What It’s Like To Be Back

Published 2007-07-11

Pretty much the first thing anyone says when we see them for the first time is “are you glad to be back?” This is surprisingly hard to answer. Yeah, it’s good to be back but the emotion is weirdly muted. We were only gone a year so returning to life in Oregon is a little too easy. We just bought a new car — a Subaru Impreza, just like our last car. Well, this one is silver, not blue.

The other thing people ask is “so what was China like?” (or variations thereof, such as “did you like China?”). The question is so hard to answer — that life being so different from this life. It’s easier (for me) to express it in reverse: Oregon, after a year in China, feels like a fairytale land. At almost any given moment, in almost any given location, the beauty of the immediate situation is overwhelming. If nothing else, the air is clean. It’s like, everything is Oregon is so easy and beautiful and of such high quality (hell, the tap water tastes like bottled water) that Oregonians could be forgiven for losing a little perspective about what makes life actually hard. Think of it like this: we routinely saw people in China who were starving. What would it take for an American to starve? Debilitating mental illness, or the terminal stages of a substance addiction, probably.

If you’ve never lived in a place like China, you’ll have a really hard time understanding what it’s like to live in a place like China. Maybe it’s like prison, or combat. Everything is difficult all the time. There are moments of amazement and transcendent beauty, but they don’t come constantly and unbidden, as in the lazy minutes of an Oregon summer afternoon. Every day in Oregon is like your spouse handing you a coffee while you drive your air-conditioned Subaru through green trees along a traffic-less highway. Every day in China is like doing the Friday New York Times crossword while standing in a filthy 100° bus packed with factory workers, where occasionally you pass the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen.


Q: What’s it like to be back?
A: Easy.
Q: What’s China like?
A: Hard.