After seven months away from Washington, very little about the city looks objectively different. Main exception: self-scan checkout machines in the Giant grocery store and the CVS. Where did these things come from? I feel like some shtetl or boondocks character trying to figure out how the newfangled contraptions work. Worse: like the first George Bush staring in puzzlement at the supermarket bar-code reader before the 1992 campaign

But naturally we see the unchanged city differently, Via Wi-Fi cadged from a local Shlotzky’s sandwich shop, the first round of emotions:

1) Once again, the beauty, wealth, polish, finished-ness, natural abundance, cleanliness, order, consumer choice, etc of America’s polished cities is just stupefying. Yes, this was a clear and perfect autumn afternoon in a prosperous capital. Still: my wife and I walked into a run-of-the-mill drug store and stood for a moment, stunned: there was a wider array of stuff on shelves within our immediate range of vision than we’d seen in months in Shanghai, the cosmopolitan pride of China.

Americans read so many reports about the dynamism of China’s industries and the skyscrapers of its big cities that they may begin to think there is some overall comparability between the two economies. No. There isn’t. Not to mention: at the friends’ house where we’re staying, we drank water… out of the tap!

2) Related point: it is tremendously exciting to see China developing all around us, and we’ll dive back in for another long stint by the end of this month. But I had a glimpse as to why it can be wearing. In four hours on Sunday afternoon, I did a series of things I have always liked to do and that just aren’t possible while “on assignment.” I went for a run outside, in the sunshine and clear, breathable air. I bought and read the fat Sunday copies of good newspapers. I went into a wonderful book store. I watched a pro football game on in real time. (Redskins receivers other than the excellent Chris Cooley: you’ve got to hold onto the ball!) I had a very good beer, Hop Devil, from Victory Brewing Company, without worrying where or whether I’d be able to find another. And I talked to friends and family without waiting till the middle of the night.

Obviously: it’s a tremendous, historic privilege to have a role in and a view on China like the ones that we now do. But this helped clarify why a privilege isn’t the same as a picnic.

3) Manners-in-public point: my first domestic-US flight in a while was on Saturday, San Francisco to DC. I watched carefully to see: no one got up into the aisle until the little chime sounded to show that the plane had stopped. Here is a picture of a recent flight on Shanghai Airlines.* I took this picture while the plane was still on the runway, slowing toward a halt perhaps 20 seconds after touching down. The flight attendants were yelling in Mandarin, “Sit down! sit down!” but…

4) Tech point: Wow! The internet is fast when it doesn't have to go through the Great Firewall.

[Another installment shortly....]

* If you look carefully you see a foreigner in the picture. As noted earlier, sooner or later you have to do things the local way.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to