After living in China, home definitely feels a bit strange
By Emily Ford
I'M on a plane, flying home to London for a visit after six months in Shanghai. The flight is the most expensive I've ever taken, thanks to my total failure to plan in advance, yet still manages to travel a punishingly circuitous route around Europe.
After a change of plane in Frankfurt goes badly wrong, I finally arrive at London's Heathrow Airport some 20 hours after setting off. I am so tired I barely know where I am. I almost forget a bag of Chinese mooncakes by the luggage carousel until an airport security guard picks it up and runs after me.
"You forgot these!" the security guard says.
"Ah, xie xie!" I say automatically. He looks at me with a puzzled expression.
"Er I mean, 'thank you'." I say. "Sorry, I think my brain's still in China."
I've heard of "reverse culture shock" before, but it's always sounded a bit unlikely. Shanghai still feels pretty strange to me, most days. Meanwhile, London is normal. London is home.
"I lived here for 28 years," I think. "Of course it's going to feel normal."
When I get out of the airport I am shocked to discover that I have arrived in a foreign country. I look at my fellow countrymen in amazement. "Everyone is so tall and fat!" I think. "When did they all get so big?" After six months of being the tall foreigner in every queue or train carriage I encounter, I suddenly blend pleasingly in. "God, even the babies look big," I think.
The black cab I take feels luxurious compared with Chinese taxis. "A seatbelt!" I think. "I'd forgotten about those!" But the taxi driver doesn't seem to want to chat and doesn't once ask me how old I am. "He doesn't even care if I'm married yet," I think sadly. "All the Shanghai taxi drivers wanted to know."
As we drive down the road I watch the meter rising at a frightening pace. The fare is exactly the same price as it is in China, if you pretend that pounds are yuan. Otherwise, it is 10 times as expensive.
"140 yuan to go one mile!" I think, outraged. "And he didn't even ask me if I'm married yet!"
I remember London as a bustling city, but on this Saturday evening in August it feels positively serene. Cars stop at red lights in an almost comical fashion. They don't move until the lights turn green, then everyone goes at the same time, as if they are in little remote-controlled toy cars.
No one honks their horn, or takes the opposite direction up a one-way street, or attempts to engineer a cunning diagonal route through passing pedestrians at crossroads. "Gosh, everyone is so well-behaved in London," I think.
As I walk to the flat where I am staying, the streets feel strangely empty. There are no food stalls wafting smells before my nostrils, no mopeds careering down the pavements, no buildings being torn down around my ears. I miss the reassuring omnipresence of Chinese underpants billowing in the breeze overhead, the occasional drip from a pair of freshly laundered French knickers.
There are nice things about being back, too. The air in London tastes so clean it feels Alpine. When I arrive at the flat I look around for some bottled water to drink, then remember that in the UK it is fine to drink directly out of the tap. "It's a miracle," I think, astonished. "Clean water from the tap!"
The next day mom arrives, brandishing a selection of "things I must miss when I'm in China." First up is a huge plastic bag filled to the brim with what look suspiciously like Marks & Spencer's tea bags.
"What's that?" I say, confused.
"Tea!" she says merrily. "I thought you might not be able to find it in China."