Jetlag and Reverse Culture Shock: Back in the U.S.A.

Travelling the Silicon RoadWell, it’s been a week since I’ve returned to the United States from my month in China, and I finally seem to be back on a Western hemisphere rhythm. For several days following my return home to West Virginia, after a few days in the office on the left coast, I could not stay up past 8 p.m. I would try and try to stay awake, but to no avail, promptly waking up 3:15 a.m. or so.

But that’s the rather mundane aspect of my experience; after a month in China some of the things that I would normally take for granted seem strange. Like being in a crowd of people and understanding what everyone is saying. Or not being petrified when I’m driving. After a month of planes, trains and taxis, hell, it feels weird just to drive period.

And I think I’ve been ruined for Western food. I don’t know whether I just got used to eating real Chinese food frequently, or my stomach shrunk, or my intestinal flora and fauna adapted so much to the East that it doesn’t recognize the food of the West. But everything I ingest now seems to hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s like being in a constant carbohydrate coma and in any event — for the umpteenth time, I know, I know — I do miss the food in Chengdu.

But then I’ve traveled abroad for a month at a time before, so I expected a bit of reverse culture shock. But that last time was a month spent in Europe, as opposed to Asia, so it feels magnified, this time. But I don’t think one can spend a month abroad anywhere, and not feel at least a little strange upon coming home. I’m not the same person now that I was when I flew to Beijing on Oct. 8 (it seems a lot longer than 5 weeks ago), and home doesn’t seem quite the same, either. The world is a little smaller, and my perspective is just a bit broader, I suppose. I would hope so, anyway.

It was certainly very strange to go from the hubbub of Chinese cities, finishing up the trip with a weekend in Hong Kong (thank God I never made my way to Hong Kong in my 20s; I would have ended up dissolute and destitute by now, or worse, without a doubt), only to spend two days in San Jose then back home to Appalachia. I live outside a small town of about 3,000 in southern West Virginia, deep in the Appalachian mountains, and now that the whitewater rafting season is over for the year, it’s pretty quiet; in fact most of my local friends are connected with the whitewater tourist industry and they’ve all left until next year.

It’s quite the 180-degree contrast to China, and a bit of a relief in some ways. I was ready for some solitude after the close-knit quarters and seething masses of humanity that are Chinese cities, and it’s nice to breathe air that I can’t see, and smells like … well … smells like air.

But on the other hand, I confess that on the plane ride home from my first trip in China, I was already figuring out when I could take my next trip to China. As I mentioned before, the only other country I/ve traveled to that has affected me thusly was Ireland.

I encountered a saying about China while conducting background research prior to the trip; I’ve tried over the ensuing six weeks to track down the original quote, to no avail. But it goes something like this: travel to China for a week, and you’ll be able to write a book. Travel to China for a month, and you’ll be able to write an article. Travel to China for a year, and you won’t want to write anything at all.

I’ve pondered the meaning of that; many people assume it is a reference to the complexity of Chinese culture; the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know, as you begin to grasp the realities and complexities of a culture that is thousands of years old. I think to a certain extent that is indeed true.

But for me, personally, I took it to mean that the more time one spent in China, the more one would become enamored of the culture — the more one became absorbed in China, the more one came to know it, the less one would feel compelled to write about it and go home.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying I want to go native; but I certainly have begun to understand China’s allure — beyond its burgeoning free market.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaBut now the time has come, now that I’ve returned, to try and address the original questions: is China for real? Does it live up to the hype it receives in the semiconductor industry in the West? And if so, is it a threat? Or will it be in the future.

Well, I’ll be attempting to put the answers to those questions in more detail in the coming weeks here on the Silicon Road, but in a word: Yes, yes, yes/no and perhaps, respectively. But that’s enough for now.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a blog entry of mine that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. While its former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge), as far as I know, this blog content isn’t hosted anywhere else on the Internet, hence my reproduction here.


Original Comments

at 11/22/2005 12:31:00 PM, Brian said:

I have thoroughly enjoyed this series and thanks for the many informative and entertaining articles. Yes, American food is heavy, in fact I bet you will even feel slower. Perhaps the fast moving Chinese culture is partly contributed to the food. Wait till you eat “Americanized” Chinese food, its just not; well, China, Chinese food.

at 11/22/2005 1:32:48 PM, Dr. Hayao Nakahara said:

I myself just came home after seven weeks in China from Beijing to Shanghai, then to Guangzhou and finally to Kunming (Yunang Province). I do this trip a few times a year and every time I come home to New York, I have jetlag of various severity. This time, when I returned home on November 9, it took me one week before my body recovered “NY bio-rythm”. I hate to come home when I think about my jetlag, but when it is over, I am so glad to be home, and then, I start thinking when I go back to China. I completely agree your sentiment. H. Nakahara New York

at 11/22/2005 5:13:05 PM, Eric Fremd said:

Your blog has brought me back to China in my mind…I have absolutely enjoyed the experience of getting back to China by reading this series. This year was my first trip to China- My very first trip I stayed 1 month working at our factory and training in Shenzhen…I was able again to return twice more for a 2.5 week business trip then a quick 10 day trip visiting my new Chinese girl friend…I am looking forward to returning next month…Hopefully I will bring a little piece of China back with me next year…Thanks again for a great series! Sincerely, Eric Fremd

at 11/23/2005 7:58:20 AM, Ron Carson said:

Thanks Jeff for this interesting series. Having had the pleasure of traveling to Hong Kong and China about a half-dozen times over the last 3 years I had a yearning to make plans for my next visit. I have only visited “Westernized China” and look forward to visiting more rural areas on a future trip. Thanks again for the journey.

at 11/23/2005 9:52:43 AM, Ralph Kenton said:

Jeff, thanks for your series of excellent articles on China. They were most useful in preparing for my lectures and business trip, which concluded just yesterday. Although I have no jet lag, it was great to once again consume some American ice cream, a commodity that was very scarce in Shanghai!

Eating there was quite an adventure, especially when pondering delicacies such as “Duck Lower Jaw with Secret Sauce” or “Stewed Beef Fat with Fungus” One observation: The buildings and facilities were definitely world class, although many of their basic service processes still offered room for improvement, especially when it comes to speed, comfort and efficiency. It was nevertheless a great experience, and I’m definitely looking forward to my next trip there.

at 11/28/2005 6:00:46 PM, Henry Sommers said:

Interesting stuff, but what does it really mean? Their education is similar, their dedication more focused,their costs way below ours and so what do we need to fear? Is the political or economic threat real? do we face an unknown force? Are we suckered into a sales hype that is not all what it appears.

Should we stay home and look at our own resources or must we give technology and jobs away so freely?

You’re Just Like Cross Town Traffic

Travelling the Silicon RoadSHENYANG, China — One thing people in the U.S. always talk about when returning from China is the traffic. But I think it’s the larger issue behind the traffic that those planning on visiting or working in China would do well to consider.

Us Westerners, especially us Americans, are used to having plenty of personal space. You know — “give me a home, where the buffalo roam” and “from sea to shining sea” — and all that. Heck, where I live in West Virginia, I can pee off my back porch in the middle of a sunny afternoon, if I want to, and no one would be around to see it.

So as a consequence, we don’t really grasp just how the large numbers of people in the cities here affect a culture.

Let’s take driving. Traffic here in China, at least in Beijing, scares the hell out of me, quite frankly. I had been warned by various Westerners about the taxis in Beijing, but honestly, the back of a taxi is probably the safest place to be in traffic in Beijing; the taxi drivers are the most experienced drivers, after all.

But to a Westerner’s eyes, at first glance traffic in Beijing — and the locals tell me it’s like that everywhere in China — appears to be absolute horrendous chaos. Cars cutting corners and cutting into oncoming traffic to pass or turn left, blindly butting into a lane rather than waiting to merge when there is a break in traffic, horns blaring all over the place, and as if that weren’t fun enough, thousands of bicyclists weaving in and out traffic, riding against traffic, blindly passing busses on the left, etc., — and not one of them wearing a helmet. Then throw in a slew of jay-walking pedestrians for good measure.

Chaos. Or is it? At first, I was tempted to believe the stereotype that many people on the West Coast of the U.S. have: that Asian people can’t drive. But that’s not the case — the contrary, in fact — as I’ve come to conclude after thinking about this all week. It started with this question: if thousands of people are riding bicycles everywhere in Beijing, and thousands more taking the subway or buses, then why is there still rush hour traffic and traffic jams to rival the worst that Berlin or L.A. has to offer, not to mention the smog?

The obvious answer: there are that many people crammed into a relatively small space, by Western, and particularly U.S. standards. Consider this: Beijing is almost the size of Belgium, and with a population of some 13 million (according to year 2000 figures), it has 3 million more people than Belgium.

And what’s more amazing is that there is rarely an accident. I spent most of this week running hither and yon in taxis (often clutching the door handle with white knuckles) and the occasional bus — I was in a taxi at least three times a day, sometimes more — and I witnessed one fender bender the entire time. What’s more, while you’ll hear horns all day and most of the night; no one ever seems to get road rage here; I have yet to see a cab driver so much as raise their voice, although they are quick with the horn.

As one of my new Chinese friends pointed out, if you don’t butt your way out into traffic in Beijing, when trying to get somewhere, you’ll literally wait hours. Same thing with getting in line for a subway car: if you don’t move quickly, you will be waiting for the next one. So the Chinese, nothing if not a pragmatic people, butt their way in. It may seem chaotic to us laowai (Caucasian foreigners), but traffic here is really an impressive, complex and delicate — albeit noisy — ballet.

The thing is, everyone here drives like that, and everyone expects everyone else to drive like that, and everyone has learned to deal with it, so it works just fine for the Chinese.

Maybe there are other factors involved that I haven’t ascertained; the population density in some of the larger U.S. cities rivals that of Beijing; in the case of New York City, it even surpasses it. And yet, while rush hour in any major American city will reveal a gaggle of buffoons behind the wheel, it never seems as chaotic as 8:55 a.m. on Monday morning in Beijing.

But it’s not that the Chinese can’t drive. Oh no, trust me on this one, folks. If the urban Chinese couldn’t drive and drive well, they all would have died in car accidents by now. And it’s not that they have a reckless disregard for life (although if I were to move here, I’d spread the gospel of the bicycle helmet).

I think that it’s just that this is the way life is in these crowded cities — that’s life in a country of 1.3 billion people. As I write this I’m looking out my hotel window in Shenyang, a city of seven million, and traffic, while seemingly not as crazy as that in Beijing, does nevertheless look like, and sound like, controlled chaos.

And it is stark contrast to what we experience in the States. If you picked 20 U.S. drivers at random and plucked them down in the middle of rush hour traffic in Beijing, I promise you, there would be 20 accidents in about 20 minutes.

And I think it’s the population density issue behind the fact that you often hear Westerners say the Chinese don’t respect privacy and personal space, or they have never heard of the concept of a queue — it’s not that at all; it’s just a byproduct of a large population.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaSo if you come here to visit or for business, keep it in mind when people jostle you at the train or subway station as they board the car, or when your taxi driver busts a move left of the yellow line into oncoming traffic, only to merge back into the correct lane at the last possible second, missing an oncoming car by inches on the left and a bicyclist by inches on the right.

Just smile and celebrate the exotic differences between our two cultures. And pray if it makes you feel better in the back of the cab.


Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a blog entry of mine that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. While its former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge), as far as I know, this blog content isn’t hosted anywhere else on the Internet, hence my reproduction here.