Letter from (America) (about) China

“Welcome back to the land of loose sand, my friend. Long time no see.”

It took an hour and a half for the first horn.

But, if you subtract the time it took to get off the plane, find your luggage and get on the bus, then it took about five minutes for the first horn.

Three for the first near-miss.

I spent March in China, after three years back in America. I left China as an English teacher, dealing with sudden schedule changes and overly complicated logistics. I came back as a Navy sailor . . . dealing with sudden schedule changes and overly complicated logistics.

Everyone in the Navy does a particular job, and mine isn’t well known. The name certainly doesn’t help:

“Arrow Grapher? What the hell’s that?”



“I do weather.”

“Oh. So what’s arrows got to do with it?”

But even in the Navy, my job is pretty obscure, and since in the military we eat sleep drink and breathe acronyms:

“AG? What the hell’s that?”


“En garde?”


I know, I know, kind of went in secrecy, didn’t I? That wouldn’t have happened three years ago. Hell, back then I would have written some long Facebook note, tagging people who don’t care and chui’ing the niu about how I’m headed to this exotic place while you’re stuck in traffic tomorrow morning. Everyone hates people like this, and for good reason: they suck.

China’s not “exotic”. Interesting, yes. Lovely, yes. Exotic?

You see, three years does funny things to the brain. It makes you forget the worst and remember the worse as bad, the bad as good, and the good as some of the best moments of your life.

It makes your return a jolt to reality, and it can push you in the wrong direction: eight people asking you why your baby was crying last night isn’t amusing, it’s fucking annoying.

The man who cuts in front of you for the taxi isn’t an otherwise kind fellow influenced by a famine mere decades old, he’s an asshole.

And while this should go without saying, bai jiu is not a gateway into the local culture, it’s a deadly alchemy of poison and paint that causes certain former expats who are foolish enough to mix it with Sprite (to mute the nasty taste) to puke on the sidewalk and go to the hospital the next morning, where (and this too goes without saying) they stick an IV in you and send you home.

Three years makes the nostalgia lenses several inches thick, but no matter how thick, you need to take them off. Go on. Take them off.

And appreciate what deserves to be appreciated:

– walking through fields of sunsoaked youcai with my wife and daughter

– seeing how much Wuhan, despite remaining a construction site, has changed

– Wuhan University’s cherry blossoms

– bicyling along the dam overlooking the river, watching the barges carry great hauls of sand

And above all, seeing what few see, what few want to see and being content in the knowledge that their ignorant opinions on China don’t matter.

So my in-laws, my former students, friends, fellow former expats, expats who are lifers by choice and expats who are lifers forever planning that move out of China, I’ll leave you with this: