I spent four days and change in Shanghai, and I got through most of my mental detox there. (I can hear your fear already – if she wrote this much about only four days, how much worse will it get? Well, I never claimed to be a concise writer, as those of you who've had to proof my papers can well attest.) By the time I moved on from the city, I was already feeling more like myself than I had in a long time – I wasn't visually tracking every person who could be following me or observing every car and cyclist for suspicious behavior, and I wasn't obsessing over what emails I'd gotten from my DoD contacts while I was gone or which of my problem cases had cleared. There's one vignette about my detox that's worth sharing, though.
A few hours before I left for Beijing, we were walking around the city in a group, talking about the things that a group of expats will often discuss – the products we miss most from America, crazy things that foreigners do, the bureaucratic hassle of residing in a foreign country, and the like. Someone asked me what I missed most about the US. I thought for a few moments and replied, “People.” They initially thought I meant that I just missed American culture, but then I clarified that I miss seeing groups of people in public, wearing distinctive clothing, talking and laughing loudly, and doing interesting things. I miss people watching. I miss seeing the distinctions between individual strangers, whether it's ethnic, cultural, economic, or merely physical. Saudi Arabia is visually boring – no public spaces, no vegetation, blank walls around all residential buildings, no variation in clothing color, no audible conversations or visible emotions, no way to distinguish among any of the individuals in a group at the mall or grocery store. My eyes must have been popping like a country bumpkin's when I first got to Shanghai (well, the description's not too far from the mark, I suppose). Just so you know, a response like that is virtually guaranteed to kill a casual conversation with awkwardness. Should you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I would suggest lying and saying that Chipotle's burritos are what you miss most about the US.
Next up - Beijing!