What I was holding was a box of pizza.
What I was feeling was a explosion of emotions: relief, elation, guilt, and grief.
What came out were tears.
We had just moved to Kunming a few weeks before. This was our first time living in a city with so many foreigners, so many amenities. Sure, we had lived in Nanning before, but that was back in the day, before MixC and Starbucks entered the picture. In the meantime, we had lived in Jingxi, a small town. A really small town. Definitely no pizza delivery there.
And now, here we are where I can call up Papa John’s, if I wish. (In English, no less!) I can go to Starbucks. (I don’t. It’s expensive.) I can get multiple types of cheese. My Chinese neighbors drive luxury cars, and I’ve met several locals who spent the summer in Europe, New Zealand, or the U.S. for fun. Very few people stare at us, and no one yells “waiguoren!” I want to lean over with wide eyes and whisper to Bruce Willis “I see white people” because there are so many of them here.
I am in shock.
Culture shock was expected when we moved to China, and on subsequent returns to this country. Reverse culture shock was expected every time we went back to the U.S. But this is something…in between? The culture shock of a different China, vastly different from what we had experienced so far. Even though it’s still China, I’m faced with feelings closer to those that overwhelm me in American cereal aisles.
“Just enjoy it!” I was advised when we moved here. “You deserve it!” others counseled. I was enjoying it (and couldn’t figure out how exactly I deserved it), but the enjoyment was mixed with so many other emotions that it was hard to untangle everything.
The scene that has continued to come to mind is after Tom Hanks finally gets rescued in Cast Away. Remember the buffet, when he is just staring at the already-cooked crab? The audience immediately understands the irony. He is recalling how incredibly difficult it was to get crab when he was struggling to survive on the island, and how horrid it was for him to discover there is a vast difference between raw and cooked crab meat. And now the crab is right there on a platter for him, already caught and cooked, ready to eat. It’s not that he necessarily wants to go back to hunting crab with a stick and getting gashed by coral in the process, it’s just that he is feeling the weight of something that everyone around him is taking for granted.
I go up seven flights in an elevator, I buy a loaf of non-sweet bread, I send my kids out to play unsupervised, and I want to shout to the world, “Do you realize how incredibly EASY it is to do these things here?!? Do you know that all three of those were IMPOSSIBLE before?!?”
I’m slowly adjusting, as I always do. I am already used to being able to buy non-UHT milk, and I just assume that the bakery/cafe near us will have tortillas when I need them. At the same time, writing that sentence makes me feel spoiled. I’m still not quite used to two aisles of imported food at Carrefour for me to ooh and aah over, but I don’t gawk at it like I did just a few weeks ago.
And then there’s Papa John’s. I ordered it three Mondays in a row after an American neighbor (we have an American neighbor?!?) told me that’s the day pizzas were half price. It was such a relief to have that option, especially as we were still unpacking our apartment.
It wasn’t just a relief. I was elated to have options like this after so many years of living without. But there was also a weird kind of guilt, knowing that many of my friends and coworkers still lived in places where not even the most basic foreign food exists. And there was also the grief of facing the fact we were no longer in a rural area, which was a goal we had been so happy to finally reach. It was hard to have that changed.
So, three Mondays in a row, I was hit with a bomb of mixed emotions. I think I teared up every single time. I think it will get less emotional to order pizza, though, as we continue to adjust to life in this big city. I’m guessing some day soon, I’ll order pizza again and it won’t make me want to cry anymore.
I will have moved through this type of culture shock, whatever it may be, and adjusted to life in this new place.
The theme at Velvet Ashes this week is “Adjust.” Here are more posts I’ve written about adjusting.