Coming Home as a Stranger

The author of this essay recently returned to the United States after living and working throughout Asia for nearly a decade.

WITH wardrobe designed by the Trans-Siberian Railroad and hair styled by razors in a Chinese hotel, I have landed in yet another strange land. This seems the strangest one yet among the last dozen or so, but this is supposedly ``home.''

Of course, ``home'' for the moment is a California hotel while I house hunt, but this hotel bears no relation to overseas members of its chain. There is no ``minibar,'' that is, no fridge. Twenty-four-hour restaurants and room service are unknown, which creates distinct inconvenience for a stomach just arrived from Asia that still thinks lunchtime is 10 p.m. and dinner is due at 4 a.m. Oh, to stay in this chain's Beijing hotel with seven restaurants and a little Italian ice cream parlor.

Missed most is CNN International with its worldwide market closings and extensive international news coverage. The local paper may be the fattest I've seen in a decade, but size is no compensation. Maybe I'll get used to it.

It took a couple of years, but I finally became accustomed to towering over half the population, male and female, of the Asian countries in which I resided. It had distinct advantages: being able to see over others' heads in movie theaters or to intimidate queue jumpers back into rightful places in line. Now I'm barely average - and it is disconcerting.

There is plenty more to become accustomed to here. I keep checking the bills in my wallet; it's very confusing to have money all the same size and color. In some countries, where the tens are green, fifties are purple, hundreds red, and thousands orange, there's no mix-up in the checkout line. Cashiers here have enough trouble making change without dealing with someone who hands them three ones and a ten for a $3.67 purchase.

I tend to be overwhelmed in supermarkets anyway. There's so much strange stuff on the shelves. In one place I lived, when you saw a jar of spaghetti sauce on shop shelves, you bought it instantly - there might not be another for six months. Here I discovered at least 20 brands, each in several styles and sizes. Such abundance so awed me that a friend laughed so hard she cried. Other shoppers stared as they steered a wide berth around us locos.

Local practices can also be difficult to understand. Take the ``water your dead lawn or else'' case. There is actually a city, West Covina, that pays someone to drive around town, contributing to the smog levels, to check homeowners' landscaping. Despite southern California's four-year drought, that city will fine and/or jail a homeowner for not squandering scarce water on a dead lawn. Crazier still, local taxpayers allow the city to use their tax dollars for the salary of the lawn inspector, his or her transportation costs, postage to mail the notice, time for city staff to do all the paperwork - plus court time if the case goes that far. All because a lawn died?

People have strange habits anywhere you go. In Singapore, for example, the ``Singapore seat beat'' has to rank among the weirdest of cultural idiosyncrasies. Upon boarding a bus, riders slap the seat twice - thwack, thwack - before sitting down. Ask them why and their only response is a puzzled expression. The habit is so ingrained, they probably don't even realize they are doing it, no less why.

Hong Kongers will spend millions for a license plate with an ``auspicious'' number. Japanese dole out house numbers in the order in which the homes were built, so No. 2 may be miles from No. 1. It is extremely rude to wear a black dress to a party in Thailand. Half the fun of living someplace new is figuring out how people do things and why.

Things are pretty strange here too. Peo- ple here are willing to drive an hour or two - one way - just to go to work each day. Perhaps that explains why once the locals get to work they stand around chatting to co-workers instead of waiting on customers - all that exhaustion and isolation of a long solitary commute.

Things get stranger. A television hero here is a failure at mediocrity, yet his wife - who sports a blue beehive hairdo - gets letters from the first lady. And the letters get published in newspapers from one end of the country to the other. What happened to hero as winner against all odds?

There is plenty more to explore. There are cuisines I haven't tasted in years - Greek, for example - and other foods that hadn't been invented last time I was in the United States. Pizzas don't have corn on them, and stewed dog doesn't appear on any menus, which makes ordering somewhat easier, or safer.

Then there's the language barrier to surmount once again. ``Ni hao ma?'' doesn't get me very far here even among the Chinese.

Coming home as a stranger to a very strange land could turn out to be fun. At the least, there is enough to keep me quite off balance for months to come.

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