Friday, August 31, 2007

China in Middle America

I spend the summers in northern Michigan, about as far spritually and physically from Shantou China as you could get. It's a land of working class folk, mixed with high rollers from big cities like Chicago, who have disposable income for second homes on the lake. There's a host of folk about, enjoying that fleeting summer up there, mostly gregarious folk. I love to watch their reactions when I tell them that I live in China.

Everybody's reaction, interestingly enough, is more or less the same.

"Oh, so you like Florida?" they say.

"Actually, I grew up in Florida, but I live abroad, " I say. "I live in China."

They all tilt their heads back, and look into the distance, and murmur: "China."

They go through some invisible Rolodex in their heads. And then they come up with a link, no matter how tenuous, from their own lives to China.

"You know, my cousin Ralph was in the Navy, and he had a friend who went to Hong Kong, and that guy, when he got out of the service, he just stayed in Hong Kong, and married a Chinese girl! How about that?"

" co-worker's brother started his own business, and I hear their production is in China."

" know, last year we went to Russia."

It's a curious reaction, because I've traveled a lot, and people's reactions in other places aren't like this. I wonder what it is about Americans that immediately lead them to try to make some personal connection with such a faraway place? Maybe it is exactly that: to make it seem less far away, less outside of the realm of things they know about.

A task that is probably beyond the reach of most people. I spent some time at the dentist's this summer. He was a jolly, round guy, razor-sharp smart and very personable, and we discussed China extensively. As I was leaving he said, "Well, good luck over there in the Middle East."

A verbal gaffe no doubt, but one indicative of how far away the rest of the world remains to middle America.