May 8, 2011

Fresh air

After 11 hours on the plane, I looked out the window early Saturday afternoon and saw the familiar grid pattern of sectioned farmland. The clouds were white and fluffy and the fields went on forever in a patchwork quilt of varying shades of brown. I couldn't help but smile.

As we made our final approach, we passed the Minneapolis skyline in the crystal clear air -- it looked dainty compared to the behemoth of Shanghai that I had been in just a few hours prior. Customs was a breeze, the agent noticed how happy I was and his only question for me was "Do you speak Chinese?" 

My flight arrived more than an hour early, so I ambled through the airport in awe of understanding every single sign I saw. Once I got my bearings and called my family, I did what any good American who suddenly found herself amidst free media would do: I bought the latest issue of The Economist and parked myself at a table in front of a TV broadcasting CNN as I picked at a salad loaded with delicious things I haven't eaten in far too long. 

My waitress was short and plump and called me "honey" in a thick Minnesota accent. I almost forgot to tip her when I paid my bill, I haven't had to tip since I left the states. When I went to my gate bound for Minot, there were only a dozen or so people waiting with me.

The gentleman next to me reeked of America: camo hat, ill-fitting poly-blend polo, jean shorts, and high top steel toed boots. His carryon was none other than a large, red Igloo cooler. Another fellow was in a cowboy hat, and two or three of the 15 people on my plane were too large to fit in one seat. I realized I was hanging out with examples of almost every stereotype foreigners have of my homeland. Welcome home.

Home is almost exactly as I left it. I'm in awe of the clean air and empty space. I didn't fully appreciate how empty North Dakota is until now. I couldn't have asked for a better first day at home, I spent Mother's Day hanging out with my parents and a lot of my extended family.

It's great being back, but I know I haven't fully processed the 9,000 miles I traveled yesterday. After all, I went from sipping cocktails on the rooftop of a bar in People's Square in the center of Shanghai one night to driving down a country road the next. I can't help but feel a little bit like a stranger in a familiar land.

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