Journey’s End: Sudden and Complete

Well now. How was that for some quality silence, hm?

I am, somehow, back in America; I’ve been back for over a month, actually. Having gotten so used to living Elsewhere, RP and I now find ourselves in a place as strange as Brooklyn, as William Styron wrote.

I’m always amazed by the suddenness of the end of a journey; the hiking trail opens out onto the road, and suddenly you’re on a bus or in a car being whisked back to civilization. Or your backpacking travels end and you’re on a plane, seemingly entering the country whose airline you’re flying as soon as you board. You watch a movie, perhaps you sleep, and twelve hours you’re on the other side of the world.

It’s unnatural and confusing to cover so much distance so quickly. The flight from New York to Shanghai is 15 hours; that’s 10 hours shorter than the bus ride RP and I took in May just to get from New Orleans to Miami, although the cultural distance we traversed was far greater in the first instance. If we still regularly traveled more slowly – walking instead of driving around our cities, taking boats across oceans and trains overland instead of flying – I think we would have more respect for the cultural differences we inevitably encounter when we travel. If it took you four weeks to get to another country instead of five hours, you would certainly expect it to be unlike the place you had come from.

For whatever reason, I usually find the culture shock of going to China far less severe than the shock of coming home. I used to have a personal myth that I didn’t experience culture shock at all when going to China – but one benefit of keeping a blog is that I know that isn’t true, since I wrote about it here, here and here.

I suppose I’ve gotten used to going between the US and China, such that I don’t experience the effects of reentry as acutely as I once did. Every time I come back to New York City I marvel at the charming streets and the small scale of city compared to the average Asian capital. I am astounded by how well ordered the public services are and, unavoidably, how much money there is sloshing around this town.

After my first stint of living in China in 2004 (I taught English in a small town in Guangxi province), I returned to New York during the peak of the city’s fine and fragrant late spring and cried for two days straight. (Something about being overwhelmed by the technicolor glory of Manhattan, as well as having a well-developed flare for the dramatic.) Coming back this time, however, has been a quiet experience; mostly mellow and happy. I remember that when I was newly arrived in Kunming in mid-2009, it struck me that I had made it back to China! Finally! With a job and an apartment and everything was going to be great! I was so joyful and optimistic that I did a little dance around my living room. And on my second night back in New York this November, I did the same little dance of joy – so I guess this must be the right decision, for now.

The relative speed with which you can now travel from the US to China is enough to give you cultural whiplash, but what makes it worse is that each of those countries is such a world – no, a universe – unto itself that being in one utterly erases the experience of the other. While living in China I couldn’t quite believe that I had ever lived in America – and I’ll admit that I’ve been hiding from my blog because I can’t quite believe that the experiences I describe here were ever really my life.

Still, I have plenty of moments in which I lift my head to survey my surroundings and wonder where on earth I am and – more to the point – why I don’t have a ticket booked to somewhere else.

A minor remedy to this feeling came recently, when I found out that I have finally (after many weeks of anxiety, 20 months of preparation, and boring RP to death with the details) been accepted to grad school to study nurse-midwifery. I am absurdly excited – but I’m also still waiting to interview at two other schools in January before committing to the place I’ve been admitted.

To that end, we’ll be on the road again in a few weeks’ time: we’ll vacate the sublet we’ve been holding down in central Brooklyn and take the train across the US from NYC to Chicago, and from there to San Francisco. At only 68 hours, the journey won’t come close to competing with the Trans-Siberian, but I’m entranced by the route we’ll be taking: during the first leg we’ll head north from New York City, and then west past three of the Great Lakes – Ontario, Erie, and Michigan.

From Chicago we’ll be riding the California Zephyr through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. For you seasoned American travelers out there, perhaps this seems old hat. But honestly, I know more about Laos than I do about Nebraska. I’ve spent more time in Indonesia than I have in Illinois.

So what do you think: can I be a tourist in my own country for a while? BirdAtHome? Let’s give it a try.

I do have a backlog of stuff from my final travels in China that I’ll post over the next couple weeks. Here’s a sneak preview from the city of Hangzhou:

10 thoughts on “Journey’s End: Sudden and Complete

  1. Hey welcome home to the USA:) Relax you’ll get into the program you are meant to get into with your hands on experience. I’m a retired FDNY Paramedic so trust me you’ll do fine. Currently I’m working on a doctorate in education and hope to do my dissertation on external qi healing since I’ve done it when our medications failed.
    Hope to get to China next year, we’ll see. For now, welcome back, blessed holidays and BE PEACE!
    Jim Schrang

    • Thanks, Jim! Your doctoral research sounds very interesting- have you written anywhere about using qi for healing purposes? I know almost nothing about it and would love to hear what you’ve discovered.

      • Actually I have written several books but the autobiography speaks about that and more after one gets past the ‘strange’ up bringing I had as a child. To put it mildly my family broke all the mores of this society; but as you’ll also learn even dysfunction had a reason. Thus I don’t believe in coincidence because everything that happened had an ultimate purpose and indeed ultimate GOOD behind it.
        The name is:’ In The Name of Love: A Mystics story of a man who walks between worlds Led by God’ It is on Amazon if you plug in my name you’ll see the other books.
        As per the external qi healing I hope to attend a two week program at China Academy’s Xiyuan Hospital next year if my cash flow is viable and it is in the good Lord’s plans:) I hope this will add to my dissertation.
        Need to run, BE PEACE, Shalom, and Blessed Ho Ho Ho:)

  2. Welcome home, wherever you may find it.

    Took the train from Minneapolis to Portland, OR once upon a time. Close to three days journey, some of which wasn’t terribly interesting but once you hit the Rockies it’s a completely different story. On the northern lines the tracks don’t follow the highway (which I’ve seen too many times from Greyhound windows) and the removed beauty of the mountains was awesome.

    While I know the Zephyr takes a different path I think that the double mountain trek is going to be the best part. Sierra Nevada is as beautiful as its bigger and better known cousin.

    I just wouldn’t be caught on board without food, which you have enough experience to know. There’s not much time to hop on and hop off when they pull into stations.

    • I certainly hope that we’re in daylight for the most mountainous and dramatic parts of the journey – annoyingly, I can’t figure out a way easily to gauge this in advance.

      And we definitely won’t be caught without food, although having learned how to pack for long train journeys only in Russia and China, I’ll have to rejigger my staples somewhat. (What – you mean they don’t come around selling bags of smoked omul on Amtrak?!)

      I’ve only had one near-miss with a train stop; it was somewhere in the Russian Far East, and I had rushed off the train to grab bread and water from the one shop on the one street of the tiny town we had stopped in. It was packed with townspeople buying groceries, but the cashier recognized that I was a train passenger (presumably due to the fact that I was wearing pajamas in the middle of the day) and let me cut to the front of the line. As I left the store I saw RP in the distance outside the train car door, shouting to me while jumping and flinging his arms around wildly, and I sprinted across the tracks to get back on the train just as it started to lurch forward…

      Oh man. Never again.

  3. When I finished high school in 1971, I stuck my thumb out and spent 2 years ‘seeing’ much of America. Back then, the interstate system was still being built, so most of my travels were on the great U.S. highway system. (built in the 20s, to connect every county capital together)

    Much of the old system still exists separate from the interstates, and is still a great way to see this country. Just last year, we went from Eugene OR to Las Vegas by back roads, only 10 miles of freeway if you go via Reno.

    Although I love trains, being able to stop anytime you see something of interest, to eat when and where you want, and to sleep in small towns that off season may have no visitors, that is a great way to see America.

    And make certain you play America, by Simon and Garfunkel, in your head as you travel! (although he was on a Greyhound)

    ps Love your stories, found you via the Apple stores story, and my favorite people built site anywhere is the tomb soldiers in Xi’an; I have 2 life size replicas (I hope!) on my porch.

  4. Uh…on second read, I’m not recommending hitchhiking! In my mind, I see you in a car, and that is what I meant. Ah, this is why editors exist…

    • You’re so right about the benefits of car travel (as we discovered while driving down Taiwan’s eastern coast) but doesn’t train travel have a romance that can’t be beat?

      I would love to do a Great American Road Trip – hopefully one day soon. And thank you for the soundtrack suggestion – spot on!

      • I think both train, and car, have their advantages.

        I’ve never done train in the US, except a little bit on the east coast. That was just an aboveground subway, all the way to Philly and Atlantic City. Yuck.

        WHILE you are still young, and IF you have time, I would push the car option. But still, I am older and jealous of your trip so train must have a large draw too.

        Have fun either way, and we’ll keep reading!

  5. I’ve noticed that whenever I take an extended trip outside the US. It normally takes me around 3 – 6 months to start getting use the convenience and the comfort of living in the States. And usually 6 months or more for me to stop talking about my trip 🙂

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