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Back to China: Home Is Where Heart Is

March, 2011
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“Many people have said that they’ve been to China and know what it’s like. But really, they don’t at all,” says James Andrews, a Canadian who moved to China in 2006. “More often than not, these people went to China and did the whole tourist “thing”. It’s entirely different when you choose to live in China. To actually learn the culture and the language, and interact with the Chinese people…these things are what truly constitute the real China experience.”
“When I first moved to China, it was really bad. The first three months were so hard. Living in China felt like I was living backwards. Things that were easy at home were now hard, and things that should have been hard were suddenly easy.”
James says that just getting used to how different China was from home took him a while, and he remembers feeling very homesick in what he felt was a reverse country.
“Simple things like getting a block of cheese, buying a cell phone, or even getting Wi-Fi were such a complex process! The food was different; I didn’t understand the language…I just remember feeling very lost. It was complete culture-shock!”
Most of us who have moved to China know exactly the type of adjustment that James went through. I was eleven when my family decided to pack up our house in Canada and move our lives to the other side of the world. Even though I was in an international school environment and had friends from all over the world, my first year there was miserable.
I remember the first shock I had only a couple days into our move to China. A few of the neighborhood kids and I were sitting in a small park in front of our apartment building. Suddenly strange brown creatures, too fast to be birds, started to dart back and forth through the darkening sky. When I asked what they were, one girl replied, “Oh, just bats”.
Bats? Bats!! There were bats flying in the air, so close that I could reach out and touch them. I had never seen a real-live bat before, not even in a zoo. To me they only lived in the pictures of my exotic animal books back in Canada. But, now, there they were that summer – in Tianjin – flying around the park behind our small apartment. To an eleven-year-old, it was quite frightening.
“But it all changes,” James says. “The culture shock goes away after a while. China has so much magic to it! Soon interacting with the Chinese people became the best part of my day. Everyone was so friendly to me.”
“Every night, a single guard would be stationed outside my apartment complex in Wuxi. They would stand next to their little white cubical all night. After a few months of living in the complex, and picking up some Chinese, I was able to greet the guards every day when I came home. Eventually, I’d try to have a conversation with some of them – even though my Chinese at the time was very minimal. But even so, we hand-gestured and “sign-languaged” our way through a basic discussion of the weather and the traffic. Although we didn’t really speak actual words to each other very much, we could still understand one another and have a few laughs. I think that was a turning point for me in terms of how I felt living in China.”
“I left China a few years ago to start university. Now, in Canada, all I want to do is go back to China. I miss it so much. And the culture shock I felt coming back to Canada was even harder than the one I felt when I arrived in China,” says James.
“All of a sudden I felt home was the crazy place and China was normal. I felt like people from home were so different! I felt really alienated from my friends and family. Of course, I don’t feel isolated anymore, but sometimes I still feel like no one else, except for people from China, really understand what I experienced over there. I feel that even the friends who go to China for a few weeks’ vacation don’t really understand the true experience: to integrate yourself into a culture that is completely different from your own.”
Many of us have also experienced a similar culture-shock when going back to our home countries. Suddenly everyone seems so materialistic and ignorant. The media seems too “in-your-face”, and access to luxury items such as salad dressing and cheese is suddenly so easy, it feels like cheating.
James says that seeking out people who have been through the same experience is normal. When he does meet people who have also lived in China, he feels like they share an automatic bond, somehow. “We gush over how great it was, and then how much we miss it. It’s amazing how China is still with all of us, even after all these years!” says James.
James reminisces about China. He says that one day, after he graduates, he wants to go back. “I tried to go as an exchange student to Nanjing last year, but it didn’t work out. I do know, though, that China will always be a part of me for the rest of my life. It has taken a hold of me, and all the memories I have from my time in China will always stay with me. I’m always going to identify with that country – even though I’m not Chinese. It sounds crazy, but that’s how much I loved living there!”
Living in China has its ups and its downs. It’s like bittersweet chocolate. At first it’s bitter, but then it melts and gives way to the sweet. And in our memories, it’s the sweet that stays with us, even after many years. It’s the sweet that keeps us wanting “just another taste”.
They say that home is where the heart is. To James, to me, and to many other people who have lived in China, pieces of our hearts have remained in that country of opposites long after our departure. We feel displaced, even in our own countries. Now, away from China, the taste of its food, the sound if its language…it all tugs on the tender wounds in our chests. China has become a part of who we are. The missing pieces of our hearts are there, in that country of bitter-sweetness –and they are there to stay.
By Amelia Yan
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