Treaty of Nanking

Newer world

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 July, 2012, 12:00am


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I am back in the US for the summer, for the first time in almost a year, and feeling Chinese. First there was the marathon flight from Hong Kong via Shanghai to New York. It had been nearly two years since I'd seen Shanghai and I was fortunate enough to again see at first hand the ever-changing city.

The airport had at least 30 immigration counters open and the line moved at a fast clip. My luggage arrived right on cue. The squeaky-clean subways ran swiftly and I marvelled at the glossy ads, a sure sign of a rising middle class. The Chinese in their 20s and 30s whom I encountered spoke good English. Every so often, I had the strange feeling I could be in New York or Los Angeles. Change happens quickly.

On the leg from Shanghai to New York, almost all my fellow passengers were native mainland Chinese. Next to me sat a young woman wearing fashionable jeans and T-shirt, who listened to her iPod, read on her Kindle and played games on her iPhone4S. She could easily have passed for a young American.

When we landed, there was an orderly queue and none of the pandemonium I'd experienced in the past. Just 10 years ago, the scene was very different. The economic mobility was not as obvious back then.

Sure, China and the Chinese have a long way to go, but the improvements are obvious.

Back home in America, change was less obvious. I returned to a familiar skyline and runway. After the immigration officer examined my passport and said 'Welcome home', I wondered if I had ever left. JFK airport looked like it was stuck in time. Luggage was overflowing on the baggage carousels, mostly because there were too few of them and the belts were too short. The lengthy queues at immigration were a familiar scene, while the arrival/departure boards still flipped over like something from a 1980s game show.

While it's sometimes nice to walk down memory lane, a friend commented that things in the US - at least the airport and its surrounding radius - felt antiquated compared to emerging cities around the world. That's not to say nothing had changed; only, the changes were more subtle. On my first day back, I went to the local shopping centre anchored by a supermarket, which seemed oddly empty for midday. Here in my hometown, I noticed less commuter traffic and more empty parking spaces. I returned to the supermarket at different times of day to observe that there were fewer queues. At night, my friends said they chose to stay at home rather than go to the cinema as it was 'too expensive'.

By contrast, New York City was bustling with shoppers, and the Broadway show we attended was packed. Tourist buses jammed Wall Street, with the majority of visitors from either Europe or China. 'Things may look good on the surface but America is becoming poorer,' a friend said. In the days after arriving, I swiftly fell into familiar routines; my sister said I was becoming American again.

That said, I'm grateful for that brief window when I was fresh off the plane and had the opportunity to view the US from the vantage of being a foreigner in her own land. In fact, when the newness of returning home had worn off, I continued to feel proud of what I've viewed as China's accomplishments. I am still feeling very Chinese and that is OK. It is part of being bicontinental. Welcome home.

Amy Wu is an American-born Chinese writer and commentator now living in Hong Kong