I’ve been back in the USA for a bit less than a week now. It’s interesting what one’s first impressions are when getting off the plane, how what "strikes" me when I get off the plane (after being away for a year at a time) is so different from year to year. This year, one of the visual shockers for me is the lack of bicycles on the street. I guess I’ve just gotten used to seeing people — lots of them — using bicycles for transportation, including hauling loads around. It fees a bit odd to only see cars and not even any real pedestrians walking to get to their destination. It looks a bit strange to my eye when the only people out bicycling, running, or walking are those who have carved out that time and space for a discrete event called "exercise" rather than as merely an aspect of their daily getting around places.
Two years ago, I was shocked at all the personal space Americans place between themselves and others. Not only do they not stand close to each other, but actually it seems that they leave chasms of "personal space." I remember one time during my first summer returning home, that I was just totally shocked at a line in a deli in my hometown. One person was ordering at the deli counter, while the next person "in line" stood and waited at least ten feet behind them. I couldnt’ believe they would leave so much space in between themselves and the person at the front of the line. I had to ask the second person "ARE YOU IN LINE?" They replied that, yes, they were. Even knowing that they were in line and that I was supposed to wait behind them, it was almost an irresistable temptation just to walk up to the counter and sidle in to wait right at the counter, as one would do in China.
Americans always gripe about how Chinese don’t know how to stand in line. Well, there are rude Americans and there are rude Chinese, and some Chinese do try to "cut" in line even when they know damned well there is a line and it’s not their turn. But overall, this American perception that Chinese don’t "know how to stand in line" is largely, I think, related to the fact that in China people just expect to stand closer and move up and in more tightly. Americans just don’t understand the rules, which are different between the two cultures. In a line in China, one is usually very, very closely crowded in and also one does simply move up and fill any available space. It can seem like chaos, but one learns that if she moves up and squeezes in, she will eventually get to the front, and if she waves and talks she will get attention. In contrast, an American trying to leave ten feet of space in a Chinese queue, or even one foot of space, would never move up because all the Chinese would crowd into that available foot, sliding right in front of the American. No wonder most Americans don’t fare very well in Chinese lines.
Well, this year, I’ve noticed Americans behaving more like Chinese in respect to lines. Perhaps it’s just because I was in the Detroit airport and that city has a reputation for being rude generally speaking, but the Americans were all sidling right up to the queue no problems.
I have to confess, that Detroit airport personnel seemed much friendlier and less rude than they did in previous years, as well. Last year, I was downright shocked at how rude everyone seemed at the Detroit airport, especially the personnel that a new visitor to our country would see as their very first impression of the USA. For instance, the people at the immigration counter, the people in customs, and the people manning the baggage kiosks as the luggage comes off the airplane. This year, people generally seemed friendlier and more helpful in spite of more challenging circumstances.
There is an airline pilot slowdown and it’s affecting service across the airport terminals. There was also bad weather in the Northeast that was affecting air traffic, causing delayed and canceled flights and rescheduling etc.* In contrast with last year, I was really impressed with how friendly and kind the staff were overall, in spite of the added difficulty of their jobs and dealing with upset passengers. One guy at a Northwest Counter even walked me personally to my gate, after it became apparent that I was so jetlagged and tired I was having trouble following his instructions. Another woman sat on hold for fifteen minutes on the telephone, on my behalf, as she called another airline to get my ticket transferred after my flight was canceled.
Yes, service was slow. I had already waited in line for an hour as she gave this level of service to every passenger. I would have expected an airline employee to have a pipeline to a human rather than have to wait on hold for a quarter of an hour while a line of passengers waited, but that woman was nevertheless friendly and helpful and sincerely doing her best. I thanked her.
This year, my first impression of how things were different for me was that when I got on a bus at the airport terminal, I didn’t need to speak Chinese! I kind of missed it! I actually didn’t want J to speak Chinese, because I didn’t want to embark on conversations explaining why or how we knew how to speak it.
Another thing that was so different was that the airport bus driver had a trainer there who was teaching her how to pace herself along the route so that she didn’t catch up with the bus in front. They were using a fancy computer system to track and pace the positions of all the buses to make sure they stayed on a paced schedule rather than running in a clump. She had to punch a special button on the computer to verify each time she stopped at a bus stop. I thought "Wow, that’s systematic." You certainly wouldn’t find that kind of systematization in a Chinese organization. My mind flashed to all the times I’ve seen two buses in my city with the same number passing each other on the street. In fact, while she was doing this, my mind also imagined all the times I’ve seen Guangzhou buses blow past a bus stop (which only happens when there’s another bus of the same number stopped at the stop and nobody on the passing bus needs to get off).
In spite of the impressive systemization in the Detroit airport, I decided that I prefer the bus service in Guangzhou — there are enough buses that it doesn’t matter if the buses clump up. No matter when I go out to the street, I know there will be a bus soon and that it will get me where I’m going in a speedy and efficient manner. Buses leave their home terminal every 15 minutes and then go at a good pace, and that’s something you can count on. There are a lot of buses and excellent public transportation. The USA could really learn something from China in the public transportation department. (The USA is way far behind almost every other country I’ve ever been in, in the public transportation department.)
The airport shuttle bus, in contrast, seemed really slow. I didn’t really like the driver’s "pacing herself" when it meant that it took half an hour for me to get from one terminal to another, with limited time. As it was, it literally took me four hours to get through immigration and customes, to transfer from one terminal to another, to get my ticket rescheduled on a different airline, and then to get back through Security to get to the area where I waited for my next plane. Four hours that included time I had planned to eat and then wasn’t able to. Fortunately, J is such a trooper that she managed to be cheerful and survive on a bag of chips that she purchased for herself while I was in line to reschedule our tickets after our flight was canceled.
We managed to get to my mother’s house around midnight. She insisted on cooking a supper for us. Sauteed chicken tenders, fresh corn on the cob, sliced tomatoes, salad with Paul Newman dressing, home made congealed salad with pecans and cranberries (compliments of my grandmother), crowder peas. Wow. I hadn’t even realized I was hungry, but the food was genuine comfort food for me, and it was stuff I hadn’t had in a really long time! It was sooo good! I have been planning to scrimp and lose weight this summer, but I decided the diet could wait!
I miss Guangzhou! But it’s nice to be home.
*(For news article on airline delayed flights etc, see http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/05/business/05late.html?ex=1341374400&en=84674434f9032517&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink )