Even the New Jersey Turnpike Looks Beautiful!

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By Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.

In a 1976 taped interview, veteran Passionist missionary to China, Father William Westhoven told me a story. A member of the Chicago region in the western United States, he was assigned to join eastern region Passionists in 1924 and go to their mission territory in west Hunan, China. In the early 1930s, upon his first return back home on furlough, he was surprised to learn that his personal records were absent from the Chicago region. Where was his real home, he wondered. Was he now considered an East Coast Passionist? In the end, he remained a member of the Western Province. At various times during my August 4, 2008, 14-hour return flight from Hong Kong to Chicago, this story of Westhoven’s culture shock back in the United States crossed my mind. Instead of security Westhoven experienced a disconnect. What would I feel and think back home in the United States after a year in China?

I remember being surprised by this story in 1976. I am less surprised now. I suspect veteran travelers, tourists, business people, military personnel, missionaries, students, international volunteers or aide workers, diplomats, teachers, and so many others face an array of diverse issues when they return to their home culture.

On Friday, August 8 I found myself driving a car from Baltimore, Maryland, to West Hartford, Connecticut. I was a bit anxious. I had not driven a car at all in China—just about one year. At about exit 11 on the New Jersey Turnpike, I saw the all familiar outline of the New York City skyline on the right, circular gas tanks on my left, and the rolling hills of the New Jersey Watchung Mountains on the far left horizon. Making this all the more meaningful was the clear, blue, crisp sky! I was simply stunned by the beauty of this moment and view. I realized I had lived almost a whole year in Chongqing, China, without the benefit of the blue sky. Yangzi river mist and pollution kept Chinese beauty absent from me. From November 2007 to February 2008, this did take a toll on my mood. So, at that moment, even the New Jersey Turnpike looked beautiful! Then reality struck: an SUV roared by me on the right and almost cut me off. It served as a quick reminder of being home and trying to find my place and routine again in the United States.

Presuming that many people upon their arrival back home from outside their culture have had a similar experience, I thought it might be worthwhile to offer, in no particular order, some observations I have had from August 5 till October 1. Countless times in September, I have found myself enjoying the energy prompted by the change of the season’s weather in the northeast United States from summer to fall. I never felt this in drab Chongqing. Less energizing have been my observations on American food. During the first weeks I struggled to handle the large portions of food eaten in this country. In the past I might have thought about wasted food. Though still an issue, I was more struck by the bulk of processed food we eat. China provided me the chance eat fresh foods, especially vegetables. An unforeseen problem has been my inability to digest heavy meats. In one instance this problem led to severe stomach pains. I came to realize that it would take time to adjust and be able to eat some of my favorite meals. Quickly, the American pace of life here found me doing less walking than I had in Chongqing. Elevators are all around. I needed my car. Back home, exercise had to be planned. It was less a fact of daily life as was the case in Chongqing. Without proper attention I would regain unnecessary weight.

Almost to a person, people who met me in those first weeks of August asked me two questions: why had I not stayed in Beijing for the Olympics, and did I experience the earthquake. Providing a succinct answer to two diverse questions proved difficult. First, Chongqing is over two hours from Beijing by air. Quite frankly, I was tired from all the year-long Chinese hype I had to endure in the educational and social system that promoted the Olympics, and I did not wish to pay the high prices that would be part of the Olympics. Often, this led to short comments about the stunning opening ceremony and the Olympic media news coverage. The earthquake was a more difficult subject. I wanted to speak more directly about my experience and emotions. This traumatized all of us in Chongqing for a short time. For two weeks after the quake, I slept with my clothes on ready to evacuate in case of aftershocks. I have found myself thinking and wanting to talk about how the Chinese differed from the United States in disaster response. Several times, with emotion and tears, I wished to share how fortunate we are in this nation to have brothers or sisters. The May 12, 2008, earthquake made clear the sorrowful reality of a one child family policy.

With respectful sadness I have to admit that I felt safer in Chongqing than I do in southwest Baltimore where I reside. Even sadder is the fact that most Americans nod in blank agreement when I mention this point. Writing this opinion makes me angry. Why is life here so violent? In one class many of my Chinese students wanted to know if I owned a gun and then said that the American government should just take guns away if they are the cause of violence. I do not own a gun, of course. I then made the point, however, that guns were legal. It is the people of our nation who often are the problem for so many reasons. This discussion on freedom was hard for them to appreciate as it is not part of their social pulse. Awareness of our violent society upon my return home to the United States has made me long for the peace found in Chongqing. Returning back home simply made me aware of the sadness and suffering so evident every day in the urban American city streets and the rural countryside. Admittedly, in Chongqing the struggles of life could be hidden by the sheer volume of people, and it was an unfamiliar culture—always new. This is less the case back here in the United States. I write about this because I wonder how long this mood of observation will exist. At various moments I have found myself wondering what ways I might have to apply my own principles of imagination and critical thinking to make my small neighborhood better or overall society better. What do I do with the anger generated by watching people struggle in this land that still believes in the American Dream? Yes, I lectured on this topic in China, but deep down I am hard pressed to know what this means in a world of higher gas prices, corporate economic failure, and the lingering war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have returned home and find myself observant and thinking.

The emptiness described above does not mean my spirit is dead. The year in China made me reflect on religious belief. I came to appreciate my Catholic belief and the American opportunity to seek religious understanding. Returning home now makes me listen to the debates on separation of church and state with a bit less patience. We are just fortunate people here when it comes to religious liberties and yet the tensions surrounding the topic are often so alienating. One of the most compelling moments in China was listening to the Democratic candidates for President during the primary season as they reflected on their religious beliefs at Messiah College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I was proud to speak of this religious value in my lectures. For me, also, there is a quiet and newfound peace in public ministry as a Catholic Passionist priest upon my return home. In other words, I feel less evangelical fervor and more a sense of thankfulness for the diverse ways to express my faith: the Catholic sacraments; saying prayers in public with people; talking with others about the hopes and sorrows of their beliefs. Because I had to endure limits of religious expression in China, I actually have come to appreciate the watershed of faith and the abundant diversity of world religions which are allowed to flourish in the United States. In my opinion, this cannot diminish. With this China experience now behind me, I watch more closely with frustration the pettiness of doctrinal religious debates between religious leaders, believers and non-believers here at home. After years of encouraging people to pray for mature reconciliation and freedom for religious believers and the government in China, I am now thinking that I have to offer the same prayer for us in the United States.

In conclusion, I must say the past two months back in the United States have gone by fast. I still get excited when I read and study Chinese history. I want to take a walk outside and eat a bowl of noodles with hot Sichuan spices. Sadly, reality hits. I am back here in the United Sates. I have to admit it: I miss China. At the same time, I have made a conscious decision since my return to speak about the gifts I gained in China. They outweigh the negatives. For others, their life experience outside the United States may have been a negative experience. In every case, I dare say that when someone returns home after a significant time outside their home country, they go through a multitude of thoughts. I have every hope that this essay might make us more conscious of how we listen and learn about travel beyond our homes. For generations, world travel was a dream. Now, it is so commonplace and routine. Let us not forget the value of helping each other become adjusted to home. Might this simple gesture of dialogue be a road sign to personal and world peace.

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