Coming to America

Not so much Eddie Murphy style, however.

First view of Oregon

Why was I back in America, then?

After three months abroad in China, I flew back across the great Pacific pond and landed in San Francisco first (yay, American customs & immigration!) before jet-hopping to Portland, Oregon, for the 39th Annual American Middle Level Educator’s Conference. All middle school teachers, all day long. Frightening prospect for many, I expect.

Excellent in any language. How do I
remember the characters? It’s a quote
from the film Kicking & Screaming
about coffee: “Guatemalan with a little
Ethiopian.” Notice the “G” in the
“ka” syllable (the others are “mouth”)
and the “E’s” in the second syllable “fei”.

When I heard about the conference a month ago only, I eagerly jumped on the chance to hang out with fellow middle level educators and to visit Portland, which was part of my plan to tour the Pacific Northwest, eventually. Everything worked out at the last second, fortunately. I got my hotel, flight, and conference registration sorted out in record time, thanks to the dedicated workers at Concordia.

I left Shanghai on Tuesday morning. Since our flight was delayed, all I could think of was how I was going to make my connection in San Francisco. When it came down to it, I got the chance to run a bloody marathon across the airport. There’s a scene in the film Love Actually where the young boy runs through Heathrow to say good-bye to the love of his life. That’s cute. When I have to do it, I look arguably less cute, and I have on heavy clothing, a large carry-on backpack, and, to crown it all, I have forgotten to put on deodorant, in my haste to leave that morning. Gross, I know. Maybe even a little TMI, but I had only 35 minutes to make my next flight. That meant going through US Customs & Immigration, answering questions about my stay, collecting my luggage, rechecking my luggage, and going through security. Then, to the gate. I had to use all of my available charms to just get through security a little faster, including smiling at the next agent and hoping that the no deodorant crisis would keep under control until I could thus get my travel-sized deodorant out of my checked luggage and apply liberally.

First nonfat pumpkin spice
latte: heaven in a takeaway
cup. Pure bliss.

So, I done ran through that airport to my gate. I MADE IT with only 2 minutes to spare. The flight wasn’t full, and since the Dramamine I had taken on my last flight was finally kicking in (READ: I was a little … sleepy), I threw my stuff under the seat in front of me, ordered a Diet Coke (real) from the flight attendant, and pretty much fell asleep with the Diet Coke still in tact when I landed an hour and a half later. That baby got a seat in my backpack’s drink holder – it was going nowhere but in my belly – later.

When I landed in Portland, I was jarred awake, and since I had no concern about getting my luggage right off (let the others fight it over the carrousel), I went in search of Mecca. And, I found it, just down the conveyor belt from my gate: that lovely green-and-white sign of coffee capitalism. Oh, Starbucks, how do I love thee? I can’t even count the ways! I actually sang “Hallelujah” when I saw the sign. I went in, immediately ordered a nonfat pumpkin spice latte, and drank that baby down as I stopped at an ATM, pulled out some American cash (inhaling the sweet inky smell), and finally went to get my single suitcase – which was going round and round and round the luggage belt…

Oregon Convention Center,
right down the street from
my hotel. Obviously, my
arrival was heralded by steely
grey skies, partially-bare
trees, and rush hour traffic.

I took a taxi to my hotel, checked in, won the “furthest teacher at the conference” award from the hotel staff – and found out that one of the women at the desk had taught in China too. Pretty nifty. I was straight up the road from the Oregon Convention Center and the main tram stop too. I put my stuff away, collected the large box of goodies my family had sent me from home (yay winter clothes!), and went for a wandering walk around the neighborhood. I sighted three more Starbucks – one with a walk-up window! – and promptly had another nonfat pumpkin spice latte. I wandered some more, finding a Walgreen’s nearby. Never would I have thought that I’d be happy to see a Walgreen’s, but when you worry about buying OTC’s in a foreign language, it’s lovely to see English signs. And 75% off Halloween candy, which I hit up like I’d never had Halloween candy before.

The “Meet Santa” display at
the Clackamas Town Center
in Portland. I wanted my
picture with Santa, but the
unions said he had the day
off. Boo.

Never mind that I arrived on Election Day and everybody remarked, “Oh, aren’t you glad that all the election ads are over?” And I got to say, “What election ads?” and look at them all confused and stuff. It was fabulous. I wouldn’t explain why I hadn’t seen any, only return the half-crazed look as if to answer, silently, “Yes, I do live under a rock. Is that a problem?”

After a satisfying walk about the area, I arrange to meet up with two other teachers who have come over with me for the conference. We’re planning on a full out, American (or Australian, in their case) shopping spree to help boost the economy. And when I say boost the economy, I think all the major department store stocks must have gone up because my Visa was blazing with smoke. Clothes. Shoes. Accessories. All in my size! Oh, happy day! When I got to the cashier, I explained why I was so happy to be shopping, and that cracked her up. Shiny, pretty plastic card…

It was lovely, to blaze through the mall, admire the Christmas decorations, smell the cinnamon scent pouring from the vents, get hit on by some guy who swore he saw me two days go (uh, I was on a ten hour flight?), and check out the Made in Oregon store and listen to an old guy tell me about the one time he met Sasquatch. So, I bought the “Brake for Sasquatch: It Could Save Your Life” bumper sticker for the car I don’t have here, but I laminated it and pinned it to my backpack for all the drivers to puzzle over when I ride my bike to work every day. I’m special that way.

For lunch, I absolutely devoured Chipotle. It was a miracle in a recycled bowl. Delish.

The other woman in my group negotiated yet more shopping time from her husband and my fellow co-teacher, and we had about three more hours to go. Whatever shall I do next?, I pondered as I sipped my second Starbucks nonfat PSL that day.

A calendar. He was calling my
name. In a smoldering British
accent. There was no refusing

Then, another beacon appeared before my very eyes, and it wasn’t a mirage. It was a lovely bullseye. It was…Target. Sweet Target. I never appreciated you so much before! I had to reel in my poundage, meaning I had two suitcases for 50 lbs each, and I had to really think about what I’d be packin’ in there. I picked up Glade scented mini candles, Kashi bars, all those toiletry items I’d run out of, and just stuff. Stuff like foods I couldn’t find otherwise.

Here I was, now lugging around six bags of stuff (some small, some large) through the entire mall. It didn’t faze me, considering I’m used to walking around and lugging huge bags of stuff. That’s my usual Sunday shopping trip in any given week. You become very Sherpa-like here. I’m still lobbying for either a camel or a draft llama to help with carrying things.

Everyone else I encountered asked if I wanted a cart, and I just laughed. Heck no. Carts are for sissies – if I can’t carry it, I can’t buy it. So, you build up muscles so you can buy more and make less trips. Simple enough. I went back to the main mall and slipped in through the aisles of Barnes & Noble, looking for new reads I would either have to get from the Shanghai Foreign Language Book Store (Fuzhou Lu, near Nanjing Lu, major shopping hub) or from an ebook retailer. My iPad is well-used in that area. Instead of buying books, which would only up the weight allowance in my luggage (and I was going to the amazing Powell’s Books too), I got a few calendars – Walking Tours of London and the one in the picture above – and decided to have one last lingering look around before we headed back to the hotels.

I can’t escape BUBBLE TEA!

The best quote from the day had to be the guy on the tram saying that “it is very crowded in here” when there was at least two feet between everyone on the tram. Oh, boy. I smile.

Life is certainly on a different plane now. I was amazed at the reverse culture shock when I first arrived in Portland. How differently I looked at things. How the sheer choice of things overwhelmed me. How I looked at the tags on my clothing and wondered at the story behind its production. How I converted prices to RMB and tried to think of the Chinese word for the item. How I listened to different languages at the mall and thought of how I was now the dominant language speaker again but linguistically minor even in Jinqiao. How novel and quaint things have turned into every day life – the new norms.

How, when I speak of America, I now call it “overseas.”

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