Wednesday, September 12, 2007

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THE EXPAT LIFE
By ALAN PAUL


A Capital Reminder of What
It Means to Be an American

August 31, 2007

My family is nearing the end of a three-week-plus visit to the U.S. We have driven more than 2,000 miles in a rented minivan, from Maplewood, N.J., to Bay City, Mich., and back, with eight or nine stops in between. I've slept in almost a dozen beds, including a Spider Man trundle bed next to my cousin's six-year-old son and, for four nights, in a pop-up camper in my in-laws' backyard.

The journey has been exhausting. I've cursed the three huge bags I've lugged from stop to stop and the sleeping arrangements have left my back feeling mangled. But that's the price you pay for living overseas and pledging to spend time with as many important people as you can in a limited period. And it's worked: I've caught trout with my father and played a gig with his Pittsburgh Dixieland band; gone camping on Lake Huron with my wife's extended family; and caught crabs with my sons and nephews. Saturday, we will attend my nephew's bar mitzvah, opting to have our kids miss the first six days of school rather than this family milestone. These are the type of connections we swore we would not forsake when we moved to China two years ago.

Yet one of the most important reconnections we made on this journey came in Washington, D.C., on the only three days we spent without any extended family. We were doing no less than getting back in touch with what it means to be American.

After two years studying in the British curriculum, nine-year-old Jacob knows a lot about ancient Roman, Greek, British and Chinese history, but his knowledge of American history and politics was decidedly lacking. Months ago he stared blankly when we asked him about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, a shortcoming we largely remedied with a collection of books. Still, he and seven-year-old Eli clearly needed a deeper understanding of American history.

I hoped that our kids would feel the same kind of patriotic surge visiting the sites in Washington that I experienced as a kid. It's easy to be cynical about the system, especially when viewed from outside America's borders. But I think it's appropriate for children to have uncomplicated positive feelings about their nation -- and I didn't want to deny my kids that opportunity merely because they lived abroad. I also wanted them to know that there are differences between China and America that extend well beyond Toys "R" Us and Chuck E. Cheese (both of which we also visited on this trip).

Our first day there, we spent the afternoon with Kathy Chen and her family, our first friends in Beijing who moved back to D.C. last summer. I have written about how the departure of Kathy's son Andrew was hard on Jacob, who was counting the days until our visit. After a beautiful and easy reunion, we went downtown. As soon as we stepped out of a cab in front of the flood-lit Washington Monument, its top shrouded in fog, and looked over at the Capitol, I was overwhelmed by a surge of emotion that caught me off guard. I had spent so much time thinking about how the trip would have an impact on the kids that I forgot about myself, and how living abroad might heighten my own sensitivities and appreciation.

That night, we visited the White House and it struck me that there is no such institution in China. Their leaders' residences are sealed off and shrouded in mystery. That symbolizes something, as does the ability to come late at night and gawk at the president's house through an iron fence, standing a few hundred yards from the seat of power.

So too does the protestor silently smoking a cigarette underneath the clapboard "End Nuclear Proliferation" sign, an outpost supposedly manned round the clock since 1981. You can argue about the futility of such a gesture but after living in China for a few years, it's hard not to appreciate the protestors' right to do it and the potency of their mere presence. A few days later, Jacob said to me, "Dad, you know that person sleeping in the little box to tell President Bush the war is wrong? Well, I think she's doing the right thing." He may have had the facts wrong, but I was happy that he was thinking about it, and it gave me an opportunity to explain another difference between China and the U.S.

Being an expat can complicate your feelings about being American. On the one hand, I think that there is an air of assumed superiority that you don't even realize exists until you live outside the country and feel it get punctured. Returning from Beijing, I am also jarred by the commercialism; I was overwhelmed by the simple act of walking into a Kroger's grocery store, blinking at the massive aisles and bright fluorescent lights. On the other hand, living in a place like China gives you a much greater appreciation for simple liberties you take for granted growing up in America; it has made me feel much more strongly about preserving them and maintaining an open government.

Before we entered the Vietnam Veteran's memorial, I explained to the kids what it was and said it was like visiting a church, synagogue or graveyard. I pondered explaining how Vietnam was close to China and America was there fighting the spread of a government very similar to that under which our family has now chosen to live, but thought that was too much information to give young kids. We know a couple of people from Beijing who have moved to Vietnam and many who have vacationed there. The fact that I now see it as just another place to visit made the sacrifice of these 58,256 American lives seem all the more tragic.

Seven-year-old Eli was the one who got the whole thing. He was amazed to find people with names like ours engraved on the wall and asked me if we had any relatives who died in the war and why there were flowers and flags left there. Then he asked, "Even though we didn't really know anyone, could we leave a flower for them, too?"

I told him it was a beautiful idea. He plucked a wildflower from outside on the lawn and we walked back in together.

"What do I do, dad?"

"Put it down on the ground and say a prayer for one of the soldiers, or even for all of them on that section."

"How do I say a prayer for them?"

"You say something like, 'God, please grant peace to these soldiers, who gave their lives for our country, and for their families, who miss them very much.'"

He meticulously placed a flower into the crack of the wall and shut his eyes for a few seconds.

I gave him a big hug and we walked out. I couldn't have been more touched, or pleased that he was getting something out of this trip. But even in D.C., with my own nationalism running high, I had moments that made me question where home really is these days.

At the National Zoo panda exhibit, there was a slide show of the bear's Sichuan home. Looking at the pictures of smiling Chinese peasants, mist-shrouded hills and dilapidated general stores, I felt the last emotion I ever expected to experience in Washington, D.C. -- homesickness for China.
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Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Read comments by readers on my last column about the perils of car accidents in China.

You are a brave man! As an American expat in Vietnam who also spends a lot of time in China, I can only say that the driving here is worse, with the only compensation being it is usually slower and less deadly (for cars at least --motorbikes are another story), due to the less developed infrastructure.

My question is what led you to drive at all? Of all the expats I know in Ho Chi Minh City, the only ones that drive on a regular basis are consular officials, who have the best "get out of jail free card" in the world, a diplomatic passport.

For all the mere mortals, we are told by all our companies that the liability risk, even at reduced Vietnamese pricing, is not worth the small cost and convenience of a driver.

-- Jody Condra

I've written a few other columns about driving, including getting my license and buying a car. Not driving isn't really an option because I need to get around and get my kids around and I prefer to be in control rather than turn things over to cabs, which often get lost and usually don't have seat belts.

I know a lot of people who are forbidden by work from driving because of liability. In most cases, they then receive drivers as part of their package. That is not the case with us and it would drive me crazy to ask a driver every time I wanted to go around the corner. I usually do take cabs or black cars downtown.

* * *

You should have waited for the police to come. It is always the back car's fault if you are rear-ended in China too.

-- Sun

You are not the only one to point this out to me. I still think I did the right thing simply because the police can take a long time to come and I had to get my kids out of there.