Five years is a long time. Five years is half a decade. If you get a woman pregnant, and flee the country, when you come back, you'll have a four-year-and-change-year-old. If you are in jail for five years, you'll be in for long enough to lose every shred of decency (and male virginity) you possibly could. Five years is enough time to grow a beard that rivals one of the frontmen from ZZTop in its luxuriant length.
Five years is 1,825 days, 43,800 hours. It's long enough for you to lose a lover or two, and plenty of friends, for parents to fall ill. Long enough for life to pass you by.
I mention this because I am still returning from living in China for five years. Of course I wasn't in prison, or fleeing a pregnant woman, or anything like that. I was there by choice. I was there because I thought it would get me somewhere. In the end, here I am, back where I began, years and years ago. It remains to be seen whether my time in China actually got me anywhere.
But I digress. It's not the time there that's terrifying -- it's returning to a place that seems both foreign and familiar, the place you knew, and feel you should still know. But one that you don't.
It had been five years since I'd driven -- really driven, in urban, awful traffic -- in America. In China, traffic is awful, but its very volume makes it manageable: It's hard to go fast when you are navigating 300 cars in a 300 square foot space, an old man on bicycle with a lawn mower engine strapped to it, a family of six on a moped... Traffic in China is essentially a social event, one that moves at incremental pace, with all the intricacies of a Chinese social setting.
Traffic in America is a feast of individuals who are flabbergasted that anyone else is on the road but their precious selves. People hurl themselves along at 80 miles an hour, charge up to stop signs as if they were suicidal lemmings and generally seem peeved when they have slow down at all...for a light, for someone turning, for a toothless old lady crossing the street.
I found it all overwhelming. Simple things even, like getting gas. The last time I bought gas on a regular basis, it was around $1.50 a gallon. Yes, it was roughly the time when petroleum itself was created, the Mesozoic Era or thereabouts. Getting gas nowadays not only requires taking out a mortgage -- you can't simply fill up and pay like the old days. There are cards, buttons to be pushed, intercom systems to be dealt with. I put my card in the slot eight or nine different ways on more than one occasion.
And then there are the human elements. I get off the interstate to get gas as it's about to let loose a torrent of Florida thundershower with lightning to boot. I do everything right. Still the pump won't come on. I wait and wait. Finally, I head in and speak to the clerk.
"Oh, it should be working now," he says, as he languidly flips a switch. "But I need your credit card to hold onto."
"But I'm going to pay cash."
"Yeah, I still need the card. Nothing gets charged to it, it's just for security."
Where is the love? Where is the trust? Departed, I suppose, in a hail of price increases.
It's nearly four years later, and here I am, still coming home... sort of. The old cliche is true, "You can't go home again." Most days, I try to focus on the positive: I had some amazing experiences, and some awful ones, as with any life. Part of coming home is knowing where to come home to. I couldn't have chosen more poorly. It's a nice idea to come to a sleepy Southeastern college town, but it's a fantasy. Where do you move to after five years in China? After what is arguably one of the most exciting, rapidly developing countries in the world? It seems to me the only place you can go in America and feel normal is New York City. Just to have the action, the crowds, the sense of possibility maintain a vague correlation. And it's the only place weird enough to seem normal. Otherwise, in the suburban America, you are Rip Van Winkle, a ghost of yourself gone to long, and returned to haunt a home that does not belong to you anymore.