“So how do you feel about going back?”
It’s a reasonable question, and I appreciate people asking. It’s also one of those stupidly difficult ones, like, “Where do you live? Do you love China? Do you love America?”
Almost exactly a year ago I sat in a hotel room in limbo between our life in China and our year in America, and I wrote about the equally hard question, “Are you excited about going back to America?” I didn’t know how to answer that one either.
How do I feel about going back? I’d say I feel all the things. If I were an emoji I would have at least three heads: wailing head, smiling head, stress head. Stress over packing and trying to get all of our prescriptions in time. Grief over saying goodbyes and leaving this place where we have settled for a year. Grief for the goodbyes and transitions my kids have to go through again and the difficulties they will face. Anticipation of getting settled back into our own familiar space where we lived for four years. Anxiety over how much our community and the environment of our city has changed in the last year. Eagerness to see friends we have missed.
I am a pre-griever. I feel all the sadness before something happens, dreading the coming change. I have been known to feel sad about Juliana going away to kindergarten and to college at the same time. My pre-grieving knows no bounds. But once the dreaded event occurs, it is easier. Once I get on the plane, I can focus on what is ahead.
I also know that adaptability is not one of my strengths. When I face going anywhere, I always think, “Or we could just stay here...” It doesn't help when the first step is 30 hours of travel. I like the familiar and have very low desire for adventure. Maybe in spite of or because of living in China, I love stability and routine and everything staying the same. Fortunately I have been through enough transition to have gained a self-awareness. I never want to leave, but when I get there it will be okay. Right now everything seems up in the air and the room is cluttered with suitcases, but one day soon we will be settled again.
When I think about going back, what I look forward to most is the familiarity. I think of our apartment and how it will look once we have everything unpacked and organized. I think of our friends who are still there, ones that we know and understand, and who will understand all the feelings that come with transition. I think about the familiar roads we drive down every day, and about the familiar faces – the fruit seller, the restaurant owners, the neighbors.
When we have been in China for a while, I will think, “I cannot imagine living in America. What would that even be like? What would it be like not to live here? This is our life. This is normal.” But in those first days back, I know I will look around at the dull gray skies and the dull gray buildings and wonder, “Why are we here? Why is everything ugly? Why would we choose this?” It takes a while to notice the glimpses of beauty.
Similarly, when I first get back to America I always think, “This place is crazy. I cannot imagine living here. Look at the size of these houses! How much everyone thinks they need to own! Why are there so many choices??” But after so long in America – a full year – I think, “It’s pretty nice here. I could get used to this. We could settle in and our kids could go to school, we could keep going to our church, we could drive around in a van and fill up a closet.”
So there is always an inner conflict. America is so in-your-face prettier and easier and bigger and has ten options of anything you could ever want. China has to grow on you. Everything is harder but also simpler. In China, I would love to buy one of those pre-washed bags of spinach and skip the whole process of “wash with soap, rinse really well until the water is no longer dirty, rinse with drinking water, dry completely and use in the next day before it wilts.”
But there is also something wholesome about stepping into the tiny vegetable shop or bending down over the blanket of vegetables along the side of the road. In the middle of the city, there is something grounding about spinach covered with dirt, a reminder it came out of the ground not a factory. It was probably carted into the city on one of those incredibly loud banging tractors and sold by the farmers, directly to us or to the vegetable shop. And I probably bought it for 40 cents.
So my feelings about China are kind of like spinach. I miss the ease and convenience of sanitized spinach in a fancy container inside a ridiculously clean supermarket, but I also enjoy the connection I feel through my dirt-covered spinach sold in a cold, cramped vegetable hut by the same person I see every time, who tells me if my kids are wearing enough clothes or not.
In fact, maybe this will be my new analogy. “How do I feel about going back to China? Well it's complicated; kind of like spinach."