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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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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When did I decide that happiness is unattainable?

I’ve had a hard time lately deciding what to say here. The longer I search, the more I look for home, or for my own heart, the further away it all feels.

I am divided.

Beijing calls to me in many ways. When I am well and focused, I love the rush of people and knowing that history is just a subway ride away. But too often I am not well. My heart hurts and I’m left to clutch my pillow and ache to not be alone, even for a moment. And in those moments the rush of people, all strangers, is overwhelming and the history is too much. I crave the comfort of familiarity and people I know, who speak *my* language – not English, but the language my heart speaks when it’s bared to another.

I crave both Beijing and Chicago.

Perhaps there is a compromise somewhere to be found, but for now, I can’t see it. It’s all just desperately knowing that something isn’t right, that it may never be right, that I can’t have everything.

I used to be that girl, the one who believed she could have all her dreams, that she had the world on a string and that all she had to do to have anything she really wanted was to decide upon it and make it happen.

Where did she go? When did I decide that I’m not allowed to have anything I want, much less everything I want? When did I decide that happiness is unattainable?

More importantly, how do I get that girl’s excitement back? How do I decide again, that there’s nothing holding me back and that I can be as strong as the storm? The hunting down what I want is as easy as deciding what that is and then setting off in search of it?

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Mid Autumn Festival

One thing that China is well known for is the stream of festivals that pepper the year, and in the eighth lunar month the Chinese celebrate the mid-autumn festival at the full moon. The full round shape of the harvest moon indicates a full year, health and the hope for wealth and fullness in the coming year. In years gone by people gathered with family to celebrate the harvest, much like American thanksgiving. But much like American thanksgiving the traditions have shifted slightly with  modern times. The celebration now is not to a symbol of gratitude for a rich harvest, but rather a chance to gather with family and celebrate the traditions of a time gone by in a new era of progress and constant forward momentum.

One tradition that remains is the gathering of family and friends in parks and other outdoor spaces to watch the moon and appreciate the blessings of the years. This used to be done through writing poetry to record the feelings of the moon, but is now often done simply through observation or by taking pictures of the bright full moon.

One poem, written in the Tang Dynasty, struck me with beauty and familiar emotion as I prepared to celebrate in as traditional a manner as is possible in the middle of the bustle of Beijing, far from family and friends.

Still Night Thoughts

The moon is shining bright in front of my bed,

I took it for frost upon the ground.

Raising my head, I see the bright moon,

Bowing my head, I long for home.


With all this fresh in my mind, prepared to enjoy the moon through the slight haze of light from the city, I headed to one of Beijing’s many historical parks, Beihei Park, recommended by elementary students excited to help “teacher” learn about their culture, armed with camera and pen to take pictures and write my own lunar poetry.


The moon through the trees

“Comfortable Light Of Home and Moon”

Though far away, 

The cool yellow light, 

Familiar from years of life,

Nights spent gazing up and dreaming

The craters as familiar as any pattern,

Burned into the routine of nights gone by,

Brings comfort when I’m lonely

When home seems more distant than the moon,

And loved ones too far to greet in thanksgiving

Under the light of the harvest moon.



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I think I almost got Chinese arrested

A few weeks ago I moved into my first apartment, a small two bedroom in the Waudoukou neighborhood in northern Beijing. As you can imagine, it was a little chaotic moving two women, five suitcases, and a plastic bin of cleaning supplies and dishes forty minutes across one of the most populated cities in the world. Especially when neither of those two women spoke more than the most basic Mandarin to communicate with the cab driver. But we got it sorted out, figured out where everything went, and got settled in.

Chinese law states that we had to report to the local police station within 24 hours to register our presence and report our address. Again, neither of us actually speaking more than *basic* Mandarin.

At some point it became clear that there was some problem with my registration. Of course it would be mine. It couldn’t be my roommate, it had to be me with the police problem.

Through elaborate charade and patient use of several translator apps (and one English speaking officer) we managed to figure out that the computer wasn’t registering where I had been for three days, and therefore I was considered in violation of the law. It was dicey for awhile, but eventually I managed to convince them that I was where I was supposed to be and was let off with a verbal warning to register on time in the future, but it took three days before my heart started beating again.

Meanwhile, all official forms in China have to be signed with both an “official” name (ie the name appearing on my passport) and a Chinese name, which I obviously didn’t have. Now I do. Mudan is a “country” name meaning peony flower, which I have adopted fairly quickly for use in certain circumstances 🙂


Outside my Chinese apartment


Mudan (drawn by my Chinese roommate)


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Home is not a place

I’ve always felt rootless, grounded by responsibilities and debt, pulled to roam but held back by poor financial choices. There was little in Chicago that called out to me and told me I was home. At varying points in my life I’ve had many reasons to stay in Chicago – responsibilities, family, friends, job, fear of the unknown, personal comfort – but never a sense of belonging to a community, and that’s somethings that’s always been missing.

In Beijing, I still face down some of the same financial decisions, pipers that must be paid through lost opportunity, but the city calls to me. The vibrant community speaks to me in an unfamiliar tongue, and though I’m not a part of the community here, I can feel the throb of it inside me. I am drawn into knowing that I could be a part of the community here.

That is what I look over as I consider what home means to me. Is home as simple as a spot on a map? Only time can tell where I will eventually fall on that decision, but for now I have become convinced that though this city calls to me, it is perhaps not home.Perhaps home is much more complicated than a single place, it is, perhaps, a mess of connections that trail us wherever we go…

The woman who is unafraid to be a little unconventional and is teaching me that it’s okay to embrace who you are

The man who comforted me in a painful moment

The woman who thinks things through and shows me thought and care instead of pure instinct

The man who works hard to help me learn my own value when I can’t trust in myself anymore

The woman who sacrificed her own comfort to help me in a moment o f distress and helped me take a great leap forward

The man who broke my heart and left trailing behind ribbons of connections that eventually introduced me to the people who helped me learn I am

The woman who showed me caring families do exist when I thought they were a fantasy

The man who helped me first recognize a bad situation and who helped me feel like I wasn’t alone even though he was thousands of miles away

The woman who pulls me along and helps me explore and find my dreams

The long distance writer friends who encourage me to keep writing, to keep growing, and be my strongest best when I want to quit

The person in a foreign land who heard my soul cry out to create and sent me supplies to do so when I couldn’t afford them myself

The people who,all together, hold me together, help me find my strength, and helped me step out into the world to find myself and learn who I really am

…these are the connections that make home. Home, at least now, at least in this moment, is not a place, it is the people who matter to me and who build me up to be able to find what I want. Home isn’t about a dot on a map, but about the community, spread out around the world, of people who want me to be able to stand strong and be my best.

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Beijing – First thoughts

It’s so different here, and yet so oddly familiar that I’ve had a hard time structuring my thoughts. I can read almost nothing except occasional American logos. I’ve rarely spoken – a smile and “ni hao” to a friendly Chinese face.

Most of my time outside of the hotel has been spent at the Olympic Forest Park – not exactly authentic Beijing I’m sure, but reassuringly safe and filled with maps so I don’t get lost.

This morning I went south looking for the training school. I think I know where to go tomorrow. Afterwards I kept walking. I’ve found a smaller park in which a small group of Chinese people are doing yoga.

It’s beautiful here and I’m glad I came, but it’s not helping me define home.

I planned to leave with no connections, no reason to return to Chicago. That changed and now I feel the call back.

But here I feel my soul settle.

Whatever it was in my restless broken heart that pulled me here was wiser than I normally am. I may not stay. I may choose to return. It’s much too early in the journey to contemplate it’s end, but I am soothed here, surrounded by the unfamiliar familiar.

Beijing – Olympic Park – wandering around my first night here