Christina Zastrow

The Long Way Home

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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…

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I *can* do this

Before I left for China the people on the peripheries of my life fell into two categories. Either they asked me why in the world I was planning on moving to China, or they told me that I wouldn’t be able to handle it and started listing the problems they thought I would encounter.

I love China. It speaks to my soul on a level I didn’t really know was possible. And yes, there are issues sometimes. I still don’t speak fantastic Mandarin and the internet in China is infuriating sometimes. But I love China. And I am capable.

That’s the thing. All these people thought that I couldn’t do this, that I needed support and… I don’t really know. That moving halfway around the world takes a certain kind of person, a certain kind of strength, and I just didn’t have that. But I can do this. I do do this. Every day I handle life here better than I handled the chaos and drama of my life in Chicago before I left.

So now I’m deciding what to do next and the more I think about it, the more I think I owe some thanks, at least of the spiritual sort, to the ex who left me homeless, unemployed, sick and injured a year ago. Because of him I found out what my friends really think of me, I know which people I actually want to be around, and I know, without a doubt, that I am capable. No matter what happens next, no one can take that away from me.

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A new addiction

I was sitting on a plane, waiting to take off to head into Xi’an to celebrate the new year, when I realized something. I, who didn’t take my first flight until I was 33, who had never been away from “home” until I left for Beijing, have become an addict.

Airplanes, and the people on them, have always fascinated me. Their stories fill my brain every time I see a plane. Now I walk confidently through the airport, sure of myself and my plans and I wait anxiously for the moment the wheels leave the ground again, because from that moment of wheels up on my way, until they hit the ground again on my return trip, anything can happen. There is no return to my daily routines because I’m not in the same place as my routines. That is the moment my spirit and my imagination soar and I begin my next adventure.

By the time the wheels go down on my return, I’m already thinking “where to next?” and planning the next time I’m headed out, into the world.

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Facebook Memories

I love social media. I tweet, Facebook, and pin all the time because these things help me connect with my world. Recently though, my Facebook memories have begun to really make me think. Everything I social mediaed (can you use that like a verb yet?) was excitement about what I was anticipating doing in 2016.

I was Facebooking about house-hunting with my now ex-boyfriend, tweeting about writing my second book, and pinning sustainable furniture material to prepare to write the application essay for art school. I was so excited to be planning to move into a new phase in life with my boyfriend by my side.

And then it all came crashing down.

I figured it out. I found a new direction, at least for the short term. And now I’m looking at those environmentally friendly architecture pins knowing that art school isn’t something I’m going to do after all. That doesn’t mean I won’t pursue more higher ed, just that, if I do, I’m not tied to doing it in Chicago, and there’s no one to judge if I decide to pursue my original passion (history) instead. I’m reading those tweets knowing that I set aside that book until I could write it with my own ideas fresh in my mind. And I’m looking at those Facebook memories about moving into Chicago and tentatively considering marriage and remembering all the reasons I wasn’t actually happy.

But all those reminders of where I was a year ago have given me a new drive.

When I get the reminders about where I was this year, what I was doing, what I am doing, right now, I start to wonder. What do I want to be doing next year at this time? I’m far enough along in my contract now that I legitimately have no idea what I will be doing. My contract ends in August so December 2017 I’m four months past my year in Beijing. What do I want to be doing? What, when I sit down and I see reminders of where I was, will make me think that I have been on exactly the path that I want to be on?

A year ago I thought I was on a path that would lead to me becoming an architect, keep me step-mothering my wonderful daughter, and loving my boyfriend, and opening more doors in the future.

That wasn’t the path I was on after all.

So, what path am I on right now? Where am headed and where will I be in a year?  What path will make me feel…content with the choices that I’ve made? What path will feel like the path that I want rather than like a conciliation prize because the path I wanted is no longer available to me? For that matter, what path is the path that I want rather than the path that I think I should be on?

I’m not making any actual progress on these decisions. The questions come easily enough, but the answers? Those are a lot harder for me to find…

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Chairman Mao

This morning my alarm went off at the shockingly early hour of seven am. I grumbled. I moaned. I hit snooze thrice. And then I remembered why I had set it so early and took a quick shower so that I was appropriate for one of the things I’ve most been looking forward to in Beijing… a trip to mausoleum of Chairman Mao.

The Chairman was given a shockingly high infusion of embalming fluids in the hours after his death and encased in a glass coffin, like a political Snow White. I was disappointed to learn that there exists also a wax statue that is sometimes on display instead of the actual body of the father of the PRC, but I was excited to go see this historic figure anyway.

There are rules about how one behaves when seeing The Chairman. Dress nicely. No slippers.No pictures. Keep moving.

We purchased a simple white flower to lay at the feet of Chairman Mao and walked quietly into the mausoleum.

I’ve been in several Buddhist temples lately, and outside of mainland China, you usually find a few people genuflecting, prostrating themselves before Buddha. Inside China, I’ve never had that experience. Until today when I watched three women bow to a statue of Chairman Mao, carefully, the same three bows you see in a Buddhist temple, and then lay down their flowers as incense before Buddha.

We chose to pause only for a moment of respectful quiet, place our flowers on the alter and move on.

We joined the silent line of Chinese  walking reverently past this figure. No one pauses. No pictures are permitted. Instead you keep walking, as silent mourners past the grave of a revered ancestor.

Outside we took a deep breath and a long moment to ponder what we had seen, debating reentry just to see it again and better understand.

We decided to continue on our day and think about the reverence displayed by the Chinese inside the mausoleum in contrast to the casual attitude seen in Beijing natives. And that’s where I remain. Why do the Chinese people outside Beijing have such reference for this man, and Beijing natives treat him more as a distant figure, a great aunt that you love because she’s your aunt, but avoid for some vague reason?

It gave me things to think about regarding my path for home as well. In Chicago I don’t generally go to the big “tourist” spots in the city. Why would I? I’ve lived there my entire life and I can go any day, so when I have time and money, I tourist elsewhere or I revisit things I love. Yet, here in Beijing I see some site of cultural or historical significance twice a week most weeks. And here, I feel a sense of ease and home that I haven’t felt in Chicago for a long while. But is that perhaps, as I wondered this afternoon when I returned from my adventure, more because I seek out the chances to feel the culture and the history and the people around me here, knowing in the back of my mind that my stay here could be temporary? Could I find the same sense of home by connecting with the culture, pace, and history of Chicago?