“Which do you like better, the United States or China?” I grew accustomed to answering this question when I met new people while traveling in China; it came right after the inquiry into my monthly salary (and expression of horror at the figure named) and shortly before the alarm over my unmarried state past the age of 30.
I would generally tell people that I liked China more, because this was often the way to get them talking about China, and I wanted to hear them recite the country’s current list of pros and cons. But privately, my true response was much more mixed: there are things that I like about China, and things that I like about the U.S. I can’t really say that I prefer living in one versus the other. This hasn’t stopped me, however, from making almost constant comparisons—both in my mind and out loud to those around me—between the two countries in the nearly three weeks since the wheels of my plane touched down at Newark airport.
First, and perhaps most obviously, the U.S. gets many points for being the home of my family and many of my friends. I have lots of great friends in Shanghai, too, but my oldest friends are all in the States. I consider myself ridiculously fortunate not only to have found a great job in the U.S., but one within a short distance of my loved ones.
Covering the distance between New York and Philadelphia, however, emphasizes the sorry state of American infrastructure versus Chinese. I’ve traveled between the two cities several times in the past few weeks, and tried all three ways to do it:
1. Amtrak: The fastest (about one hour twenty minutes), most comfortable, and best wifi, but the cheapest ticket price I’ve been able to get has been $54. I can’t always justify the time savings to myself, so Amtrak is reserved for those days when I’m really in a hurry.
2. Bolt Bus: Wins on price ($10 to $20, depending on travel time and demand for tickets), but I haven’t managed to get the wifi working once. And a trip from Philadelphia to New York during the morning rush takes about two and a half hours.
3. New Jersey Transit and SEPTA: The best option when I’m not sure when I’ll be able to leave, since tickets can’t be reserved in advance. But this combination (which involves riding NJ Transit between New York and Trenton, then switching to a SEPTA train for the trip to Philadelphia) is the slowest—two and a half hours minimum, often longer. Total price: $24.50.
All in all, I miss Chinese high-speed rail terribly.
I also miss the amazing wonton soup at the place near the Shanghai Municipal Archives and freshly roasted sweet potatoes from the oil-drum oven wheeled around by my favorite sweet potato vendor on Yan’an Xi Lu. The loss of those is slightly alleviated by the easy availability of bagels with cream cheese, as well as any salad I could dream of, in New York. Also, pastrami.
I expected finding an apartment to be one area in which Shanghai would easily beat New York, since I had shockingly good luck finding homes both times I went apartment-hunting in Shanghai. I’d heard horror stories of trying to secure affordable housing in the New York area and worried that I’d have to live in a hotel, or on someone’s couch, for months on end. But the Saturday after I arrived here, my parents and brother drove up to North Jersey and we set out to see three apartments in Jersey City I’d found online. I completely fell for the second one and signed the lease that afternoon. It’s not as large (or as cheap) as my most recent Shanghai apartment, but it has far more charm … and both a washing machine and dryer in the unit itself. My understanding is that this represents the holy grail of New York-area apartment hunting.
I do miss the excitement of discovering new things in China—though I’ve had several moments over the past three weeks when I’ve felt as much a foreigner in New York as I ever did in Shanghai. (The guy at the deli had to ask me three times if I wanted my salad “chopped” before I understood what he meant. Having your salad minced into tiny pieces is apparently the latest thing.)
So yes, I miss Shanghai in some ways, but am happier in New York in others. I’m never going to be able to choose between the two—so don’t even bother asking.