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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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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A Moment’s Peace

Months ago everything inside me ran rampant. My emotions had become unfettered from my soul and depression dragged at me. I hadn’t known peace in months, crushed by the slow dissolution of a relationship I thought would end only in death.

I struggled to find the joy in any given moment and had forgotten how to embrace my zen.

And then, hours after a complete meltdown, I found my center again in a place considered home by many of my newest friends. These are people who had known me only a few days, and who had accepted me shaking, scared, panicked, and unable to think, and who helped me settle. They helped me look inside myself and find my center again. It was, at the time, the smallest point of light within me, not the rock solid sense of self I hoped to find again, but it was enough of me to assure me of the path I was on.

As we watched the sun rise over the lake I felt myself soak in the cold morning air, and I felt the sunshine spark inside me. It was that morning that helped set me on this path, that helped me realize what I was looking for in my trip to Beijing. I wasn’t running away from the pain caused by my ex. I am searching, actively searching, to find myself again because I’d lost sight of who I am.

So, now I sit in a hotel in Beijing, ready to go out and seize every moment, every chance, every adventure, anything that will help me embrace my soul and find a way to never let it go again, even if I let someone else inside me again. And I look back on that morning, and I smile thinking of those people who helped set me on this path.

Evanston Sunrise