“你想家吗？Ni xiang jia ma?”
“Do you miss home?”
“Sometimes.” I’ll say the answer in Chinese but I hear it in English.
There are comforts everywhere you go, but there are more of them at home. The dogs in Changzhou aren’t so sociable. They stick leashless to their owners and don’t bound excitedly over – at least to this foreigner. I have gotten to a low level and given invitations, but never really an answer. Each time it makes me miss my mutts.
Weaving through food streets for search of something leaves me wanting the familiar. Chinese food tastes great most of the time and eating out at a good restaurant costs a lot less here. There are some new places along my road that have even become old favorites. A little Muslim restaurant with delicious, clean noodles often thick with seasoning and flavor sustains me through bad days. When I am really missing home, there’s always the Burger King and KFC. Still, there’s a lot of home’s food that can’t be bought here. The light lunch and morning things like snacks loaded with evenly sliced lunch meats, the cheap buckets of solid quality ice cream, the well cooked burger at a reasonable price are all luxury goods that don’t taste quite the same away from home.
The food mostly does me good, but when it gets me ill it is a kind of foreign sickness that makes me miss the shaky stomachs and running noses I got at home. The way I feel right now, it is like there are little tears on the lining of stomach nagging me to patch them over with pieces of the place I came from. I have been feeling slight stabs inciting cramps all week, and it almost makes me miss the regular churning of pains I am accustomed to. The way my head aches or my stomach quakes, it all speaks in a different language and I don’t like filling the meaning in anymore. Do I miss home? Well, sometimes I do. Of course I do. It is what I am used to.
Things feel heavier here, with kids that count on me to be a certain way and people that practice their English with me. Twisting tongues to new shapes is a daily thing – a kind of Peter Piper plotline to tug on. When I was home there were times I’d look up and feel a feetless upward floating sensation. It was like things were so light and empty up in the blue sky you could fall right out of the earth into the hole of air all around it. Here there are so many sorts of skies, often more full. I have seen some really giant clouds stretched across the horizon here. The way the sky shapes up it almost seems I can see it stretch over the Earth entirely. Even on the foggy haze days where grey encompasses every inch of the distance, the obscured air feels vast, deep, and enveloping. I don’t think I could pull the same slipping away here. My feet feel anchored and mostly it keeps me steady, but of course it feels daunting sometimes. Of course I miss the feathery lightness and the chances I had to slip away back home.
When I am sitting at my computer looking through Facebook photos for old Thanksgivings to show new people – you can guess what the feeling is. It is not entirely unpleasant. It is a bit wistful and endlessly sincere to long for a thing like that. There are no questions that need to be asked and hardly any words worth saying. Basking in those old photos feels very full and sociable because it is a conversation with a younger self and an aging moment. All the parts of it aren’t really gone either, they are just continuing on in a different way. I feel fluid in that moment and unified, but each sensation has a bitter side to it.
People say that it is homesickness, but it feels pretty healthy to me. I had enough trouble sorting out whether traveling was another way of running away that wanting to run right back seems like a good sign. It is on my shoulders and in my head and around my stomach like my body’s sorting something out. In that way it resembles illness.
Sometimes I think it is really the sensation of two houses battling it out. In all my recent dreams I have been living in my old neighborhood in Indianapolis but when I am running from the oddly cold weather here in Changzhou I am calling for a different kind of home. The white walls all have my posters on them and the white tile floors all have rugs that I chose too. My clothes are the ones in the cupboard and hanging on the drying line by the back window. Most of the time all the signs are here and I am with them, but of course sometimes my mind’s wandered back to old placed I laid my weight. There are times I can let it go, and there are times I have to drag it back to get my work done. It kind of reminds me of when my family watched a neighbor’s dog and accidentally let it run off. We found her on the steps of her owner’s home and when we came to pull her away she started barking like she would never get to go back . I can’t tell you how many places there are to go, but there are always enough that two locations can run tug of war on separate sides of a person’s mind.
Folks tell me I talk a lot about my old home, particularly family and friends, but I am happy to do right by the people I am proud of. The little moments I did wrong by them makes the times I rectified stick out that much more. All the funny things in between the good and bad still get me laughing occasionally. Those moments are sublime. Old joys from a shared joke or a strange instant spill back over into the present. When that fresh happiness comes up the original joy of it mixes with the nostalgia of its return and for a while everything feels brighter. There is a subtle sadness lingering in the transience of that joy. It is impossible to hold and one day it will bit by bit slip away, but I don’t mind too much seeing the good go. I feel sad knowing I’ll never return to it but the feeling of it occurring and reoccurring until it gradually fades is the thing that pushes me on to other memories. Old joy is proof of new ones, and old joy dying is the reminder to find the right moment to stand in for it.
That feeling of lingering longing for things going is what got me here, a thousand miles away from home and missing Thanksgiving dinners. It is the thing that got to me spend my Thanksgiving teaching native English tips to other teachers. That peculiar melancholy had me listening to a Chinese teacher I work and speak with deliver a poetic paragraph on the nature of joyous living and a real, hard, confession on the frustration of educating kids in impossible English grammar. And I can’t say my Thanksgiving dinner eating KFC mashed potatoes in the company of a new friend wasn’t just as meaningful. I can’t bemoan the feeling of missing, but I always will. It is the feeling of looking back and wanting that’s got me moving forward, but it’s what’s tripping me up too. Try to catch the past and you might miss the present moment floating in all the little things.
Do I miss home? Right now I miss it melodramatic, but I am just fine with my bit of missing and reaching back. I don’t always feel like this it is a sometimes thing and it is Thanksgiving here in China so of course sometimes should be right now.
~Austin R Ryan