Friday, September 23, 2016

A native anthropologist at home in what has become a foreign country

After 24 years of teaching and research in Hong Kong, I have moved back to the Midwest, to St Louis, Missouri. Things are still new, and there are new discoveries every day. Missouri, or at least St Louis, is generally considered part of the Midwest, and since my wife and I grew up in the Midwest (Indiana, to be exact), there is some cultural affinity. People are generally very nice to one another; little road rage (people alternate when merging on the highway, and don't cut in line or fight for every space like in Hong Kong), and service personnel are "friendly" (I realize that is partially a culturally defined term). There is a lot going on in St Louis, and it is much nicer than many people had let me to believe. Among initial (superficial) observations:

Everything is big.  The egg tarts (蛋塔) are labeled "European Bakery Creme Filled Tart" and the size of a fist.

The choices in the supermarket are overwhelming. It takes us over an hour to go shopping each time as we have to a) find things in these enormous stores, organized in ways that I still don't understand (except that the milk is in the back; see Planet Money story on this) and b) the choices are so great.
 This is the bacon section! We hunted for 5 minutes to try to get a small package (to use in cooking, not to actually eat as meat) and ended up having to buy 12 oz., the smallest size (after much searching).
 On September 18, Halloween-themed products were already in the stores. They now have "Pumpkin beer" and "Oktoberfest pretzels." I suppose that is "American ingenuity".
 My lunch yesterday; note the size of the sandwich in comparison to the fork. It was very good, but too much. Only once have my wife and I remembered to order one meal and share it, and that was a very enjoyable dinner as a result.
 This is a car (a Hummer) that is parked in our building's garage. It should not be legal to drive such a large car on the streets because it is a menace to other drivers. I cannot help but wonder what the owner of this car is trying to compensate for.

SUVs are now the normal car in the US; the rise of "SUV culture" occurred while I was out of the US, so I have not caught up to the style. Keith Bradsher, now a NY Times correspondent in Shanghai, wrote a great book about the rise of the SUV. I insisted on getting a regular sedan, and my choices were constrained because SUVs are so common.  SUVs are also considered cool, and one pays a premium for it. The Subaru WRX is the SUV version of the Impreza, and one pays about $8000 more for turbo and the privilege of riding 5 inches higher off the ground.


A Nowhere Stone said...

Haha this sound like Bill Bryson.

I wonder if you have nostalgia for Hong Kong :P

- Calvin X

Unknown said...

So, I did a quick look through your blog, Joe, and saw this post. Jet and I can relate to this very much as this is what we went through a couple of times as we lived outside and back in the U.S. again. The grocery store (and now megastores which are a combination of grocery and department stores) were also the most overwhelming.

We did not think, though, that our return to the Philippines in 2012 would be similar, but it very much. There is a growing middle class (as well as poorer class given the population growth rate), and with it more malls, restaurants and SUVs than you can imagine. The sad part here is the extreme contrast to those living in poverty.

So, we can empathize with you. Thanks for sharing this experience!