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.



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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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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Running away doesn’t change who you are

It turns out that running away from your problems doesn’t change who you are as a person. Not even half way around the world.

I have always been a person who doesn’t demand respect from others. I’ve let people I call friend walk all over me through my entire life history because I’ve always feared losing the few people who had that label.

In high school and part of college it was the girl I met the first day of high school. She would talk to me about how my other friends had betrayed or hurt her in some way, and I would defend her until she was my only friend. And then she tore me down.

In college we had a falling out and I gained new friends. I let them walk over me, but it was mostly benevolent – ignoring my preferences about silly things like entertainment. And then I fell in love, and, oh… that meant something. It wasn’t hard for him to make me his whole world. I spend my whole life being groomed to defend the people I care about from every problem and to focus my energy on one person at a time.

So when he informed me that we were going to open our relationship to other people it broke my heart. I tried to say something, but years of learning to keep my mouth shut and let the people I care about have their own way made it almost impossible for me to say no. When he fell in love with someone else and decided that he didn’t want to continue our relationship… it broke me. And I swore that I would never let anyone do that again. That I wouldn’t date anyone my friends didn’t like, not that I had many friends left. That I would learn to stand up for myself.

And then I fled to China, determined to redefine myself.

Except the person that I am has remained the same. As has my past.

It’s still part of who I am to defend the people I care about and to give more of myself than I should. It’s still burned into my soul that saying no, or refusing anything to those I care about is the fastest way to lose someone I care about, and while I know that isn’t the healthiest, I think it is deeply part of who I am. Changing that would be to be someone that I’m not.

I can’t run away from who I am. I just have to find a way to keep my soul safe from people who are all too happy to learn that I can’t say no and collect me as someone who will always bow to what they want.

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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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What does home even feel like?


I was sitting in the backseat of the car, listening to my friends debate about how to get to an ice cream shop. We were on vacation at the time, in a tiny Michigan town that made you U-turn instead of turning left on the main street, actively driving at the time and I knew exactly what we needed to do to find the street. I said it once and neither of my friends responded. I said it again and one of them turned around and told me I was wrong. I sat back, still pretty sure I was right, but not willing to argue, not sure enough of myself to make my opinion heard.


My Beijing roommate and I were sitting in our new apartment debating how to get to our subway stations in the morning. We’d wandered a bit a few hours before, and gotten lost enough that we’d had to ask for directions (more than a little complicated when neither of us speak the language), but now I was sure. I knew exactly how to get to my station, and I knew exactly how to get to hers. She argued with me a few times. She told me she knew how to get to her station and then gave me directions that I knew were wrong.

But I’m here to learn to stand up and speak my opinion (among other things), and so I did. I told her how to get to her station and then we decided to take a walk and make sure we knew what to do in the morning. I showed her my way, and we realized I had figured out the shortest possible route to the train station.


I’m more sure of myself here. I’m not sure why. I don’t speak the language, at least not well. I can’t read the language at all, not even enough to make educated guesses about what things mean. I can recognize the kanji for man and RMB, but that’s not really that helpful in figuring out how to function. And yet I’m very sure of myself here. I stand up for myself and I don’t let people take advantage of me. When I’m annoyed, I use my words and I tell the person I’m annoyed at instead of just brushing it off as me being unreasonable.

I feel very at home in Beijing and while I have reasons to go back to Chicago in a year, reasons that are quite powerful in fact, if that’s what I do, I want to bring this new certainty with me, the ability to stand up for myself and make my opinion heard.