Integration

11 months ago I wrote a post about culture shock and how, at that time, I was struggling with my immersion in Chinese culture. I believe that by the end of my time in China I had developed a modicum of comfort operating in the language and culture of the place. For the most part it felt unproblematic and normal – an unremarkable existence in a particular place.

Upon my return home I think one of the most difficult things I have wrestled with is integrating my familiarity with a different way of life into my life here. Early on I experienced Vermont life as something out of a dream (and sometimes nightmare) – marveling at the wonderful air quality, our large house, how easy it was to be in a place where you spoke the language well and the well-developed civil sphere in our home community while devasted by the loss of a good friend, horrified by the high prices and consumption.

As time wore on, however, my reaction to life back in the US, instead of being dominated by the experience of things heretofore considered ordinary and unremarkable as remarkable and particular, instead came to be dominated by a feeling of absence or loss. I felt parsed up into various segments (me in China, me the sociologists in New Haven, me the mom and neighbor in Montpelier, etc) one of which (China) is completely absent from my everyday life (even on days when I am mostly mom, I am a sociologist in the down-time). Just like culture shock, one can have different reactions to this kind of re-entry experience. One reaction is to bracket the experience that cannot be reflected, supported or understood in your new surroundings and ignore it yourself. Another is to retreat from your current circumstances and attempt to return to the cross-cultural living you were doing before. A third response is to seek to integrate your various selves into a life that takes all of them into account.

I  think my family and I have reached a different point in our post-China lives. Early on some of us expressed a tendency toward trying to just forget about China – something I see indicated in the kids abandoning speaking Chinese and even being unwilling to read their Chinese storybooks, hostility to the notion of a return visit and a general reluctance to discuss the experience. Others wanted to jump ship on Vermont (however wonderful it is) and Western life and culture for jobs in Hong Kong and Singapore. Now it feels different. I mentioned it to Jason last night and he said he  had noticed the same thing. At bedtime the kids are choosing to read their Chinese books and even speaking Chinese to one another. The Chinese food I bring back from the Hong Kong grocery in New Haven is embraced with enthusiasm as we all reminisce about things in China.

I don’t know if it is just time passing and becoming more settled here, Saturday Chinese school, recent get togethers with China friends or the food but I think we are all starting to understand and embrace the fact of our cross-nationalness.

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One Response to Integration

  1. When I returned to the US after living in China for five years, it was a huge reverse culture shock. I did visit the US a few times during those five years–but for no more than three week at a time and just enough to be fascinated by such things as US grocery stores and commercials.

    Coming back felt like returning to a house I’d once lived in; however, some walls had been taken down, some doors sealed up, and furniture re-arranged. My map from the past on how to act sometimes led me to bump culturally into people. What’s more, blended with that map were the ways of acting in China. It took me at least a few years to get over these feelings, but that’s probably because my return was unusual in the number of times I moved and new cities I lived in.

    I was in China before the Web became big there, so I assume that it would now be easier to re-enter the US with the better communication while abroad. I could go on and on about this topic. If you have any questions, please let me know.

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