the best is yet to come

Life Abroad: What I expected and what really happened

Living in a foreign place never turns out the way you would have thought it to have turned out. And right now, I’m panicking. Hard. In about two weeks, I’m flying back to the U.S. for the first time in almost a year. It’s giving me so much anxiety. The thought of coming back home used to be something so comforting – I used to daydream of walking down Elm Street and of the slightly-too-bitter lattes at Blue State. But now that Shanghai finally feels like home, frankly I’m just confused. What if, after the past year year, I’ve forgotten what it’s like to live back in the States? No, now I’m just being ridiculous.

Writing that earlier post, I had made a list of all the things that made me feel like myself while I lived in China, and even a year later, those things still continue to be a part of who I am. But then again, defining myself by lists like that is kind of dumb. I don’t need an arbitrary set of criteria to know who I am. It would be crazy to say that China hasn’t changed me. It has. It really, really has. But a year later, I don’t think it’s ‘ruined’ me (like I may have feared last July). Like D said, home is where we are. It’s where we feel the most like ourselves. And at this moment, it’s at my breakfast table, overlooking the white couch in my living room and drinking a cup of mint tea.

In China, there are things that are incredibly easy:
  • Making friends is effortless. You connect with someone and become ‘besties’ in a night, even when all that you have in common is the country you flew here from (“Oh, you’re from the U.S. too? Doesn’t matter that you’re wanted in 37 States, let’s exchange WeChats!”)
  • Everything can be accomplished quickly and cheaply. Sunday I lost my phone charger and spent most of the day rifling through my apartment to try to find it. But then, instead of wallowing, I realized that I could get a new charger from the bootleg electronics store three doors down from my apartment building for less than 5USD. Just like that – problem solved.
But then other parts of living abroad are nothing that I could have expected:
  • You have triggers. Some days you love everything about your life here. And some days my fingers are clicks away from buying a ticket on the next flight home. My last panic was a week ago, triggered by a carton of Wallaby’s Greek Yogurt and the New Haven Co-Op. After that stupid carton of yogurt, I could think of nothing else for hours. Knowing that this was a commodity I couldn’t get in China for some reason became unbearable to think about. But in the end, it’s never rarely about the yogurt.
  • The Internet is one of the worst parts of living in China. There are seldom days I can go work in a coffee shop, simply because the Internet speeds everywhere but my apartment are so slow that they’re unusable. Even in my living room, it’s unbearably slow (I pay about 220USD a year for 100Mbps, but I doubt I get even a 10th of that). My life is dictated by the places where I can get a connection and the places where I can’t (like my work office, for instance)
  • You’re at once stared at, yet constantly ignored. The Expat occupies a weird place in the Chinese social dynamic.The other day, while watching a YouTube video, a commercial for Pizza Hut came on. Ok, I haven’t eaten Pizza Hut, or pizza at all in such a long time, yet seeing a commercial catered to my ‘weird American’ tastes (pretzel crust? YES) felt so overwhelmingly comforting. Even seeing the legal fine print about the crust only being available in the contiguous 48 states, I was reminded that in the U.S., we live in a world where things like fine print exist. In China, the way of approaching people, of talking to them, of advertising to the lowest common denominator is just so vastly dissimilar.
And yet, as much as I complain about it, life in China is extraordinary. And there’s definitely a fear of life becoming commonplace when you return. And perhaps we’ll have to fight to keep it extraordinary a little harder, when we aren’t faced with little kids squatting on the sidewalk each day. On the eve of my return to the U.S., I am reminded of the uncertainties of last year,I am reminded that I am, for certain, not the things I left behind. I am not my four boxes that I have stored in my parent’s basement. Those have some college sweatshirts I’ll rarely wear as an adult except for maybe to the gym, my Le Creuset baking dishes, a set of magnetic measuring spoons, some mixing bowls, and other things I deemed important enough last year, but now I can’t really remember.

Knowing myself, I’ll continue freaking out until I land in the U.S. In China, in some ways, freaking out is the norm. But once I’m back on East Rock, none of it will matter.

0 thoughts on “Life Abroad: What I expected and what really happened”

  • I can definitely relate. After spending almost a year in Norway I came back home to feel incredibly out of place. I hope your journey home creates less anxiety for you than it has and continues to do for me. Good luck!

      • Well I’m still going through it. I’ve only been back 2 weeks! So I’m currently trying to adjust to living back at my parents, finding a job and going back to a “normal” life rather than one filled with adventure and travel. I’d say the hardest part is no longer having the same world that I left. Friends and family have lived their lives without me for the past 8 months and trying to figure out where I fit back in is the most challenging. I’ve changed since being abroad and trying to fit in with relationships the old me had is difficult. Hopefully with this in mind you won’t have as many “breakdowns” as I have!

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