Notes on the State of California (and other American places)

Last night I returned to Shanghai after my longest sojourn away from China in six years (for reasons professional and personal). I haven’t had a look around town yet, but if fresh eyes see anything worthwhile, I’ll post the news. In the meantime, a couple of random observations gleaned during my extended visit to the US.

  • Outside of major international tourist attractions (say, LA’s Getty Museum), the most ethnically diverse places (that I visited) in America are discount volume retailers like Cosco and Sam’s Club – particularly on weekend afternoons. Over the course of my stay, I had reason to be in a number of suburban Sam’s Club and Cosco locations, and I was floored by the range of languages that I heard while I roamed the aisles. Over-represented, by leaps and bounds, were young Indian and Chinese couples, many wearing university sweatshirts. What to make of the fact that educated immigrants shop for volume discounts way out of proportion to their percentage in the US population? See: Financial Crisis – US edition, Low Savings Rate.
  • Related: by leaps and bounds, Whole Foods may very well attract the least diverse, ie, whitest, clientele in American retail. Indeed, despite selling a wide range of over-priced “ethnic” foods, Whole Foods has no ethnic customers (trust me: they’re all shopping at Sam’s Club). For another time: organic food as the distinctive ethnic cuisine of an over-educated American bourgeoisie.


  • Based upon several long drives in cars without CD players, it is clear that Peter Frampton, Eddie Money, and Heart are the most popular recording artists in America today. For another time: are these legacy artists generating more airplay royalties today, rather than during their respective artistic heydays? I’d like to know.
  • In spite of the apocalyptic US financial news reported in the Chinese media, I did not sense the imminent collapse of the American Republic. Er, I mean – in spite of the apocolyptic Chinese financial news reported in the US media, I do not sense the imminent collapse of the Chinese Republic. Er – you get the idea.
  • After years of railing against poor service and hygiene  on international flights operated by US carriers (some Shanghai Scrap advice: after six hours, avoid the bathrooms on Northwest Airlines flights between Tokyo and Minneapolis), I decided to fly China Eastern between Vancouver and Shanghai for comparison’s sake. A couple of quick thoughts: the bathrooms were cleaned in the course of the 12-hour flight; more room between seats; and the flight attendants exhibited a striking lack of resentment toward their paying customers (see: Northwest flight attendants, Tokyo <> Detroit). The clientele, unsurprisingly, was majority Chinese, and – as a result – the flight felt very Chinese. Whereas, on US-operated flights, First-Class style silence prevails for most of the journey, the China Eastern flight was delightfully noisy, filled with conversation and laughter – sort of a higher-end version of your average Chinese train trip. I enjoyed it, and I’d do it again.
  • Starbucks is in more trouble than the broader American economy. The location across the street from where I stayed in S.California was consistently empty in February – whereas, in years past (ten, I think, that I’ve been staying in that location), cars awaiting the drive-through snaked into an adjoining supermarket parking lot well into mid-morning. Meanwhile, just down the street, a new, independently owned shop, thrives.
  • Ah, and before I forget – there’s still no American novel that I like more than Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. Just finished re-reading it for the first time in years, and it’s still just as true as the last time.


  1. Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” is the song I can’t seem to escape whenever I go home.

    And a “delightfully noisy” flight? You have been in China too long, my friend.

    Welcome back!

  2. We missed you while you were gone. Welcome back.

    re Whole Foods, etc: Rod Dreher’s book Crunchy Cons addresses some of this, the shocking phenomena of middle-and upper class conservative types going all free-range and organic. It’s interesting, expecially his look from the inside. If you search the National Review archives, you can read his article that was the seed for this book. That is, if the National Review doesn’t make you itch :-).

    re: Chinese airlines–Good tips for those of us who travel with kids, who no matter how quiet and still I keep them, would never be described by grouchy—I mean other Americans not traveling with kids as delightful.

    re My Antonia: Amen to that!

  3. Dan – Thanks! Looking forward to grabbing that beer, soon.

    Eliot – After so many years, I’ve really come to appreciate the opportunity to gaze upon a familiar place with fresh eyes. That long sojourn in the US, hopefully it’ll give me some fresh perspective.

    Jen – I read and loved the Dreher essay (though I’m definitely not a crunchy-con) a few years ago. In fact, I think it’s one of the better, more thought-provoking pieces that I’ve read in National Review.

    Y’know – I hadn’t thought about the child angle in re to the Chinese airlines. But actually, that’s a GREAT point. Chinese passengers and flight attendants are way more tolerant of kids than American ones. They actually seem to like them.

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