Christina Zastrow

The Long Way Home

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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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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.


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.


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.



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


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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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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An interesting revelation I had this week

I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to figure out what’s next. My contract in China is up in nine months and depending on what I decide to do, I need to be taking steps towards those goals fairly soon. So I wrote out all of the things that I’m debating and then just started brainstorming everything about those things that I could think of and I realized a few things.

First, I truly have no idea what I want. As a society, we ask people to decide the paths of their lives when they are very young. Especially if they are going to want a “white collar” future, they need to pick a field and a college before they are eighteen years old. And, perhaps because we set ourselves in stone with those early decisions or perhaps because we are a stubborn species, very few of us veer much from those early courses. Yet, somehow I have wound up on a path that meandered wildly from the one I thought I was following. Most people that I speak to say that their lives have gone in an orderly line, perhaps with a few gentle curves, but very rarely does anyone say that their lives make no real sense as a series of connected events. And yet mine does not.

It is a great opportunity to redecide my fate at thirty-four, to look at where my life has been and try to change my path. Very few people get to make those decisions as adults without impacting other people, and I know that I’m lucky to have that chance. But…the impulsiveness of youth is well suited for making those decisions. You see the thing you want and you just reach out for it. Now…life has worn away at that. I’m afraid to grab out for what I want because I could be wrong, especially in light of the series of events that brought me here I worry about being wrong again.

Second, is more personal. I look at my choices and two of them involve my comfort zones. I could stay in China for another year or return to my home town where most of the people I love are. Both of those involve staying within some kind of comfort zone, so if I pick one of those things, I have to evaluate if I’m just choosing the comfortable thing to avoid the scary choices.

If I go back to Chicago…well, there are some personal reasons for that, people that I love, and people that I call friends there. But I shook up my life for someone I loved once before and he left me on my butt, homeless, unemployed, broken… And I won’t let that happen again, but I want to be careful to make my decisions based on what I want and not to be making them because of someone I love again, love, at least in my experience, can’t keep people together and if I decide to return to Chicago, I don’t want to look around me a year later, with the people I love gone, and see that I made a terrible mistake.

If I stay in China…those people I love will stop waiting for me at some point. Long distance is too hard when there’s no end point in view. I love it here, but do I love it enough to give up the dreams I’ve fed myself of life with my loved ones? Which of course takes me right back to thinking about Chicago and if the possibility of life with my loved ones, knowing that it could all come crashing down on me again, is a strong enough draw to return to a place that stopped being “home” many years ago.

Can I make Chicago home, again?

It reminds me of a saying, you can’t go home again. It’s true. When you leave, even when you simply leave behind childhood and look around as an adult, it will never be the same as it was. You can go back to the place, but not to the feeling and the way you saw it when you were young.

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Apparently I compare everything to Beijing now

I recently left mainland China for a short stay in Hong Kong.

As I’ve written about in the past, prior to my departure for China I had never left the states, and only very rarely been out of the American mid-west. Within a week of landing in Beijing, the city felt like home to me. It called out to my soul and I found myself feeling more relaxed than I could have put a name to.

I wondered, over the past two months, if that was just a symptom of being in my first new country. If every place I went would feel like home, simply because it was new and the newness was what spoke to me.

After a few hours in Hong Kong I knew that wasn’t true. While the island is exciting and I enjoyed being there, it wasn’t home. The crowds felt oppressive and I quickly found myself anxious to be back home, in spite of the fact that going home meant 22 long hours in a hard seat on a slow train to Beijing.

There were some things I found beautiful. The language in Hong Kong is primarily Cantonese (although nearly everyone spoke English) and I was entranced by the subtle differences in language and culture. In Beijing we speak Mandarin and the simplest difference is in how we say hello.

In Mandarin the word is “Ni hao” pronounced “knee how” not a sharp word, but a firm one. The Chinese people are the same way, willing to help if they understand my question, but abrupt if they don’t (or if the don’t have time). They are quick and to the point about simple things and dance around things that would be direct in America. One of the funniest notes my training group took was a cultural note given to us our first week “Maybe means ‘do it, bitch'” The Chinese people won’t just say “you need to do this my way” they’ll guide you there “maybe we could try this another way”. In Hong Kong the word for hello is so similar and yet subtly different in ways that speak to what I saw of the culture. “Neih ho”, pronounced slightly softer as “nay ho” echoes with the softer people. In Hong Kong several people stopped to ask if we needed help as we struggled to get our maps to work while out phones couldn’t reach the data. When we asked for help, more than once people walked us to our destinations, chatting along the way and pointing out points of cultural interest as we walked.

Despite that, and the easy use of Google in Hong Kong, I still feel more at home in my cozy Beijing apartment surrounded by people chattering away in Mandarin and giggling slightly at my shy attempts to communicate.

I did, however, have a powerful moment that first day we were in Hong Hong. My roommate and I took a cable car to the popular Po Lin Monastery. I’ll have pictures of the sights there another day, but for now, the moment that matters went unphotographed. We went there to visit the Tian Tan Buddha (aka the big Buddha). We wandered the monastery, left a wish at a small shrine in the tourist town, and then grew ever more silent as we absorbed the culture and the believe of the people around us. I was amazed at the shine of the gold Buddhas in the the 10,000 Buddha Temple, filled with respect for the people burning incense, praying quietly, and then bowing thrice before the statues and the peace they seemed to feel. Even the children would rush up to a favorite Buddha, pause for a moment, and then bow three times before rushing off. By the time we made it to the incense burnt in below the Tian Tan Buddha I felt I wanted to spend a quiet moment myself. My roommate identifies as at least partly Buddhist and as she explained the meaning and what the people were doing, I decided it wouldn’t be disrespectful to burn a small bundle of incense and open my mind to the experience.

By the time my incense had caught fire my mind had begun to still. And then I stood before the Buddha, the sun and his calm face filling my vision before I closed my eyes. I felt my mind drift away as I quietly meditated on the paths I could see before me. By the time I opened my eyes again I had felt my soul settle and my future begin to crystallize in my mind.

There are still questions to be answered and adjustments to be made, but in that moment I knew what I wanted and I knew that despite any difficulties, it is right.

Afterwards we climbed nearly three hundred stairs to stand at the base of the Buddha and look up at him in peace. We wandered the silent museum displaying the sutra and eventually made our way to the relic of the monastery. I don’t know enough of the culture or the history to have been sure of what I saw there or the meaning to Buddhists, but to me, once again I felt calm settle over me and all my doubts and questions wash away. At least, briefly. They all arose again as I rode 22 hours on the slow train back to Beijing, but that’s a story for another day.

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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.