08/09/2012 06:46 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2012

Being Bi-Continental: Remembering How to Be Chinese or American

I am back in the U.S. again for the summer and feeling Chinese. First there was the marathon flight from Hong Kong en-route Shanghai to New York. It had been nearly two years since I'd seen Shanghai and I was fortunate enough to get a glimpse once again at the ever changing city.

The airport had at least 30 counters open at immigration and the line moved at a fast clip. The baggage claim dropped off the luggage as if on cue. The squeaky-clean subways ran swiftly and I marveled at the glossy advertisements from Miracle-Gro, a sure sign of a rising middle class. The Chinese in their 20s and 30s whom I encountered spoke good English. Every-so-often I had the strange feeling that I could be in New York or Los Angeles. Change happens quickly.

On the leg from Shanghai to New York almost all of my fellow passengers were native Mainland Chinese. My seatmate was a young woman wearing fashionable jeans and T-shirt, listening to a loaded iPod and immersed in reading via Kindle. She played games with her iPhone 4S, which trumped my Fisher-Price phone. Besides her passport she could have easily passed for a young American.

When we landed there was an orderly cue and none of the pandemonium of passengers switching on cell phones and heading for the overhead compartment, as I'd experienced in the past. As recently as 10 years ago, the scene was often very different. The economic mobility was not as obvious, and there were fewer Chinese passengers.

Sure there is a long way for the Chinese to go especially when it comes to personal habits (also known as "xi guan"), but the improvements are obvious certainly in the Chinese here. Things were clearly getting better not worse.

Back home in America change was less obvious. I returned to a familiar skyline and runway. After the immigration officer examined my passport and said "Welcome home," I wondered if I had ever left. JFK Airport had not changed physically and in some ways looked like it was stuck in time. The baggage claim overflowed with luggage mostly because there were too few and the conveyor belts were not long enough. The lengthy queues at immigration were a familiar scene. The waiting area resembled what looked like a scene from Hong Kong's old Kai-Tak Airport. The arrival/departure boards -- overshadowed by the neon digital boards in new airports -- flipped in game show fashion.

While it's nice to walk down memory lane (sometimes), a friend commented that things in the U.S. -- at least the airport and its surrounding radius -- were feeling antiquated compared to emerging cities around the world. Not to say that nothing had changed. The changes were more subtle. On my first day back, I went to the local shopping center anchored by the supermarket, which seemed oddly empty for midday. Here in my home town I noticed less commuter traffic, more parking spaces at the shopping center. I returned to the supermarket at different times of day to observe that there were fewer queues. At night my friends said they chose to stay at home rather than go to the movie theater; "too expensive." More cops were giving out tickets, even for the smallest of violations such as stopping briefly to wait and pick up a passenger.

On the contrast the city was bustling with shoppers especially on ritzy Fifth Avenue and its radius, and the Broadway show that we attended was packed. Throngs of tourist buses jammed Wall Street with the majority of visitors from either Europe or China. The economy was looking pretty good or was it really? "Things may look good on the surface but America is becoming poorer, it's no different than a fat person who can live without eating longer than a thinner person," a friend of mine said. "That's what happening here." Having been gone from home for almost a year, the comments and observations shared were fascinating.

In the days after arriving, I shifted time zones (east to west), and swiftly fell into the familiar routine of driving, eating salad for lunch, and falling asleep amongst crickets chirping in American suburbia. My sister observed that I was becoming American again, or at least eating American.

That said I am grateful for that brief window of time when I was fresh off the plane where I had the opportunity to view the U.S. from another vantage -- from the point of view of someone who had been briefly a foreigner in her own land. In fact, when the newness of returning home wore off, I continued to feel proud of what I've viewed as China's accomplishments. I am still feeling very Chinese and that is okay. It is part of being bicontinental. Welcome home.