Christina Zastrow

The Long Way Home

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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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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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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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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.