It’s been awhile since I last celebrated 4th of July abroad – I don’t even remember where I was or what I was doing then, in 2004, my first post-collegiate summer. Those months were a blur of travel – China, Mongolia, back to China, then Hong Kong for a few weeks, pond-hopping to Croatia, a train to Slovenia, Venice for a day, flight to Paris, Eurostar to London, finally LA. I was most likely still in Asia, as I am today, still a bit discombobulated by the endless wave of faces and characters and taxis and billboards and crowds and traffic and summer heat and LCD lights and humidity.
Amid the cacophony, the things I felt like I missed today: fireworks, pool parties, picnic tables, pick-up trucks, backyard grilling (mesquite-flavored bottled BBQ sauce), potato chips. Especially Ruffles.
Still, I really hadn’t had any of these things in years, since high school, really. Well, except the Ruffles. Sour cream and cheddar. Sweet baby Jesus.
But the things I missed were memories, concepts, more firmly rooted in nostalgia and a Norman Rockwell version of America than any Independence Day celebration I’d actually had in the last few years, which maybe involved some banana cream pie and TV movies. Not that I don’t take my pie and Bad Boys marathons lightly, but it was just another reminder of how far I’d traveled and how quickly. Not just that, but also how many of us had uprooted our lives just like that, and how quickly. I still remember my last week of packing, this faded receipt and that old magazine, this unwanted shirt and that box to ship home, all done in haste.
I think that capacity for wanderlust is more broadly true as well, not just for my ilk of Westernized Chinese kids coming back to claim whatever lost language, culture and economic spoils might be left – but also for the circle of my closest friends in Los Angeles, who in a blink of an eye abandoned California for other edges of the US map – Seattle, Minnesota, San Francisco and Berkeley, Boston. Also, there are European friends, journeying off, a few weeks in Africa, a half-year in Moscow, a future in Hong Kong. A friend’s friend in San Francisco who wanted to live in Chile, another acquaintance in London plotting for Mexico City, another raving of Kiev. Other people leaving Shanghai just as I’ve arrived – Taipei-bound, or off to Australia. We make decisions, we pack up, and we go.
From this sudden geographic flux, each of us is also transitioning to a concept, even if half-hearted, of staying put in a place (or trying to put down meaningful roots). Some moved or are moving for love and/or family, others for jobs, others for learning. But no heartbreak, no drawn-out process, just plane tickets and road trips.
For me, it means trying to figure out a life in Shanghai for a while. Despite the oppressive summer weather, the city is vibrant and untamed and diverse, cosmopolitan, corners still to conquer.
Obviously, I’m excited about the food. That’s really the only relevant part of this Fourth of July tangent. One thing about China that I’ve loved since moving – the prevalence of fatty pork. It’s a primary cut at supermarkets, and a common dish on many local menus.
You never have to worry about the meat part drying out. You can braise or marinade away, knowing that the fatty layers will hold onto the flavor. You can pan-sear and still enjoy the charred bits.
God bless America.