I sat in silence as the plane landed in Beijing, ultimately aware that in a few moments, I’d be leaving the tarmac and seeing more ethnic diversity than I had in nearly a year. Still, this knowledge wouldn’t prepare me for the noise. As the familiar voices sputtering Mongolian drifted away from each other, they were replaced by a cacophony of unintelligible noise. I zeroed in on the high-frequency Chinese spoken by the workers directing passengers through immigration, that is, until I heard English. I tried to keep from staring as people who looked more or less like me were speaking a language I could not ignore, masked in accents from England, Australia, somewhere Slavic. It suddenly became a game to detect where these people had originated from. To guess why they were here on this train heading towards baggage claim in the Beijing airport.
Since last June, the only foreigners I had encountered were expats roaming the capital or other fellow PCV’s. I stopped looking for them. I forgot that when you are surrounded by people who look like you, no one notices you. However, after my tour in the Beijing airport, I was back in the United States, and I was invisible.
I arrived in Houston at nearly midnight and jogged to baggage claim, fighting the urge to read every English sign I passed. The previously abandoned carousel was soon after flooded with people. Everyone was meeting someone. Though it was nearly midnight, I was giddy. Then I saw my mom and brother from across the hall. In cinema-esque slow motion, we ran to embrace.
“You smell like clean laundry!”
My bag finally dropped onto the carousel.
“Let’s go home. I am wearing wool socks. It is so hot here.”
I’ve been asked what it was like to go back to America after being away so long. The simplest answer is that everything has changed and nothing has changed. I forgot about a lot of things that exist in the States: Free refills. Self-checkout. Sales tax. Sweet, syrupy root beer. Traffic laws. Free condiments. Marketing campaigns. Malls. Frozen yogurt. So many pillows on one bed. “Shotgun.” Canned biscuits. Ice machines. Happy hour. Free samples. Radio. Icees. Right-of-way. And I also forgot some things that are customary to do in the States, like tipping waiters, or waving when you cut someone off.
Overall, I was shocked at the excess. At times, it was overwhelming to be in stores. There are too many colors in here. Why are there so many signs? I don’t want this lotion sample. I don’t need help. I don’t want to buy the one with 12 functions. Phones were suddenly small computers that people used to log on to the internet to send messages to one another to then be checked on the internet on a phone instead of calling or texting.
America was loud. Advertisements were shouting at me. Telling me what to buy, how to feel about myself. Pointless conversations being held by teenagers behind me on an escalator could no longer be tuned out because of a language barrier. I was inundated with English.
At the same time, I transitioned from the robotic English I had begun to speak with my students quickly back to the fluency of a native speaker. I could express my opinion eloquently and thoroughly. I could hold intelligent conversations. I could argue. I could tell people what they meant to me. English became so much more developed and useful. I found myself speaking again with a southern drawl.
But after two weeks, I deeply missed Mongolia. I missed my friends. I missed the simplicity. I couldn’t hide the smile on my face when lining up again in Beijing to check into the last leg of my flight. I was surrounded by Mongolians. I could understand them. I laughed as they tried to check in 15 boxes marked “fragile,” wheeling them closer to the counter on an unsturdy cart. As quickly as we dispersed from one another in Beijing two weeks prior, we were back in the same line. Once again, I was surrounded by people from the country I had grown to love. I find myself lucky to be able to call two places home.