Travel journal
Reflections
By Shang Zuo

     I traveled to Europe this fall. Many times during the trip — when I was walking on
La Rambla and it was teeming with people, florist shops, and street performers, when I
was eating a piece of pizza bought from a street side shop — I felt so well and so right
and couldn’t help comparing America with Europe. Why can’t we have such a life?
     Europeans seem slimmer, happier, and possibly poorer than Americans. Their cars
are smaller. They walk and talk to strangers more often than we do.
     In America, streets are mainly for driving. In other countries, streets are primarily
for walking.
     In America, wherever we go, we tend to drive. One day when I was driving, I
noticed a simple fact that I had often seen but didn’t comprehend before: there was no
single human face showing on the street at that moment. We’re living in a city of cars.
These cars actually have personality. Some cars are friendly, some are not so much,
some are snappy, and some are stocky. Cars are like our shells. We build a shell
around us to carry us to a destination. There are no people on the streets, only shells
floating around. Does it sound like a “daymare”?
     With cars, we move to suburbs, build a castle called home. Sometimes I even
wonder, “Do Americans like people?” Why do we isolate ourselves like this? I prefer a
condo or a flat, but I was scared when someone told me it’s a bad investment because
they are difficult to sell.
     Every workday during lunch break, we drive to a nearby fast food restaurant, grab
a hamburger and a soda, and finish them quickly. We can even eat in the car to save
more time. I feel angry about fast food. They cook without thinking. They don’t think how
to make food tasty. There are no cooking skills or styles involved whatsoever. They
only think about how to make more money out of food.
     Europeans eat in small restaurants with colleagues. They chat and their lunch
takes a longer time. Not as efficient. But which life would you call a happy life?

Population density determines many aspects of life
     I’m from Asia, a populous continent where people are forced to interact. For
example, in college, six to eight students are assigned to the same dormitory and they
would live together for several years. (The dorm condition might have improved by
now.) I can honestly say that it’s not bad at all, as some might imagine. Strong bonds
are built among these students. The power of growing up together is immense. My best
friends are from my student years, from elementary school to college.
     Some may ask, but what if a jerk is assigned to be my roommate? In fact, there’re
much fewer jerks in the world than we think. If you live with a supposed “jerk” under
the same roof for four years, you will discover what makes him laugh and what makes
him cry, how he talks to his mom, how he struggles for his dream, how he falls in love,
and perhaps how he loses his love.
     During the process, one acquires a better understanding of people. It becomes
easier, even a habit, to understand other people’s perspectives. Then we can talk
about many things other than sports and weather.
     Population density determines urban shape as well. Suburban neighborhoods
cannot afford restaurants and shops in walking distance. Small businesses won’t
survive because there’s not enough customers. So people drive farther to find places
for eating and shopping. When we get into the car, it doesn’t make a big difference
whether we drive five minutes or 15 minutes. So we’ll end up in a warehouse store
where parking is easier, and goods are cheaper and plenty. Colorful urban life cannot
exist in suburbs, just like one-stop shopping at warehouse stores cannot exist without
cars.
     Having complained so much, I don’t mean that I don’t like American life. Between
America and Europe, I still prefer living in the U.S. Of course, as a tourist, I tend to
admire rather than criticize what I see in Europe. And tourist cities might just look
artificially happier than they really are. However, traveling abroad is an enriching
experience. Seeing other cultures allows us to reflect on ourselves and see
alternative possibilities for the future.

    
(From top) Casa Batlló, Barcelona, Spain; St Peter's
Square, Rome, Italy; San Marco, Venice, Italy;
Sagrada Família, Barcelona, Spain.