I’m a big fan of the travel writer Bill Bryson and have recently read his book I’m a Stranger Here Myself, a book addressing they author’s repatriation after he and his family lived abroad for almost two decades (also recently recommended to me in the same subject was The Art of Coming Home by Craig Storti). He opens the book with a pretty priceless quote, “there are three things you can’t do in life. You can’t beat the phone company, you can’t make a waiter see you until he is ready to see you, and you can’t go home again.” He spends the rest of the book pulling apart the ups and downs of returning to your home country after living abroad, and in true Bryson style, its an entertaining read.
Now I’m not planning to repatriate any time soon (so don’t hold your breath Jordan family), but on my annual jaunts back to the motherland exist I find that I exist in a funny state of limbo that is sympathetic to themes of the book. I love being abroad. I hate being away from family when I’m there. I love to visit America. I hate being away from the adult life I’ve built for myself thousands of miles away. Bryson again sums it up well:
“In a funny way nothing makes you feel more like a native of your own country than to live where nearly everyone is not. For twenty years, being an American was my defining quality. It was how I was identified, differentiated…Happily there is a flipside to this. The many good things about America also took on a bewitching air of novelty, I was as dazzled as a newcomer by the famous ease and convenience of daily life, the giddying abundance of absolutely everything, the boundless friendliness of strangers…As well, there has been the constant, unexpected joy of reencountering all those things I grew up with but had largely forgotten: baseball on the radio, the deeply satisfying whoingbang slam of a screen door in summer, insects that glow, sudden run-for-your-life thunderstorms, really big snowfalls, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July…All that counts for a lot, in a strange way.”
Bryson sums up a lot of the perspective on how one relates to home, which is important. But in my shorter stays I feel a different need to help home relate to me. Call me narcissistic, but since I’m going back to China anyway people have less of an interest in what I’m doing in America than what I’m doing in abroad – which is where I meet difficulty. They want to know everything about your exotic life in Asia, but, how much do you share?
Am I supposed to get into the gory details of food poisoning? The hairy accounts of driving etiquette? Do I give an honest account of the sites and smells both delectable and otherwise? Do I talk about frustrating business practices or exhausting travel, both of which can be extremely rewarding? Do I paint a rose-tinted picture of Sichuan and its developing modernity? Or do I fan the flame of the all-too-common misconceptions about Chinese culture? And if I do any of the above, will I really be able to give it justice?
It’s thin ice to tread. I do want to stay positive about my new home, job and life. However, in my limited experiences with Chengdu I have learned that while being a beautiful city in its own way, it’s not always easy to live in. I also find so often in the U.S. that many people are so misinformed about Chinese culture and politics, that dwelling at all on the negative aspects of expat life in China just feeds these perspectives further. What’s more, my idea of a balanced perspective, taking the good with the bad, often just sounds like taking the weird with the weirder. Often on this trip I felt like I’m not doing anyone – China, my family’s nerves or myself – any favors.
Nonetheless, I’m a storyteller by nature. I get that Big Fish quality from my grandfather on my mother’s side. And I feel vindicated at 26 to have any stories of interest to tell. So on this trip I’ve decided to just balance my perspective, relish in the details of expat life, and to tell it like it is. When friends and family cringe in details of food hygiene or sigh in disbelief at our access to internet I remind them “it’s an adventure, and I’m really looking forward to continuing it.” With one week of motherland left I probably find that as more of a reassurance for myself than my audience.