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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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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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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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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Lesson One

One of the major things I was coming to China to learn was to step outside my comfort zone and let myself experience life to the fullest instead of clinging to the sidelines, watching others have the experiences.

Making the decision, planning my trip, getting on the plane last week, these were all small steps in the right direction, but I think the first night that I can call a real lesson in this was the fifth night I was here.

Several of us went out, wandering the Olympic Park, taking pictures and playing tourist. The music of a nearby dance had filled my soul and I could feel China pulling at me, refusing to let me retreat. It got steadily later and everyone else went back to the hotel, but I knew I wouldn’t sleep and I wanted to find whatever was pulling at me, so I decided to stay out.

For awhile it was just another night wandering the park. I took pictures of the Olympic torch, the rings, other mementos of the games four years ago. The sun set, the sky lit up with neon lights and the music grabbed me even harder, pulling me away from the tourist spots to a wide street, clear of everything but foot traffic where a group of Chinese dancers gyrated to the beats of a drummer, all of them flinging scarves and fans around in these graceful movements that stopped me in my tracks.

I watched for long minutes, slowly moving my own hips in time with the music and somehow caught the attention of the elderly man leading the dance. He put his fan and scarf in my own hands and encouraged me to dance, free and light, waving his props, laughing into the night, forgetting I had ever had such a thing as an inhibition. I grinned, dancing with children and the elderly man, nodding and waving as watchers took my pictures and laughed along with me.

It was the clearest moment of joy I’d ever had.

When it was over, I headed back to the hotel, only to find out that the secured section of the park I had to walk through was closed and I had to find a new way back to my hotel. Alone. In the middle of the night. In Beijing. Without a single kui (dollar) in my pocket.

I’d planned for this. I knew roughly how to get back as long as I kept some idea of where the Olympic Tower was in mind. And so I started walking along. First along a small road, then a more major one, then suddenly the road I was on disappeared and I had no choice but to walk along Fifth Ring St, which is basically the Beijing express way.

It was a little scary, walking there, unsure if my plan to get home would actually work, knowing I didn’t have a good backup plan or anyone but myself to rely on. But I had no one else to rely on, and so I kept to what I thought was right and didn’t talk myself out of it.

Two hours after I left the dance at the Olympic Park my hotel was in sight. My feet burned, my hips hurt, and it was solidly time to sleep. But I had managed to break out of my shell, even if it lasted less than an hour, and I had a chance to trust myself and learned that I am capable of this.

Lesson one, China. Thank you.