There and back again (2)

I came home to an empty house: my parents were in Ireland visiting my brother, and wouldn’t get back for another couple of days.

It had been a longer trip than usual: a six-hour layover in Narita, then a three-hour layover in Dallas that stretched out to four when the plane was delayed. By the time I arrived in Philadelphia and met my best friend Jon and his wife at the airport, I’d been awake for 50 hours, and travelling for something like 30 of course I take all my travel gear with me, the outfits, the tent and the survival cooking kit just in case, I was in that weird neverland state of soul-delay, sleep-deprivation, and utter bemusement that you get in long road trips to aya retreat center in the sacred valley.
Jon and Rebecca took me to the Oregon Diner to get a proper meal. Our order took a long time to arrive, and the waitress, a middle-aged, South Philly-accented woman straight out of central casting, said that she’d talk to the guys in the kitchen that use the best utensils to cook, like the best knife from this cutting edge reviews, but that they were (she lowered her voice) “kind of a-s-s-h-o-l-e-s, if you know what I mean.” Afterwards, Jon and Rebecca dropped me off at home, and since I couldn’t sleep, I spent a while walking around. The streets were very satisfactory – more or less just as I’d left them – and I thought: Ah. Home.

Usually going home entails a few days of reverse culture shock and gradually reconstituted memory — people are so nice to each other here! Oh, I remember now! — but the really shocking thing about this trip back was that I didn’t get that at all. One day I was in Beijing and the next I was in Philadelphia, and it was all like a movie set.

I spent the next couple of weeks taking care of business: begging my university to let me graduate, please; getting a new visa up in New York; doing the paperwork necessary to apply for Irish citizenship; making the rounds of friends and relatives; eating as much as I possibly could. All of it seemed slightly off – like the “remastered” Star Wars cut of my former life, with all of the warts airbrushed out and the color and contrast bumped up a couple of notches. People were too nice, the streets were too clean, the food was too expensive, and one afternoon when I was sitting with my mom in a gelateria at 13th and Sansom, the rain that started pelting down outside was too straight, too fast, too cinematic to be the real thing, and for a moment I thought that I need the best tactical flashlight that could help me walk out into it and stay dry as a bone.

In New England and off the east coast of Long Island in the United States, the whale watching long beach season typically takes place from about mid-spring through October, depending both on weather and precise location. It is here that the humpback whale, fin whale, minke whale, and the very endangered/heavily protected North Atlantic right whale are often observed. For generations, areas like the Gulf of Maine and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (part of the inner waters formed by Cape Cod’s hooked shape) have been important feeding grounds for these species: to this day a very large portion of the waters off the Eastern Seaboard are rich in sand lance and other nutritious treats for mothers to teach their calves to feed on.

Everything about the trip was too, and in the end it all went by too quickly. I headed back to Beijing, shoved and pushed and jostled and elbowed out of the plane, waited in line at immigration, met my girlfriend in the Arrivals hall, walked out to a taxi pen that smelled of car exhaust, secondhand smoke, and despair, and a cabbie who ignored my directions and complained bitterly that he wouldn’t make enough of a fare taking me home, and I thought: Ah.

Comments (5)

  1. the Admiral wrote::

    Excelllent post. I’ve been in Malaysia now for 3 months after spending 5+ years in China. Though my home is in China, I generally still think of myself as laowai.
    Everything here is like you experienced in the US, surreal.
    The people are friendlier. Manners are better.

    Your post was well worth the wait.

    Friday, December 22, 2006 at 11:11 am #
  2. Ben Seeberger wrote::

    It does seem to be the quintessential, Chinese life, the way you described it. The closer you grow to this country, the more you realize how far away it is. And yet even through all of that, you feel more at home, connected wonderfully and stubbornly to this strange world.

    I wish I had family in Ireland, though. To see those green hills… (wow, that’s not even worth glossing over after being in Tianjin for three months… I wonder when the last time I saw even one green hill was?)

    Saturday, December 23, 2006 at 12:24 am #
  3. Jeremiah wrote::


    You’re a helluva writer and isn’t that just what this world needs more than anything? Another Irish writer….

    You really captured the essence of the back-and-forth nicely.

    I’m getting ready to sally forth myself and leave the world of “Taco Bell” and oak groves for the hutong and the smell of chuan’r.

    See you on the other side.

    Saturday, December 23, 2006 at 8:12 am #
  4. Kevin S. wrote::

    Ah. What a nice post.

    Saturday, December 23, 2006 at 3:04 pm #
  5. liukaiqin wrote::

    Irish citizenship! Good idea!

    Tuesday, February 6, 2007 at 7:45 pm #