kids I’m with are mine, I even got carded! Maybe I’m more than a solid 7. Maybe I’m a 7-plus or an 8-minus. I know we’re not supposed to grade kids anymore but if I’m an 8-minus? I’ll wear that badge with pride.
- Getting physical, physical
Because of cultural norms and Covid and social distancing (not to mention the humidity) there just isn’t a lot of touch here in Hong Kong. And displaying public emotions? Forget it. Every time I’ve cried or been injured or ill in public in Asia I’ve been avoided like Americans should have avoided the actual plague that is Covid. I’m self-conscious being affectionate here in Hong Kong and it’s something I miss.
In the States, I get to remember handshakes and hugs and cheek kisses and my heart is full of them now. so thank you for that :)
The takeaway? Living in different places makes me appreciate the good, the bad, and the ugly of them all. I hope I bring forward some new good where ever I go.
(blog a day challenge – entry #19)