Many of Raymond’s ex-pat colleagues call the country from which they come ‘home’. I can understand this because they have taught and lived in multiple countries and return to their houses/homes for several months each year. They want one base, and want their children to identify with that country.
However, for now, we are choosing to call Chéngdū ‘home’. China is the only country apart from New Zealand in which either of us has lived, and we want to be as present here as we can be. We are renting our New Zealand house out, have adult children dotted over the world, and plan to make the most of empty nest adventure opportunities during our holidays by visiting other places as well as New Zealand.
So, last month, we didn’t ‘go home’ for our son Aaron’s wedding, we went ‘back to New Zealand’.
And it was weird and wonderful.
It was weird because everything was so familiar and comfortable, but we felt like visitors.
We spoke the language. For example, immediately after getting off the plane, we talked to an airline staff member about what to do given that our flight from Guangzhou had been delayed. He understood us perfectly and we understood his answer. It only took a few minutes. What a contrast with checking in at Chengdu and trying to understand how full the plane was and our seating options.
We recognised most things. We were able to drive again (still remembered how) and the streets of Wellington were just the same, except for orange netting or barriers everywhere to protect the public while repairing earthquake damage. We had a map in our heads of where we were, even when I traveled out of Wellington for work. By contrast, apart from a few well-worn routes, most of Chengdu remains unrecognisable.
But we felt like visitors because we moved around like you do on holiday. The first week, we stayed at my brother’s in Wellington, Raymond’s brother’s in Blenheim, and rooms at a motor camp for the wedding. The groomsmen, our kids and partners (except the bride), my family, and most of Aaron and Sally’s friends from out of town stayed at the motor camp too, so it felt like a fun holiday.
Immediately after the wedding, Raymond flew back to China because it was during term time. I stayed on for two more weeks to do some work visits, catch up with friends and family, and learn the art of grandmothering. My second week, I stayed at my brother’s again, and with friends in Christchurch for a couple of nights. The third week I was to stay with friends in Wellington. Ros was unwell when I first planned to be there, so I changed to stay for a couple of nights with our granddaughter Hazel, her parents, and her other grandmother, before going back to the original plan. In some ways the change was a bonus, but it made me feel very ‘of no fixed abode’.
And we no longer felt totally normal (yes, we used to). We have changed. We have had all these experiences which friends and family were kindly interested in (to a degree – but don’t go on about it too much). It was weird, while still feeling close and connected to our special people, to realise their understanding of our present lives has to be second hand and removed. It was more obvious face to face than communicating over technology, and made me feel closer to our new China friends than I had previously felt.
And, that feeling that living in China is unusual. This was exemplified when we went into our old local supermarket (who had moved the lollies from where they had been for twenty years). We put our bags of pineapple lumps and Whittakers chocolate on the conveyor belt and the checkout operator said, ‘Are you taking these to your children overseas?’. Raymond said, ‘No they are for us. We are living in China.’. ‘China!’, she shrieked. We both commented as we walked out that it is so normal for us and everyone in China with whom we interact, that it is easy to forget that it is not normal for everybody.
I was able to prepare for the wedding in familiar places. I got my hair done by my hairdresser of more than 20 years with whom I could have a long conversation – and she understood me. I got my upper lip and chin waxed at my old haunt in Porirua. I have been unable to find anyone to do this in Chéngdū . When I asked at a couple of nearby beauty places, one young woman was unable to hide her horror that anyone might wax one’s face. This is understandable, given that they tend to be much less hirsute here – many of the men hardly need to remove hair from their faces.
And it seemed weird and wonderful that clothes fitted. In New Zealand, I went into three clothing shops, tried on about ten items of clothing and bought five- a pair of shorts, a pair of trousers and three tops. I went into two shoe shops, tried on two pairs of shoes and bought them both. And these were all bargains in the summer sales. I love New Zealand’s ‘wide’ clothes and shoes!
And it was wonderful because we got to enjoy New Zealand’s particular brand of beauty that feeds our kiwi souls. As we flew into Auckland, I looked out the window, saw the sea sparkling in the sunlight with patches of (NZ) green and tears came to my eyes. It was so lovely to be by the sea again – walk around Wellington with the sunlight sparkling over the water, see people swimming, sunbathing or playing by the beach, and drive past the Porirua Harbour and Petone Foreshore.
It was wonderful because we saw so many of our special people, supported our first child to get married, and held our first grandchild. Intense times for anyone. As soon as we arrived in Wellington, Andrew, our older son, picked us up and took us to cuddle our beautiful granddaughter. We had seen so many photos, but it was very emotional to hold her (more tears), see her in three dimensions, and get to know the particular ways she likes to be held and comforted. Over the next few days, we met both our daughters and one of their partners at the airport when they arrived from London, and caught up with family and friends. The wedding weekend was beautiful, intense, fun and emotional (a few more tears, but mainly laughter and smiles). I expected to enjoy it but not as much as I did.
Raymond squashed this all into one week. My next two weeks were similar but less intense, and I felt more like a visitor. After the wedding, things were less planned, and others were back into their normal lives. I had the challenge of organising many work meetings in a finite period of time, which reminded me more of previous business trips to India than being ‘home’. And trying to fit in all our friends was more like visiting friends overseas – organise to meet, catch up, and move on to the next one. My brother, who lived overseas for quite a while, said they had learned that during return trips the best way to catch up with friends was to say they were going to be at a bar at a certain time and let friends self-select to be there. And that was before Facebook – might give that a go next time.
For both of us, leaving New Zealand was emotional, particularly not being able to see Hazel and close family for a while, but also missing the rich tapestry of relationships that we have built up over more than 100 collective years.
And we weren’t sure how we would feel arriving back in China. The good news is that we were both glad to return. Being back in China felt like home. In a perverse way, to feel at home we now need to see Chinese characters that we cannot read, be surrounded by a language that we recognise but do not understand, have cloudy rather than blue skies, have skyscrapers not the beach, and be the only Westerners in a crowd.
At the same time, it has made it harder for both of us be here – realising what it is costing us in terms of our loved ones. It is an unintended consequence that we did not think through, that, for the short term at least, we cannot be truly at home in either place.
And all this reflecting makes me realise this need (or maybe only strong desire) to feel at home. It is only a couple of months ago that I blogged on ‘Feeling at home’, and here I am angsting about it again.
And, standing back from just thinking about me, this theme of ‘where is my home?’ is being played out around the world all the time.
And for many it must be so much harder. For many people things have got so bad, they are choosing to leave the countries they love and in which they feel truly comfortable forever. And with nothing. How much harder this would be without Raymond’s school’s support team to look after us at all times, a good income that turns it into an adventure, money to pay for language lessons, the security of our lives back in New Zealand waiting for us, our family safe and sound, and most of all, knowing that we can return whenever we choose. I am so filled with compassion and admiration for those lumped under the term ‘refugees’.
Then there are people like Lee, Hazels’ other grandmother. Over 30 years ago, she left Malaysia to travel to New Zealand for better education opportunities for her husband. And they never returned, instead having and raising three kiwi children. All this time later, she lives in New Zealand like I am living in China – has limited fluency in the local language but survives, mainly socialises with expats that speak the same language, has a few less deep connections with some locals, still prefers the food she grew up with and shops where she needs to so she can prepare this sort of food, doesn’t drive but has other transport solutions that work for her, and feels neither truly at home in New Zealand or Malaysia. And now her daughter has fallen in love with my son and we share a granddaughter who will enjoy the richness of two very different grandmothers.
And my own mother did this and I never thought about how it felt for her. She fell in love with my colonial dad while he was in England for two years, left her home to marry him, and didn’t return for 20 years. She adopted New Zealand as her country, and, with the same language, was able to assimilate – almost. I never thought of her as anything but assimilated until a few years ago, when I went to a play about immigrants. I identified with the portrayal of the British characters’ lack of buy in to kiwi values about the need to entertain with a homemade cake, rather than a bought packet of biscuits. I thought Mum was being feminist, not British. I wish she was still here to talk to about this.
So, others have been traveling similar roads for generations, often without the time to navel gaze because they were too busy surviving. My friend who set up the Cultural Intelligence Collective, which helps people like me as they adapt to new countries, recently sent me an email. It made me feel understood and part of a larger group experiencing similar things, and reminded me that my intermittent discomfort and the associated personal growth is worth it – now and in the future.
Recognising the gains you have made from this experience can help you to face the discomfort of feeling like you don’t belong. New skills, new experiences and amazing memories are all positive gains that help build that sense of belonging. A less obvious gain might be the ability to fit in and adapt to different groups and situations. Flexibility and adaptation are skills that you may not have needed or appreciated at home, but they are skills that will reap benefits in future interactions.