For the December holidays this year, as every year, I will return home to the United States, leaving behind the exasperation of smog-coated lungs and sideways “waiguoren” glances that always last just a smidge too long. Thinking about my impending return brought me back to memories of last year’s trek homeward. And as my mind wandered, I suddenly stumbled upon something. Something I realized would haunt me yet again, as it haunted me every time I returned westward. What is this looming specter of which I speak? It is something I call Sinofication Reflex Syndrome.
For those who have lived even a short time in in the vast hinterland that is China, falling into the grips of SRS (not to be confused with the considerably more serious, panic-inducing “SARS”) is very simple. You’ve just spent, let’s say, six months in China – any city will do – and you go home to visit your family. You’re sitting around the living room, each member of your household taking his or her turn to ask you about your unique and fascinating experience abroad. Tossing your head to one side, you tell them it wasn’t so special. You tell them life isn’t so different over there. That it’s all just hype. That there are more things that unite us than separate us. You tell them the food was damn good. And you tell them that the Chinese aren’t really anything like they’re portrayed in the news.
Slowly, over time, your conversations become more mundane. Your parents tell you about the house repairs they’re doing. Your brother tells you about his promotion at work. Your aunt tells you about the annoying dog next door who keeps leaving his doggy “presents” on his neighbors’ front doorsteps. It’s just when things seem to be adjusting back to normal – just when you’re least aware – that it creeps in. Meandering. Furtive. It slips its fingers over your shoulders and presses down hard. It grips you until you can’t shake it.
In the beginning, it comes in bits and drabs. You’re going out for lunch and looking over the menu. Your eyebrow lifts in surprise. “In China, I could feed myself for a week on what this burger costs,” you declare aloud. Your companions laugh. You laugh. And it’s forgotten.
The next day, you’re sitting around with friends. They’re talking about the difficulty of finding a decent local bar to hit for drinks. Indignant, you proclaim that – in China – the decent places are all closed by the government a week after they’ve opened and a place that was decent yesterday might be slipping roofies to its customers and watering down its liquor the next. You revel in your superiority. You’ve overcome conditions ten times more challenging than your unworldly, inexperienced peers. They don’t know hardship. Only YOU know hardship.
Cavalier, and indifferent to the so-called “sufferings” of others, you find each haughty sentence you utter begins, “Well, in China…”
But by this point, you’re beyond saving. It’s too late. You’re deeper into Sinofication Reflex Syndrome than you can ever hope to emerge from. You will spend the duration of your time in whatever Western nation turns your fancy, comparing each moment’s experience to the life in China you left behind. The China you thought you couldn’t stand anymore. The China you told yourself time and again that you had to leave, else you’d heave yourself in front of the next speeding bus.
The grip of the red giant is tighter than you think. And there’s no escaping it. SRS has no cure. But you can contribute to the cause. Give all the money you can to SRS research today. Help us find treatments for SRS sufferers everywhere – sufferers just like me. To become an active donor, contact this post’s author. I promise to direct all your funds to a very worthy cause.
Cue the music. And get me Jerry Lewis and Sally Struthers on the phone.