Before Christmas, nearly five months in to our China adventure, Raymond and I were feeling much more at home in Chéngdū. This is good news, because, ‘they’ say that this can be when ex-pats feel quite low – the novelty has worn off and they are sick of the daily reality of differences and challenges. Not us – we are still thrilled that we made this choice
So neither of us were expecting the emotional response that we had, when on 18 December 2016, we left China for the first time since we got here. We went to Berlin – chosen because we could get cheap flights from Chéngdū (NZD400 per person), it was near Munich where we were meeting our London-based children for Christmas, and neither of us had been there before.
Firstly, when we walked off the plane, we were struck by how we could read the signs everywhere and work out what most of them said even though neither of us speak German beyond hello, goodbye and thank you. For example, ‘wilkommen’ is more straight forward for English speakers, than 歡迎。It gave us a’we have survived China, we can cope with anything’ feeling.
Then, our first morning, when we went down to the hotel breakfast buffet, we noticed how lovely all the food looked, and how we would have been happy to eat everything there. When staying in the half dozen Chinese hotels we have visited so far, we have found plenty that is enjoyable to eat, but it was surprisingly emotional to feel at home with 100% of the menu, and want to eat most of it. We realised how we had become used to an initial walk around a breakfast buffet, assessing the suitability of each item of food and drink, selecting strong contenders, accepting a certain failure rate, learning for the next day, and missing what we eat for breakfast at home. Eating our German buffet fed our bodies and souls.
Sightseeing also felt different – because everyone looked like us. I would have said that we are now used to this not being the case in China, but it was surprisingly pleasant to feel normal and made me realise that I semi-consciously evaluate peoples’ responses to me in China, because we are usually the only Caucasians in sight. In Berlin shops, restaurants and tourist spots, people initially spoke to us in German, before switching to English once they noticed the blank looks on our faces. That is how normal we looked!
And everywhere we went, in Germany, Austria and Czech Republic, people could speak English. I don’t think it is reasonable to expect that everyone in the world speaks English, but for our three weeks in Europe I relaxed in the assumption that this would happen and I did not need to problem solve, try to speak the local language, or use technology to translate.
So, at one level, we felt quite at home.
A few days into our trip, we spent a couple of nights with our friends in Berlin. Lisa is a kiwi, with whom I worked last year. Matthias is her German partner, who has lived out of Germany for 19 years, mainly in New Zealand where he met and fell in love with Lisa about seven years ago. They moved to Berlin for family reasons four months ago. Matthias is working and Lisa is doing intense language learning with the aim of being able to work.
Matthias talked about not feeling at home in the country of his birth, how different German culture is to kiwi culture, and how, in his project role, he was having to relearn how Germans interact, adapt to working within a different team culture, and work with differences he no longer relates to and in some cases does not like. So, appearances can be deceptive.
As an aside, we also discussed the lingering effect of the Berlin wall. I had grown up with talk of the Berlin wall, but had not thought through, until we visited the Palace of Tears and talked with Matthias about his family’s experience, that the East Germans did not get to choose that option, and that families were separated because of where individuals had chosen to live before the split. As a grandmother-to-be, I reflected how horrible it would have been if our child and grandchild had happened to live in the east and we could not have seen them for years, and then only at the whim of officials. A tour guide and taxi driver in the Czech Republic gave brief answers to our questions about life under communist rule. Both were adamant that it had been a negative part of Czech’s long rich history, one describing it as always being in fear, the other summarising it as being good that it was over, and both not seeming to want to talk about it very much.
After four months, Lisa was feeling similar to how we do in China – on a big adventure, everything new and exciting, learning a new language, becoming an expert problem solver, and making a call on which of the activities, that we can do ‘back home’ without thinking, to put our finite emotional energy into. For example, she had just chosen to cut her fringe herself rather than going out to find and communicate with a hairdresser. She and I shared our language learning experiences. We were both motivated, making progress, but finding it challenging, and living on a roller coaster. Lisa was grappling with grammar challenges that I don’t have to consider, such as changing verb forms and different genders for nouns. My challenges are working with characters instead of Roman alphabet, tones, and struggling to hear the different sounds even when I know the word.
From Berlin, we travelled to Munich where the four of our eight children based in London (our two daughters and our two sons-not-yet-in-law) joined us for Christmas. After five months of only seeing our family on a computer screen, it was so lovely to see them, hold them, talk, laugh, and cry with them, experience new things in new places with them, draw on long family memories for choices on Christmas Eve and Day, and together skype the other half of the family back in New Zealand. It was particularly intense to share the new birth happening on the other side of the world.
Obviously, we know our daughters extremely well, in fact we helped mould them into the marvellous (totally objective as I am) young women they are today. However, they are now adults making their own choices, who are increasingly affected by the (also marvellous as it turns out) young men they have chosen for their partners. And those partners bring their backgrounds from their different homes. So it was not a foregone conclusion how well the six of us would travel together. The good news is that it was wonderful, we both felt at home with them all, and built new positive memories with these special people. As with any group, we had to consider one another, take time to negotiate agreement, and accommodate and accept differences. But that is what ‘home’ is for all of us who do not live alone, and we have been used to ‘home’ being a group of six or more people for more than 24 years.
Then, the Londoners returned to their jobs in the UK and Raymond and I continued on to Vienna and Prague before flying back to China. And, despite what I said above, it was lovely to be ‘home’ again. Joe met us at the airport like he always does, we saw the familiar landmarks of the Global Centre and ‘our’ bridges on the way to our apartment, and we could just walk in, make a cup of tea and collapse into bed, and when we woke up, restart our regular lives here.
The next day, on our way back from supermarket shopping, when we got on the bus to head home, we heard our names, and there was Raymond’s colleague who lives in the same apartment complex as us. Not completely surprising as we live and shop in the same place, but it illustrates our growing number of connections that also help us feel at home here. We had a great catch up. Now Raymond and I are both back at work reconnecting with our colleagues there which also helps to feel this is our place. And we are making plans for next weekend to hang with our friends who live 20 minutes south from us.
So, what is ‘feeling at home’?
We feel at home in Chéngdū, because we live in a lovely apartment with things we brought or bought, have regular work routines and colleagues, buy our own food at our regular food shopping places, cook our own meals, can shop for household things at our local market, large supermarket or Ikea, and have a regular hairdresser who knows us. We know how to get around, recognise places on our regular routes, and have a map of the city in our heads. We have a growing network of acquaintances, and are making some good friends, including a few locals who are helping us understand and live in this different world. We know that we can communicate and problem solve enough to survive a whole range of situations.
We do not feel at home in Chéngdū, because we look different to most of the 14 million people here, we struggle to read or communicate whenever we leave the house, food is different so we cannot find things we like and end up with things we don’t like all of which takes energy to navigate around, we do not know where to go to buy anything that is not food or things for the house, and when travelling outside our few established routes we recognise nothing. We miss our family, and our wide circle of friends built up over many 50 years. (I started this blog to reflect, but it has the added bonus of helping me feel connected to non-China relationships, which I need at times on this journey, so thank you to all those who have commented. I love to hear from you.) And we do not know most of the subtle rules for interacting and have to solve new problems every day.
And, I take my hat off to those who do this alone. I travel with part of ‘home’ all the time. Raymond and I have each other to laugh and cry with, share the highs and lows with, understand, and when necessary help create, what feels most normal to us. We are able to be there (or is it here?) for each other, wherever in the world we are. In fact, through a mixture of shared adventure, increased dependence, and simplified lifestyle meaning we spend more time alone together, we are falling deeper in love.
And how important is ‘feeling at home’ anyway? The other side of the coin ‘feeling alive’ is important too. It is nice to feel at home, but not feeling fully at home is why I feel so alive here. Things are new, interesting, fascinating. A new experience every day, never a dull moment, and lots of surprises. My head is buzzing with language learning and problem solving. I am growing and developing all the time, and I like being able to point to examples of how I have coped with the unknown, difficult and unusual.
So, we are ‘feeling a nice mix of home and alive’!