Home Sick and Homesick

Or, A Study in Nostalgia from My Sickbed.

(Suggested song for reading this entry: “I Spent the Day in Bed” by Morrissey)

I am home sick with the flu. Something peculiar happens when one is alone and bed-bound: one starts thinking too much. And then real homesickness sets in.

Here is the non-sugarcoated truth about living abroad: homesickness is a real thing. And it’s a good thing. It means you had meaningful relationships with family and friends back home. That’s got to be indicative of a healthy psyche to some extent.

But it also might mean that something in your current life/location is lacking. Now, this is only my second month in Qingdao. I’ve met some really good people: nice people, caring people, people with unusual stories. That’s just one way in which I happen to be extremely lucky. Wherever I go, I tend to meet people who are genuine, unique, and kind. For this, I’m very grateful.

I can’t lie, though. The expat life? I think I’ve outgrown it. 

Qingdao at 30 years old isn’t anything like Dalian at 22. When I arrived in Dalian back in 2010, I had just graduated and was hungry to see the world. I was like a toddler: looking and mimicking, listening and repeating, trying to absorb the supposed wisdom from every person I met. I kept a notebook to write down new Chinese words that I heard. I read that notebook every day and awkwardly inserted those words into my daily interactions with Chinese people. I sucked at Chinese then, but I got better. Fast. I was a shagua (“stupid melon”) but I didn’t care. 

I was also young and eager to meet people, talk to people, stay out till all hours of the night with people. Once I met a stranger at a night club, a fellow expat. We left the club to talk. We wandered the streets of Dalian all night, holding hands and talking. Together we watched the sun come up. The funny thing is, I can’t remember what we talked about. Probably we talked about home and China, and the dissonance between the two. 

And there were the summer nights of sitting on plastic stools, hunched over a table of shaokao and beer, when somehow we all started singing songs by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

These are experiences that I’ve only been able to have abroad. Back home, the 9-5 mentality wraps people into smaller units; time gets compartmented and distributed for this or for that only. Life on the fringes of society is different. People get looser. They take themselves less seriously.

“Maybe she’s too laid back” is what I taught my students just last week, pointing to a picture of a girl living in squalor: her feet propped on the coffee table next to unpaid bills, empty beer bottles and a bag of chips on the floor. Too laid back, they all repeated; I could see their faces light up with recognition, and some wrote down the phrase, while others repeated it a few more times under their breath.

Too laid back is an apt phrase to describe what I now see as expat life. Over and over I keep meeting people who say things like “I teach kids because it’s easy and I don’t want to work” and “I got tired of being broke back home so I came here.” I swear, they’re like those children’s toys that talk when you pull their strings. You could pull the strings on any one of these people and they’ll say the same three or four things again and again.

At 22 in Dalian, I thought: These people are different—lost, but interesting. Maybe I can learn from them. Now at 30, I think: These people have nothing to offer me.

I am different now. My time is not as wide open as it was when I was in Dalian. Time not working is spent reading, writing, studying—working towards the fulfillment of my goals. It is no longer enough for me to sit back and enjoy life: now, to really relish life, I need to be active in it, I need to try things, learn things, create things. Achieve things.

And I am not as easily impressed as I was then. What was new and different then is now same old, same old. I know how this story is going to end, so why bother finishing the book when I can just move on to a different one.

Which makes me wonder: should I just pack my bags and go home?

Which leads to another question: where is home?

Is it Brooklyn? Is it Manhattan? San Francisco? Oakland? Berkeley? Santa Cruz? Dalian?

I am alternately nostalgic for each one of these places. My nostalgia is like an old diner jukebox: put in a coin, flip the records, and choose a song.

In 2017, back when I lived in the Bay Area and was on the cusp of my first major life change, I thought of nothing but this mythical place of my childhood: Coney Island.

This old guy with his butt crack showing is the real deal Coney.

But when I went back to my old neighborhood of Brooklyn, I felt estranged. It was just as I remembered. Nothing had changed. I hadn’t changed, either. I had never belonged there.

I often think about Manhattan. At heart, I am more of a Manhattanite than a Brooklynite. But after six years in California, I feel a little out of step there.

Snowy winter day in Manhattan. View from my window.

For the summer of 2018, I lived in a shack in Berkeley, managing someone’s Airbnb. And I missed my beloved Lake Merritt:

Lake Merritt on a cloudy, blue evening.

I missed being near water. I missed the cool sea air of Jack London Square.

Typical foggy day on the ferry from Jack London Square in Oakland to the Ferry Building in SF.

And then when I went back to Oakland, I longed to board the Richmond train and take it back to Berkeley, to sit in cafes among fellow bookworms.

Among the many excellent cafes in Berkeley, my favorite remains Berkeley Espresso for their book and newspaper-reading clientele, constant flow of classical music, and palatable coffee .

I’d never liked San Francisco very much, but as I was leading a tour of Korean journalists in November, views like this stunned me:

View of San Francisco from Coit Tower: the financial district, North Beach, and the Bay Bridge

And I realized how much I loved San Francisco.

But before 2017, I yearned for Dalian and my expat life. Dalian had been a second home to me. It was the hometown of my ex, with whom I’ve had the longest and most meaningful relationship so far.

You Hao Square in the Zhongshan district of Dalian, 2010

It is no longer a home.

How is it possible that a place that was once home can no longer be a home? Isn’t that the point of home? A stable place, an unchanging base that you can always return to?

Maybe in life we cycle through false homes until we find the one that feels right. Or until we get tired of looking and just settle for what’s in front of us.

Or maybe when it comes to choosing a home, like a career or a partner, there is no perfect choice: it’s just another decision that one has to make and stick to, and build up from there.

The alternative? Permanent expatriatism. And as any expat knows, permanence is a kind of prison.

The Week in Pictures: March 16 – 22

Welcome to another edition of the Week in Pictures. This was a busy week indeed: aside from working so so much, I managed to get out of my apartment and imbibe Qingdao’s beauty.

You think I’d be sick of pizza after three months in NYC, but no. This is hands down the best pizza I’ve had in China: from Life Bar on Yan Er Dao Zhi Lu. I shared this with a friend at Life Bar’s wine tasting event last week, which featured several wines from South Africa, France, and Austria, followed by a round of energetic salsa dancing. Work was a little painful the next day…

After all that wining and dancing, I needed some time to be alone with the sea, so I went to what is quickly becoming my favorite place to walk in Qingdao: the docks south of Xianggang Zhong Lu.

Even on such a windy day, it was so tempting to go for a swim…

Does anyone in Qingdao read? I yet to see anyone on the subway with a book open. Most people seem way too addicted to their phones. Surprisingly, there are quite a few bookstores in Qingdao. This one, called Deep Reader, opposite to the Aeon/Josco and across from Book City, features mainly Western literature in translation. But not surprisingly, it was completely empty. How do these stores stay in business?

For lunch one day, I met a friend at Qingdao University, where she studies Chinese. It brought back all kinds of feelings of nostalgia for when I was a student at the Beijing Language and Culture University back in the summer of 07. For a long time, I’d entertained thoughts of returning to China on a Chinese Government Scholarship–and walking QU’s campus renewed those dreams.

So after lunch, I headed to the on-campus cafe, Lisa’s, to pretend to be a student and get in some studying. It was quiet and spacious–good for studying–but there’s no nice way to say this: the coffee was terrible.

Now I Live in Qingdao

Has it really only been one month since I arrived in Qingdao?

I arrived during Chinese New Year, which was probably not the best timing. All the shops were closed, except for a few restaurants, like Burger King (I managed to avoid eating there, though).  Even the most massive streets of Qingdao stood still and silent, like Christmas morning in New York City. 

I have to admit, it was the most depressing Chinese New Year of my life. For the past few years, my Chinese New Years were filled with friends and dumplings. This year I spent it alone, sans dumplings. I watched the Chinese New Year Gala on TV by myself. Yep, it was just me, a bottle of surprisingly really good and affordable Bordeaux wine, and the unceasing fireworks outside. 

To my credit, by the time Chinese New Year came around, I had gotten my sh*t together. Apartment? Check. (Never mind that it’s furnished with literally the UGLIEST sofa in the world….) Internet? Check. Groceries, cooking ware, visa docs . . . check, check, check. All I need now is a bank account, a gym membership, a Chinese class, and a paycheck. 😀

For the first time in . . . I don’t know how long . . . I am really, truly alone. OK, not exactly: I’ve made several friends, and I’m sure more are in the cards. Make no mistake: this is NOT a complaint. It’s a lovely feeling to come home and be by myself all evening.

And this is one of the reasons why I moved to China: to live alone. If I had stayed in New York or San Francisco (where I’d been living for the past 6 years), would I have been able to afford to live alone? As a teacher? Unlikely AF. I’d be roommating it up like every other millennial. Having a roommate can be fun (I loved my roommates when I lived in Dalian), but this year, I needed some space. 

Not only can I afford an apartment all to myself, but I also live in the freakin’ city center (Shinan), where all the action is! OK, to be fair, there isn’t a whole lot of action in Qingdao, actually . . . but I’m steps away from awesome food, a bookstore, a Starbucks (very very VERY important to me), bakeries, and about ten different expat bars. Throw in an art gallery or two and I’d never leave. 

First month: done. Whew. Now it’s time to explore.