Christina Zastrow

The Long Way Home


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Back in the land of blue

A little while ago, I wrote a post that quoted a metaphor from another blog about what’s like to be an expat (or a missionary). The metaphor is that you start out as a man of blue in a land of blue people and when you move to the land of yellow people you slowly turn green and don’t fit in with either group because you are neither blue nor yellow.

Well, this week I am back in America doing paperwork and I am discovering just how green I’ve become. Nothing here quite fits. My friends are just as fun as I’ve always found them to be, but I feel the distance between us as if I was still in China. My family is just as remote and uninterested in my life as always, but now I feel a barrier protecting me from that, as if the Great Wall of China has taken up residence in my heart.

I know my way around here in ways I don’t in Beijing. I can give the taxi driver directions in my native language and that’s also his language. I can get a hair cut without relying on pictures and translators and hope.

But none of that makes it feel like I belong here. The things that are easier here show me the specks of pure blue that remain in my life, but rather than making me more comfortable, it makes me long to return home, to return to China and savor the difficulties of language and cultural differences, the fun of planning travel and adventure, and the joy of being with my rainbow of friends there.

I guess it’s a lesson learned for me. I’m a tourist in my hometown and I’m at home in my adopted place. Home isn’t about where you come from, it’s about where you’re going.


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May your life be as rich as the darkest of chocolates

Today is my favorite holiday, but also one that is only celebrated in America – Independence Day. I make it a habit every year of reading the Declaration of Independence, trying to learn something new about my country, and enjoying a display of fireworks with my friends.

Of course this year I am halfway around the world, with friends who are from multiple countries.

And I’ve got a lot on my mind this year.

I’ve signed a new contract, with a new school, to teach high school here in Beijing for the next two years.

I’ve ended a relationship with someone I considered to be part of my definition of home.

I’m preparing for a short sojourn back to America in a few weeks, but this time I feel even less connected to Chicago. I made some mistakes in who I trusted and I let someone badger me into decisions that I think cost me a few valuable friendships.

Home is an increasingly ephemeral concept to me these days. My perspective on life is more global and less settled than ever before. Connections to my place of birth are slowly fading and I grow more entangled with the life I’ve built for myself.

There’s another date of note coming up for me in the next few days. American Independence is also a day where I traditionally examine the course of my life, decide where I want things to go from here, and evaluate the choices I’ve made over the last seven months.

The last month, especially, has been difficult for me. There’s been a lot of fighting in my personal life, and while it’s resulted in ending that relationship, I think that in the end that is for the best. I keep hoping that I can learn to savor the life I’m building for myself, but a lot of it is still searching and still wishing for things to be slightly different than they are.

I recently tried to reconnect with my family via Facebook and Skype only to be rebuffed.

I always imagined that I would have a large family of loved ones, children, and intimate friends built up by the time I reached 35. That date is less than one full day away, and some days thinking about that makes this journey less joyful because I am making it alone. And then I realize that while I don’t have the life I dreamed of, I have something I could never have imagined before I got here.

It is bittersweet some days, but, just like in a rich chocolate bar, the darker notes and the slight bitterness balances the sweet and makes everything more complex and enjoyable.


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Searching for the land of rainbows

Recently I read an article called “Ten Things Your Missionary Won’t Tell You” that really spoke to me in my search for home, and to the reasons I often can’t fathom a return to America, or at least to Chicago.

The relevant bit is this little illustration,

“A man from the land of Blue became a missionary to the people of Yellow.  He struggled because he was a Blue man among Yellow people.  However, after a while he began to truly understand their culture and become partly assimilated.  One day he looked in the mirror and saw that he was no longer Blue, he was now Green.  It made being in the land of Yellow easier.  Then, after many years, he returns to the land of Blue. To his dismay, no one there in his homeland of Blue wants to be with him because, well because he was a Green person in the land of Blue.”

I didn’t come to China with the intent to be any sort of missionary, those years are behind me now as I grow in my own atheism. I didn’t make plans to share the gospel, or anything except the English language, with the Chinese people.

But I came here, a woman of turquoise from the land of blue. A woman who didn’t quite fit in in my home country before I left. Technically, I fit in, but I didn’t feel like I quite matched everyone around me. And now I’m here, absorbing bits and pieces of yellow, and becoming more and more green.

I’ve been back to Chicago once since I left, about five months after I left. And already in that time, I could feel myself not fitting. My perspective had changed, and the more time I spend here, the more different it will grow. I’ve signed a new contract, at a new school, for more time here. And while I plan to return to Chicago after that, I don’t know if that’s the way it will actually fall out. Because my vibrant green color really only fits in when I mingle with other ex-pats who are shades of green, orange, and purple themselves.

The other part of the article that spoke to me was a single line about the hardest part of being away from your home country.

“After the first year people totally forget about you.  Even your best friend now will not continue communicating with you.”

I suppose I was in an odd circumstance to begin with. My years of being away started long before I started the paperwork on my move. My years of being away started when I differed to that abusive ex, the one who hated my friends and made me feel guilty whenever I spent time with them. Over the last two years I was with him, my other relationships suffered, and I have little choice but to accept that I did some irreparable damage to relationships that deeply matter to me. There are friends who gave up on me in the space of those two years I wasn’t really allowed to visit with them. And then there are friends who accepted me back into the fold when the fog of that relationship (and the breakup) lifted. But my toe-hold in the lives of my friends had slipped enough that when I left for China, I was, once again, forgotten.

That hit me hard, especially when I visited in January, and I realized that I have little enough in common with some people who were once my dearest friends, that we will probably never be more than friendly acquaintances again.

Some of that is because I have become ever more green. Some of it is because I started out turquoise. And some of it is just the fact of time and distance. But all of it makes my relationships I have with those who embrace my greenness with me all the more valuable. And all of it makes the search for home even more difficult, as I find that I can’t settle for the land of blue nor of green, but that I want the full rainbow of people and experiences.


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The Psychology of victory at all costs

Not that long ago, I walked the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, and I witnessed for myself the history of evil there. The side effects of poison on the people of Vietnam, sprayed there by my own country in an attempt to win a doomed ideological war, were difficult to witness and they made me ashamed of my country’s history.

I was reminded this week that it isn’t that man seeks out evil, but rather that man seeks out victory, and for some, the price others pay is never too high as long as the goals are met.

So, what reminded me that the blind eye of victory at any cost penetrates history? A trip to Harbin, China where I spent an afternoon in the Japanese Germ Warfare Museum, the remains of Unit 731.

For historical context, it was the middle of the twentieth century, a time otherwise known as “WWII is on it’s way any minute now, oh, wait, yup…Germany just invaded Poland”. Japan was determined to defeat her foes, and to do so, she took up the study of biological warfare. Unit 731 was set up in Harbin to detain (mostly) Chinese POWs, infect them with various germ agents, and…decide how best to weaponize things like cholera and the plague.

Thousands of people died after being infected with various biological agents. If they didn’t die of disease, they died of hypothermia from experiments to help the Japanese learn the best ways to bring people back from the brink of hypothermia death. Unit 731 was the Japanese version of Dr. Mengele.

The exhibit was disturbing, the remains of the buildings, haunting in ways photos simply can’t demonstrate. The take-away, for me at least, was the need to go further, to understand the psychology of how people can tie another human being to a makeshift cross, shield their vital organs so death isn’t immediate, and experiment with exactly how to build a bomb that spreads disease.

 

The problem is, the psychology that leads to this is something we see more and more in recent days. Mengele saw the Jews as less than human, and therefore he could experiment on them at will. It was, after all, all for the good of Germany. Japan could other the Chinese, Mongolian, and other non-Japanese victims because they were also “othered.” They existed as a threat, in a time when there were multiple threats and it was felt that Japan needed every advantage.

Any time we “other” a group of people, not even to say that they are less than human, simply to say that they are different, we create an environment in which we’re one step closer to saying “victory at any cost.” We need to remember, at the core of us, we are all human. We all deserve dignity and respect. No one deserves to be mistreated because their skin is different, or their God, or their mental state, or…whatever thing we decide to pick out as “other” next. None of that is at our root. At our root is blood and bone and human spirit.


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Vietnam (graphic image warning)

***Warning, graphic images of the effects of war and Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people below***

It turns out, there’s a name for the kind of travel I enjoy. Apparently, it’s called dark tourism. My most recent example is a trip I took to Vietnam last month. I didn’t fly down there to swim in the ocean, or visit Monkey Island and laugh at the exploits of primates trying to pawn food off silly tourists.

For me, the biggest draw to Ho Chi Minh City was the museum previously titled The Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes. It’s now, in a time of better international relations, The War Remnants Museum.

The first exhibit we saw was a dedication to the photographers of the war, the first war captured in living color, on video, in detail. When the war started photographs were in black and white, but part of what turned American sentiment against the war was the color movies coming out of the war, of the actual suffering of the people there, the people who were living in a war zone.

But the exhibits that spoke to me, and there were more than one, were the exhibits on the effects of Agent Orange. For a little background, the Vietnam War was fought on one side by foreign soldiers (along with South Vietnamese) who stood out, and on the other side, almost exclusively by North Vietnamese (and other Asians) who blended in quite well, especially to the Americans who couldn’t really tell the difference between Chinese and Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese tended to use guerrilla tactics, and so one strategy of the Americans became the deforestation of areas of combat. One of the most common deforestation chemicals used was Agent Orange.

And then there’s this picture, that looks like it could be a picture of a modern ailment, a child with Zika Virus.

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I definitely paused for a long moment, wondering if there is any connection between Zika and Agent Orange. There is no reason for me to think that, just…it startled me and had me thinking hard about the effects of the things that people do to the environment

Of course the museum has a slant. Vietnam is a country run by the communist government we tried to defeat in the war. But the numbers simply don’t lie. Strip away the propaganda, and the numbers are still there.

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I mostly chose not to  photograph the people in HCMC who were missing limbs or body parts because of Agent Orange, but they were not hard to find. And one night, wandering around alone, I did find one merchant, who spoke enough English to tell me he had been born without a leg, who graciously allowed me to take his photograph to use in my “stories” on the internet.

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Of course…I didn’t spend my whole three days in Vietnam wandering the one, rather small, museum. I even left Ho Chi Minh City for a day. The intent, upon arrival, was to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, tunnels that were used by the Vietnamese during the war. But…we decided to try something new and take an actual tour. And in the interest of seeing something of the Vietnamese culture, we wound up in the Mekong Delta.

For me, there was a lot of lighthearted fun in that tour, but before that, overshadowing the fun of the delta was this

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That’s an American soldier, walking through the Mekong, weapon dry, even if nothing else was.

That was…intense. And it colored everything else that I saw. Not enough that I didn’t have fun, but enough to keep me aware of where in the world I was.

My favorite experience in the delta, was the honey island. Our tour guide showed us the hive of bees and slowly blew a few bees around before putting his finger into the hive and eating honey that moments before had been swarming with bees. He asked if anyone else wanted to try, and my group shied away, but I have been trying to experience the world. And so I put my finger into a hive of bees and that was the best honey I have ever eaten, licked off my finger after scooping it straight from the live comb.

So, what does any of that have to do with my search for home? Not much, I suppose, except this. Never have I been ashamed to be an American. Looking at the pictures in the museum, and being aware that the same weekend that I was looking at these results of Americans being closed off to things that are different, was the same weekend the first “Muslim ban” was announced. The people of Vietnam were nothing but kind and polite to me, they were friendly, struggled through the language barrier with me, and shared friendly banter and kind smiles. But at the airport, my blue passport, for the first time ever, bought me trouble with security. Because my blue passport told the officials, at least, that I was not there in a friendly capacity. My blue passport indicated to them that I might be trouble.

 

 


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Travel is an addiction

And you know it’s become a problem when

  • You get a magic two consecutive days off and immediately spend three hours debating where you should visit
  • You try to convince another person that the potential of catching malaria is a small risk when compared with visiting…a river
  • Your travel plans involve at least thirty open tabs while you debate the relative merits of Ferris wheels throughout China
  • SCUBA diving to the bottom of a lake to see a special section of the Great Wall of China feels like a legitimate weekend activity…until you remember that you can’t swim

The real question is, is it a problem that needs a solution?

Other than a bottle of aloe for the mild sunburn you picked up when you randomly jetted down to Vietnam for a weekend getaway?

Those questions about home are a lot easier to answer on the other side of a plane ticket. And the answer seems to be that this addiction isn’t gonna let me land back in the states any time soon.


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Why is there always water?

In Beijing there is this weird little quick that I have wondered about since I first got here and I was so excited to finally have it explained this week.

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Literally every garbage can in a subway station has a water bottle or a plastic cup of water sitting on top of the can. Sometimes there is a plastic flower inside the cup, but the water is always a part of the equation. It was so confusing to me.

I don’t really know if other countries do this. In Chicago I ride the train from suburb to city, but had very rarely ridden any other form of public transit, so maybe the whole world already knows what this cup is for. But it blew my mind to find out this week, it’s in case there’s a fire in the garbage.

Like…this is a country where peopple smoke…everywhere. No. Literally everywhere. I can’t think of a single place I’ve been where I didn’t see people smoking or see a designated place for people to smoke (ie in the library you have to go to a designated spot). People smoke on the street. In the clubs. In restaurants. Everywhere. So as a precaution, they have water available in case a lit cigarette gets tossed in a trash can and a fire flares up.

Beijing is brilliant.

And…semi-related. People here smoke everywhere. So imagine my shock the other night, when I was sitting at a friend’s apartment, watching them pass a joint around the couch, and then when that was gone, get up and go out to the balcony to smoke a cigarette. Cause the don’t smoke in the house cause “that’s nasty.”

What?