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.
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.
For the summer of 2018, I lived in a shack in Berkeley, managing someone’s Airbnb. And I missed my beloved Lake Merritt:
I missed being near water. I missed the cool sea air of Jack London Square.
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.
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:
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.
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.