I’m back in America. Owen and I landed yesterday morning, after a long and sleepless but blessedly uneventful trip home. The first thing Owen said when we landed was, “America is closed. Go back to China.” I laughed so hard I choked. Twelve hours back across the Pacific? I didn’t think so. But how was I supposed to convince a two-year-old of the awesomeness of our “new” home? [We moved to China when he was 2.5 months old, so it is his only known home.] I tried the weather: “Look at the blue sky! And the mountains and the grass and the trees!” I was choked up, actually streaming tears in seat 41K as we pressed our faces to the plane’s window. California must be the loveliest point of entry. Owen was somewhat impressed, but unconvinced. “We can pick strawberries here,” I offered. His eyes lit up. He jumped up in the seat and yelled to all the passengers, “Go to America now! Pick strawberries!”
The immigration agent asked us jokingly if we were siblings, and we shared a short, easy laugh. When I requested that he stamp Owen’s passport (the general practice for re-entering U.S. citizens is to pass through immigration without receiving a stamp), he grinned. As he leafed through Owen’s passport, his eyes widened. “Wow, extra pages! This boy’s been all over. I’m going to give both of you stamps.” And he did: thwack, thwack, “Welcome home.”
It has been nothing short of glorious, to walk out a front door into the yard and hear nothing but some birds and a car or two the next street over. To wipe Owen’s hands and not find black soot there. To go for a run under brilliant morning sky and go for a walk under the dark blue sky and small stars of dusk. To take a trip to the public outdoors pool and go completely unnoticed; no one took our picture or cast more than a second-long glance our way, even when we were being extremely photogenic. To slip by as normal, boring, casual. To be one of the people in the grocery store (oh, the gorgeous grocery store!), buying some food and paying for it and putting it in a bag–I can do all this without outsider commentary/photography now, and kick me if I ever think I miss the extra attention.
The free space and quietude of America (and I am in Oakland, California, not some rural hamlet) is astounding after the round-the-clock noise, noise, noise of China. Our first night found us jet-lagged in the wee hours, lying in bed and listening to the quiet darkness. No e-bike alarms pierced the silence, no one was yelling or jack-hammering or blasting music or dropping a load of 500 pieces of re-bar on the sidewalk at 3 a.m. It was just quiet and dark, and we were lulled back to sleep by the absence of familiar chaos.
I have conducted a few simple transactions here–setting up cell phones, making a doctor’s appointment–and each time I finished, I said aloud to the person who helped me, “Thank you. That was incredibly easy.” I hope not to lose touch with that feeling of ease, and of gratitude for it.
I also need to remember that more safety regulations are, in the end, better than fewer: to be gently reminded at the pool that my toddler may get a splinter from the rope is better than to be asked mockingly why on earth I’d want to strap my child into a car seat (“He won’t like it. Also, it’s a lot of trouble”). I’d rather have someone tell me that my kid isn’t allowed on the bouncy castle because he’s too short than to have a group of men blow cigarette smoke in my face as they peer into the stroller I’m pushing as they ask each other, “How much do you think that thing cost?”
China sure is interesting, and every day is an unknown adventure, but two years was enough for us and I for one am unspeakably grateful to be a citizen of this other country here. I know America is not perfect–no country is–but its imperfections are immensely familiar to me. I am a part of them. In China, I was merely an observer. Here, I am part of the fabric of the place. Not an ex-pat, but just a pat, just a person. America, more than ever and probably more than ever again, feels all the world like home.