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Four and a half years ago my husband and I packed up our belongings, organized our three children, and moved our American suburban family to Shanghai, China.
He had called me three months earlier from the road.The phone roused me from my slumber in front of the television. ” I got an offer for a promotion today.”, he informed me. I intuited the next part, another move. We move often in the pursuit of his career. “So where are we going?” I asked. When I heard him say Shanghai, China, I lost myself, breath stopped, mind flat lined, time suspended. A wave of shock rolled over me, but being who I am, the yes came quickly. I said, “When someone offers you a once in a lifetime opportunity, you say yes.” And so we did.
We spent two and a half years in Shanghai, then another promotion moved us to Taipei, Taiwan. We have been in Taiwan for two years, and now we are packing again. We are coming back to America. We are returning to our home country changed people, broader, wiser, and very grateful.
It has been a truly eye opening experience living this length of time outside of America, to be outside looking in. It has allowed me to detach, and observe from a vastly different vantage point. It has sparked many questions about what it is to be American. What does that really mean to me? How does it present to other people in the world? How is it evolving positively or negatively? These questions are on every American’s mind these days as we wrangle with the presidency of Donald Trump. Whether his victory was a promising change, or a terrifying turn for the worse; no matter which way we may feel, it has certainly ignited a deep inquiry into what the American identity is, and what it will become.
Shanghai is a massive, sprawling city. It has a population of 25 million people. As we prepared to move there, that alone seemed ominous. The unimaginable size of the place, along with the very negative ideas we tend to have about China in The United States, caused me nervousness, approaching fear. My husband had spent enough time there though, on business trips, that I trusted his assurances that we would be fine in this exciting and edge pushing adventure.
China is a different world. Culture, language, history, food, behavior, government, economics, gender roles, collective identity versus individual identity, ideas about what is valuable and what is normal, and a plethora of other critical differences awaited us. Living abroad is an immersion education, and you are plunged directly in. Culture shock is a very real thing.
Once the shock wore off, I found more mental and emotional space to consider and evaluate my new home. I looked for what was familiar even in such a foreign environment. I also noticed and examined what was different, what challenged me as an American living in China, and then as an American living in Taiwan.
People are people is a cliche for a reason. At the end of the day, people everywhere, from America to China and back are mostly attending to the same things. They are concerned with getting by, putting a roof over their head and food on the table, paying the bills. They have love of family, Chinese people are absolutely dedicated to family and often have multiple generations living together or close by. They desire love and acceptance, and are invested in advancing their position, the deep want to create a better more hopeful future for their children. Humans across cultures and geographic boundaries all desire ease in life, and the ability to provide love, safety, and hopeful possibility to their people. This is what I found to be the same in China, Taiwan, and every place we have visited.
Shanghai was surprising to me as an American, because a city of its size in America would definitely require keen awareness and considerations for safety and well being, especially for the kids. I found Shanghai to be exceedingly safe, all areas, and any time of day or night. There are definitely pick pockets, and scam artists, but I never felt I had to be concerned for my physical safety. That sparked my interest. How could such a massive urban area be so safe? Shanghai does have economic disparity, quite extreme in fact. There is poverty. There are people living in very austere conditions, many without running water and basic amenities. Economic despair often relates to crime in my general experience, and yet Shanghai was different. How could that be?
China, to our standards and ideals as Americans, lacks individual rights and freedoms. Justice in China is swift and brutal. China uses the death penalty more than any other country in the world. Due process is technically in place, but is not adhered to effectively. The media in China is state controlled and censored heavily. Many forms of interpersonal communication, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, as well as Google, are all blocked in China. Communication between people is monitored heavily.The right to free speech, and the right to assemble and protest are strictly regulated. People do not have the right to bear arms in any capacity, and I acknowledge that this right is complicated and controversial in America today.
What has occurred to me is, that generally, the cost of safety is diminishing freedom. As freedom is sacrificed it can create greater safety in a sense, but what is in danger in increasingly controlled social systems, is the right to be individuals who hold different ideas and opinions, who can rise up against oppression and demand change. We incrementally lose our ability to forge and defend our own destiny, and to pursue life, liberty and happiness in our own way, and as we see fit. The quest for freedom is the very DNA of the American spirit. That quest creates conflict, it is inherently confrontational and has a natural tendency towards tension. It often pits people against each other and against the power structures at the helm. The quest for freedom means disruption, agitation, more questions often than answers, but our founders saw no better way and no better cause.
It is well worth noting that our freedoms in The United States are vulnerable. Many people are still fighting for their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. We have seen our rights whittled away in recent years by The Patriot Act, NSA spying, excessive force used by police, tightening of restrictions on protests, the list is long. It is up to we the citizens to be vigilant and demand the protection of our rights and freedoms. They most certainly can be lost.
I live in Taiwan now. Taiwan is a disputed country fighting for democracy. During the time I have lived here I have seen Taiwan elect their first woman president, move further towards complete independence from China, make serious strides towards legalizing same-sex marriage, and people organizing protests standing up for individual rights. They live under the shadow of constant threat from China to invade and take back what China views as rightfully theirs. Taiwanese people, for the most part, seem to be fully in resistance to China. They too have a thirst to stay free and to remain in the questions and turmoil that freedom creates.
To build a society upon the ideals of liberty and freedom, and with a government intended to be of the people, by the people, for the people, creates systems that are dynamic, fluid, and unpredictable. Exhibit number one, Donald Trump is President of The United States. It is striking to me that the America I am preparing to return to may end up being as much of a culture shock as moving to Shanghai was. It is not the same place that I left four and a half years ago in so many ways, but it is that dangerous edge of living free that makes America a vibrant, challenging, and in many ways, exceptional country.
Here we are again, my family, on the threshold of the unknown, ready for another leap. I once again find myself in nervousness, approaching fear, but I know my country, and in time we will find our place and make our way. We will find our footing and grow anew. We are coming home to America.
Jean Skeels is a writer, artist, yoga teacher and mother. She has been living in Asia as an expat for the past four and a half years, and is now transitioning back to The United States. Her travels and broad life experience inform her writing and art. She embraces all the challenges and wonder the world has to offer, and seeks the beauty and raw truth of it all.