Tag Archives: culture shock

one month later….



My first month in Chicago, and back in my home country, has passed quickly and with no major trauma. The one negative note was being victimized by an apartment rental scam through Craigslist: while still in China, I thought I could make the transition easier if I rented a furnished apartment before arriving in the US. It was my own fault for being gullible and believing in my own wishful thinking, and I lost a couple of thousand dollars on a deposit for an apartment that didn’t exist. Another hard life lesson learned.

On the plus side, I completed a short-term job teaching Italian teenagers at a summer English course through International Study and Vacation. I’m now working on attracting some private students, and I’m boning up on my knowledge of academic writing. I continue applying for jobs, mostly through the Chicago City Colleges.

The weather here has been glorious, a sharp contrast to the oppressive heat and humidity of south China, where the students and I sweated through 90-minute classes and the climate drained every ounce of energy from me. China now seems like a distant dream; I only occasionally have cravings for steamed bao zi (meat-filled buns) for breakfast or other local culinary delights. My studio apartment is a short distance from Lake Michigan, and my dog and I enjoy walks to Belmont Harbor and through the beautiful urban greenery of the lakefront parks.

The worst of the culture shock has passed, although there are still some aspects of local life that continue to perplex me:

I was severely chastised for failing to hold a door open for someone exiting a restaurant; it simply never occurred to me. I had become used to having doors slam in my face in China, a country where it can be hard to observe social niceties in its overcrowded cities.

I can understand virtually everything people say here. In China I long ago became used to the bliss of incomprehension; it excused me from having to respond to rudeness or others’ remarks about me. Here, I comprehend every inane conversation around me, and it can be irritating.

Chicagoans seem to walk around anticipating any opportunity for being polite or accommodating. I’ve never heard “Hello, how are you?” so often when entering a store, or people excusing themselves or apologizing for passing others on the sidewalk. Strangers smile at each other here, especially when you’re walking a dog. This over-politeness gets on my nerves sometimes. I almost prefer the brusqueness of other big cities I’ve been in.

I’m still surprised when I see “no firearms” signs at the entrances to libraries, offices, or bars. It reminds me of the constant risk of violence here.

Finally, when I asked my Italian students what things surprised them about America, their first question was “Why don’t you have bidets here? Funny what things we take for granted, and then instantly miss them when they’re gone.

back in the USA

seatac-airport-arrival Arrival:  Seattle-Tacoma Airport




It was weird. First, there was the sign that said “Welcome to the United States of America,” a country  hadn’t set foot in for 5 years.  Then, there was the friendliness – everywhere.

“Welcome home,” said the smiling U.S. passport control officer, handing back my passport.  The smile threw me, as did the “How are you today?”  Smiling government functionaries seemed foreign to me after living for so long in China.





My first food on American soil:  ham and cheese on a bagel, Seattle-Tacoma Airport



Things here seemed familiar, yet somehow very foreign.  Within 5 minutes of landing at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, I was in reverse culture shock.

My first view of the United States had been group of snow-covered mountains peeking through the clouds.  Then there were more mountains, large expanses of water, and everywhere, the green of pine trees.  It seemed an alien landscape.  I’d never been in the Pacific Northwest before, yet this was all I would see of it, from a plane window.

I wandered through the airport, slightly dazed after my flight from Beijing.  The people here were different: they were all Americans, and they all spoke English.  For the first time in years, I blended in with everyone else.

My first impressions of being back in the U.S.: drinking fountains, toilet paper and towels in the restrooms,  green money, “Have a nice day.” I changed my Chinese RMB into dollars at a currency exchange, and accidently left my suitcase behind.  15 minutes later, it was still there.

I had almost 4 hours to kill before my onward flight to Chicago. In total, I would be on the move for 24 hours before arriving at the hostel on Halsted Street in Chicago where I could rest my weary and confused self.




Chicago at last.  The Parthenon Hostel is in the shadow of the Sears (Willis) Tower.





Breakfast  at Artopolis Bakery, Cafe, & Agora




“Home of Chicago’s Best Gyros” – I ate there twice in 24 hours




Carson Pirie Scott store (Louis Sullivan) – entrance detail



I arrived in Chicago, took the train to the Parthenon Hostel just west of the Sears Tower, checked in, and immediately went to a corner restaurant for my first Greek gyros sandwich in 5 years.  I ate it so fast I don’t think I even tasted it. The following day was for walking and stretching my legs after sitting on so many airplanes.   I revisited some of my favorite buildings downtown, hung out at the Cultural Center to escape heat in the 90s, and visited a couple of bookstores.

Next morning, it was back to O’Hare Airport for the next leg of my journey, Kansas City, and a reunion with my family.




Chicago Cultural Center




 The Rookery Building, atrium

sentimental journey

Autumn sun, Lincoln Park, Chicago, 1978

The above photo was one of the first that I took with my new Pentax KX SLR in 1978.  I bought the camera when I graduated from Northwestern University, and I still have it over 30 years later; I used it until I bought my first digital SLR a couple of years ago.

In 2 days I’ll fly to the USA for the first time in 5 years, in honor of my father’s 85th birthday.  I’ll visit my brother Kenton, and end my trip with 6 days in Chicago.  I’ll be returning to places I knew many years ago.  It will be a sentimental journey, but also a bit of a time warp and a culture shock. According to the internet, the Chicago temperature is in the 80s, but in my home state of Missouri it’s supposed to climb to 97 (36 Celsius) in the next few days.  Whew.  I’ll spend a lot of time indoors.

I’ll update my blog with photos, and impressions of my home country in the midst of an economic depression, joblessness, and attacks on workers, unions, and public employees.  I wonder what kind of place it will seem to me.  I’ll let you know.

Hello, Delhi!


Old Delhi:  hidden worlds


[Note: in “real time” I’m now in McLeod Ganj, in the cool and clean air of the mountains. I escaped Delhi – its intensity, pollution, dust, mud, noise, heat, and humidity. It still lingers after a 12-hour bus ride: my nose won’t stop running, my throat is scratchy, and it will take days to wash out the inner and outer filth.]


Monday, August 2, 2010 – Delhi

I couldn’t sleep last night to save my life. As soon as I turned off the light, all the voices of India were inside my head: the hawkers, the touts, the vendors, the beggars, the pushy travel agents, the “tour guides,” the rickshaw drivers, the in-your-face intensity of every encounter. The voices were loud, insistent, pleading, cajoling. I tried to calm myself by reading The Way of the White Clouds, but it just provided a momentary distraction. I turned off the air conditioner; I was beginning to get a sore throat. At last I slept, to awaken again at 3:30 AM. Damn.

The sleep gods finally granted me relief, for the next thing I knew, it was 10:30 AM. My throat was now raw from dust, pollution, air conditioning, and ceiling fans spinning like high-speed airplane propellors above my bed for nights on end. I was a wreck – nervous, exhausted, overheated, my psyche stretched to its limit. Who said travel was relaxing?


Pahar Ganj, Delhi – textures


I’d just finished Sarah Macdonald’s  Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure, a superb account of one Australian’s life in India with all of its madness and intensity.  Maybe, as she finally found in her Indian adventures, it was ME who had to change. That’s it: it was my stubborn, Midwestern, mule-like obstinacy, my insistence on having my American senses of privacy and personal space honored. Who was I kidding? India was a whole new ball game – everything about it was maddeningly different, and I was completely unprepared for the place. I resorted to the 12-Step Serenity Prayer: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Did it help?  Hell, no. I needed out.


Worst of the worst: stuck in a traffic jam in Old Delhi in an autorickshaw. I’d already promised the driver 200 rupees; he kept turning around and trying to extend our contract: waiting for me outside the Friday Mosque, a tour of the monuments, etc. All I could do was keep saying “No, no, no….” while trying not to puke from all the exhaust I was inhaling.


I’m now in Cafe Festa, awaiting my Spanish breakfast of omelet and cappucchino. The part of New Delhi I’m in is a funky blend of hip coffee houses, restaurants, rutted dirt streets, and collapsing buildings.  In fact, it seems that half of Delhi is falling down, and the other half is being repaired or propped up. Part of the reason for the chaos is the upcoming Commonwealth Games 2010, for which Delhi is tearing herself up and giving herself a facelift that refuses to “take.”

My tender constitution has also been compromised. You see, I swore off Indian food 3 days ago, in Varanasi. The last straw was a morning trip to Sarnath that was so hot, the sun so scorching, that I fried from the inside out. That afternoon I began to feel strange, and by evening I was bedridden. I had the Double Whammy: Delhi Belly and heat exhaustion. I’d spend most of the afternoon in the bathroom, until the Imodium started to kick in.

At last, I had to stagger outside the hotel and down the dark, narrow lanes in search of sustenance, something bland. I settled for 2 Granola Fruity bars and a bag of dry, white-bread chips. Apart from a bowl of porridge the next morning, this would be my only food for 2 days.

By Saturday morning I was feeling partly human, and at 9 AM took an autorickshaw to the Varanasi train station – my same driver from the Sarnath trip yesterday, Manoj, was waiting for me! See, people are good after all.

Blessing of blessings, the train station had a tourist office and waiting room for foreigners, and it was air conditioned. In front of everybody, I peeled off my gross, soaking wet T-shirt and put on my flowing, cool white hemp shirt from Kathmandu.

The train arrived an hour late, and I located my space in the air-conditioned 3-tier sleeping car. After a few hours I retreated to my top-level bunk, which required skills in acrobatics, contortion, and mountain-climbing to reach. For the rest of the 17-hour, all-night journey to Delhi, I was gently rocked by the the train’s rhythm. I have no idea if I slept, but our morning arrival seemed to come sooner than expected.

It was now Sunday morning, 4:45 AM, and midway through my 6-week holiday adventure. It was still dark, and rather than trying to negotiate a strange nighttime city, I sat in a chain restaurant at the front of the station. I drank two “cappucchinos,” emitted in black and white streams from twin plastic spouts, and tried to eat a samosa, but it was too spicy. I still haven’t reconciled myself to the fact that everyone in India insists on serving you your food with their bare hands. God knows what they’ve touched beforehand, but I see many of them also handling money, the filthiest thing on earth. I have half a mind to travel with a box of disposable food-handlers’ gloves.


On the plus side, Delhi does have some great food: a superlative & succulent Tandoori Chicken, near my hotel (with palak paneer and butter naan)


I’m getting long-winded, so I’ll condense the story. I asked an autorickshaw driver to take me from the station to a moderately-priced hotel.  Get this:  I ended up at the Hotel Snow White, in the Pahar Ganj district of New Delhi. Would I wake from a poisoned sleep to live happliy ever after? Would I finally realize my inner fairy princess?  (Answer: NOT.)


The Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque), the principal mosque of Old Delhi. It was commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, builder of the Tal Mahal, and completed in 1656.


The watcher, Jama Masjid



Jama Masjid, repeated arches



Narrow street in Old Delhi


Hello, Delhi, GOODBYE!

I lasted exactly 3 days in Delhi, and the last one was mainly improvisation, since my hotel made me check out at 6:30 AM (!), the same time I’d checked in after my all-night train ride. By this time I’d learned to use the Delhi Metro, a complete contrast to the rest of the city: cool, quiet, efficient, speedy, and understated. I spent my last morning at the bus terminal trying to figure out how the hell to get to Dharamsala. As always happens in India, I was approached by a man who was Only Too Glad to Help. He led me to a tiny box of a building that was a travel agency, where I bought a 900-rupee ticket for an air-conditioned bus to Dharamsala that evening at 6:30 (air conditioned? Hah! I was duped once again.) I checked my backpack at the station, and for once, did an intelligent thing: I bought a Day Pass for the Metro.

I cruised in air-conditioned comfort to my heart’s content, only surfacing into the steamy city when absolutely necessary. I spent a couple of hours at the Lavazza coffee bar in Connaught Place (one of those sections of the city that had been completely torn apart for the Commonwealth Games “sprucing up”). I talked to a friendly man about the insanity of Indian bureaucracy and the evil of George Bush, until I was cooled off and my sweaty shirt had evaporated. I then discovered a good bookstore and a superb spice shop that I will re-visit in 2 weeks when I return to Delhi for my return flight to China. I plan to be overloaded with English language books, curry powder, and lime pickle – with plenty left over to give to my friends in Chengdu.

Next chapter: Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj, heaven on earth, or something close.


The fugitive from Delhi finds peace and quiet: the view from my balcony, Hotel Ekant Lodge, McLeod Ganj.