What you first notice if you're in America after six months in China...

It is obvious, but: The wealth. The things. The overall abundance. (And, yeah, well, that you can speak English.) Plus, how clean the air is, and how many trees and birds and flowers there are, and how few unfinished edges -- open ditches, stacks of construction beams -- you come across. Since I'm in Northern California I haven't yet had the cliched reaction of how large the people themselves look. But I notice how sparse they seem to be on the streets, compared with any Chinese town.

The name for America in Chinese and several other Asian languages is 美国, or meiguo, "beautiful country."

I gather that's mainly phonetic -- mei, for beautiful, is how the stressed syllable in "uh-MEHR-'ka" supposedly sounds. ("Mei" doesn't sound very much like "America," you say? Well, it sounds more like it than "Fa" sounds like "France" in 法国, or faguo, "law country." Pinyin, the system for rendering Chinese sounds into Western script, is pretty terrible, but the Chinese system for rendering Western sounds into Chinese is worse. I digress.) But even if "beautiful country" is a phonetic convenience, you see what they are talking about.

I realize an error of logic I had been making. China is so fast-changing, so ambitious, so covered with construction cranes, so on-the-move and on-the-rise, so dotted with localized pockets of affluence and big new projects like its Olympics sites and its giant factories and its "Mag-Lev" trains, that I had begun, without thinking, to assume that it was "rich." Not even close. I am reminded of where the country actually stands.

And by the way, it's probably a good thing that Republican Congressmen didn't know that France was called "faguo," back in the Freedom Fries days.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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