Christina Zastrow

The Long Way Home

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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.


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.”




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Adventure in the routine

Part of what I wanted, in leaving for China, was to break the routine. I wanted a new life, a new plan, and to get out of my rut. What I’ve found since I’ve been here is that I am a person of routine. I like knowing what’s going to happen today, tomorrow, next week, next month. But in China, part of my routine is adventure. I have a built in chance every two months or so, to leave China and see something new. And that is not something I will give up so easily, even if I return to America in six months.

Which leaves me back with trying to figure out what in the world I can do in America that will pay rent and bills, and leave enough left over to see the rest of the world…

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More school, more choices, more work

I’ve begun looking into online graduate programs. For years I’ve thought that I would do a graduate program in history, but the programs that I like all have one requirement that is tricky for me – a foreign language requirement to read and speak the language of my research at the college level. My research would be in Mandarin, a language I have struggled to pick up despite having lived in Beijing for the last six months. Whoever told me immersion was the way to learn had never tried to immerse in a completely foreign language, in a country where everyone wants to practice my native language rather than sit through my stilted and toneless Chinese.

I’ve begun to consider a graduate degree in education. My original intent was to try to find a way to get an elementary ed endorsement, but that can’t be done completely online because there is a requirement to student teach, which can’t be done from Beijing. I’ve put a lot of thought into what that means and I’ve come to the conclusion that I enjoy teaching English and so I will look at an ELL (English language learners) degree.

So now I compose emails to the various ELL heads of online graduate programs, trying to find the best choice. In every email I write, I explain my background – I have a secondary ed degree, and a teacher’s license in IL. I’m currently teaching ESL in Beijing, China and have recently obtained my TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) certification. And yesterday I heard back from one of these supervisors who was very determined to ensure that my background has, in fact, prepared me to teach English as a second language. That one took me a moment to wrap my mind around.

In any case, this doesn’t help determine my timeline. It doesn’t really help me figure out what I’ll be doing, except that I am pretty sure I’ll be teaching in America again at some point and I want to be prepared for that. But at least it gives me something else to think about rather than always wondering what I’m going to do next.

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Back in the PRC

I’ve been back in China for a few days now. Long enough to register my location with the local police (required of all foreigners every time we leave PRC and return) and decide I had three days of vacation left. Apparently, spending vacation time in Beijing is not really a thing I do now, since I spend all my regular days off exploring this city. My roommate and I were sitting around on Saturday evening, both exhausted from recent travel (I spent ten days in America, she ran down to Hong Kong to achieve her exit and then sojourned on a mountain for five days), and realized we should use our time more wisely. We booked a train Sunday morning to head to Hebei Province and see the Shanhaiguan section of the Great Wall, which is one end of the wall (I know, who thinks of the Great Wall of China as having an end????), and also the only place where the wall runs into the sea.

I’ve only seen the ocean (the Pacific to be precise), so I was pretty excited to spend some time in at the Bohai Sea. And it was beautiful. Freezing, you know, since I was at about 32°N in early February, but beautiful. And I finally am feeling like I’ve actually seen the People’s Republic of China. Spending as much time in Beijing as I have, I definitely feel like I know the flow and the spirit of the capital, but the provinces are mostly a mystery to me.

In Xi’an (Shaanxi Province) I was prepared for no one to speak English and to struggle to get around, but I found the Ancient Capital to be very western/English friendly. That was not the case in Shanhaiguan (Hebei Province). Very few people spoke English, English menus (yingyu caidan), which are everywhere in Beijing, were completely unheard of, and even our accented Chinese didn’t help as much as we would have liked. It’s definitely time to buckle down on those Chinese lessons and see if I can’t lose the American/Beijing accent before I travel to Chengdu in the fall!

In any case, it was a pretty great trip and I’m quite pleased to be living a life where that’s something I can do – decide I want to see more of the world, and be on a train the next day, seeing more of the world. It’s something that is difficult in America just because we are so isolated from the rest of the world, if I want to go somewhere outside North America, I have to cross an ocean, which makes the flight a lot more expensive. So, as I consider more and more if I’m returning to America in six months, I’m trying to utilize my current ability to explore the reaches of Asia and if I return, return with an understanding of the world that I didn’t have before.


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Home is my people. And home is my place. And they aren’t the same.

So, I’m visiting America right now on a short vacation to help me sort out my feelings. Right now I’m trying to decide if I return to Chicago in six months or in eighteen, but for now, the return to Chicago seems inevitable.

It’s not, of course. Anything could happen tomorrow, or next month, or whenever. But for now, I think I want to eventually come back. Not because Chicago feels like home. It doesn’t actually. But because the people feel like home. And that’s a thing that has confused me for months.

Chicago, the place, isn’t haunted with memories of other times, other people, other lives, anymore. But neither does it have that embracing feeling that I belong here. Beijing does. I wander around my city and despite the language barrier and the cultural differences, I feel welcomed where I am. But here, in Chicago, there are a few places that do feel like I belong. It just happens that they are all with the people I care about.

Now, if only I could get my people to move to my city. I would be perfectly content.

For now, the decision that makes the most sense is to be, eventually, with the people who feel like home and try to arrange my life in a way where I can continue to travel and see the world, and then come back. Here’s hoping that still feels right when the papers are signed and the decision is solid.

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I thought, this whole time that I’ve been exploring where I’m headed next and what home means to me, that all the people in my life who are important knew where I was leaning, that everyone knew there is a chance that I’m not headed back to settle down in Chicago. I learned recently that that isn’t quite accurate. Of course, I learned this when I was discussing some opportunities in China with a person who matters very much to me, but who happens to live in Chicago.

I discussed some new possibilities (because clearly what I need at this point is more choices) with my roommate, and sort of came to a decision. It was one that freaked me out and that I was…completely unsure of, but that I thought was probably the wisest choice. It wasn’t the choice that my heart called for, but then, if my heart was really calling me in any specific direction, I’d probably have a set decision by now.

Then I mentioned it all very casually to someone back in Chicago and this person said something that changed my entire perspective. This person said “I don’t want to lose you.” Which…is not something that I expected. I kind of thought that the people in Chicago that I miss sort of…enjoy me when I’m around, but don’t really care that much when I’m not or that the level of communication that I’m at is acceptable to them. Which means this person, whom I adore but who I thought would never feel the same way in return. And here I am, reading this text, having a conversation that implies to me that I matter. And now I don’t know anymore. Because if I am cared for by this person… well that’s data that changes some things.

I guess I’m off to write new pro/con lists and reconsider where I’m headed…