Wednesday, October 18, 2017

I Didn't Count the Cost Before I Moved To China

A group of tourists at the Great Wall of China. Image source.
Previous post: On Zebedee's Sons and Counting the Cost

I've been living in China for over 4 years now. And I'm starting to feel, more and more, the cost. How much I gave up when I chose to come live here.

It's hard, harder than I expected, and I'm realizing I didn't count the cost. Sure, I knew I was going to the other side of the world, long-term, where I'll have to learn how to live in a different culture and do everything in a different language, but I didn't know the full ramifications of what that would look like, in a practical sense.

Every year on my birthday, my family doesn't send gifts because we have our doubts about how reliable the mail system is. Instead, they say, "We'll do your birthday next time you're back in the US." And I don't make a cake for myself- because Hendrix doesn't want any, so there's no one to eat it with. (A lot of Chinese people say completely average desserts [from an American perspective] are "too sweet" and won't eat them.) Usually I go and buy one fancy piece of cake for myself. This year I asked Hendrix to buy me two pieces of cake- because a birthday cake is supposed to be something that you're still eating for the next couple days, not just one piece on your birthday. And he did, because he's great, but I feel so tired of explaining traditions that I used to just take for granted.

And when my family members in the US have a birthday, I get on Amazon and get something sent to them. Every time. And I text them to say happy birthday, because if I'm going to call there would first have to be a whole text conversation where we figure out what time we're both available to skype. With a 12-hour time difference.

No turkey for Thanksgiving here. Well, there are international grocery stores selling turkey, but it's super-expensive, and really the point of Thanksgiving is to be with family- it's not like I could put in a lot of effort finding all the correct ingredients for a Thanksgiving dinner and then it would be real Thanksgiving. It would be me worrying about getting everything right, and Hendrix trying to go along with it and be supportive but not really getting it.

For Christmas, most years I've been able to be back in the US for Christmas. But not always. And only for 1 or 2 weeks, not the whole Christmas season. I can't be there for the gradual buildup of Christmas spirit, starting with hyped-up Black Friday sales. (Which, when I lived in the US, I never went shopping on Black Friday anyway, but I still miss the whole culture surrounding it.) Yeah, Starbucks in China has their holiday-themed cups, but that just makes me miss it more. Christmas here is mostly about malls putting up decorations and having sales, using it as an opportunity to make money, rather than something the average person cares about.

I forgot Labor Day was a thing. Totally forgot. Until I saw people talking about it on twitter, the day of. I forgot Columbus Day was a thing, until I saw people talking about it on twitter. I forgot Memorial Day was a thing. I forgot Martin Luther King Day was a thing.

And missing out on these American holidays is fine if we're just talking about one time, but it's not one time, it's every single one, for years on end. I've missed four Thanksgivings in a row, and I'll keep missing Thanksgivings for the foreseeable future.

Football season. I used to watch football almost every weekend during football season, back when I lived in the US. But here, I don't have anyone to watch it with. And get this- people here think soccer is called football. It's just total linguistic chaos (and I blame the British). It's so nice when I'm back in the US and someone says the word "football" and I can be confident they're talking about football, not soccer. That's such a good feeling. And since I moved to China in 2013, I've typically only been able to watch 1 regular season game per year when I'm home for Christmas, and then when it's Superbowl Sunday I get up early (because in China it's Monday) and find a website I can stream it from. Except this year. This year I couldn't watch it at all, and that made me more homesick than ever.

I've missed weddings. Over the past few years, two different American friends have contacted me to ask if I'm still in China and if I can come to their weddings. And I have to tell them no there's just no way I can be on that continent that day. And surely there have been other friends getting married who wanted to invite me but didn't because they knew I wouldn't be able to come. If I had attended their wedding, I would have seen a bunch of friends that I haven't seen in years. But I can't.

Also missed a high school reunion. And there have been conferences and other events in the US that I would have liked to go to, but I can't. And new books that I want to read but they're not available to buy here- I have to wait til I'm in the US.

One of my grandparents died and I couldn't go to the funeral. It just wasn't possible to get enough time off work to fly all the way there and all the way back.

And in 2013 when I moved here, my parents' dog was already old, and every time I was back in the US I thought "I won't be back here for another 6 months or a year, this might be the last time I see our dog." I had to accept that. And then last year the dog died.

It's hard being so far away from my family, only seeing them twice a year. Hard to keep up with what's going on in their lives, because there's a 12-hour time difference so it takes a bunch of effort to even agree on a time we can skype. Sometimes I'm talking to my parents, and then I'm happily surprised to see my sister is there with them, because she had a day off work for some US holiday I completely forgot about. Completely forgot.

Food here is also different. The milk in China is more creamy and a little bit weird. In the US I used to drink milk so much- it was my favorite food, except it wouldn't even have occurred to me to call it my favorite food because drinking a ton of milk every day is so normal and obvious it's not even worth mentioning, right? (Yeah not in every culture.) But here in China I don't drink milk very much. It's quite sad.

Also, do you know how hard I've tried to find decent sliced bread in China? Like, sandwiches aren't part of the normal Chinese diet, so bread isn't seen as a staple food (rice and noodles are). You can't buy just a "regular" loaf of bread here. First of all, the loaves of bread will only have like 6 slices- like what is that? And a lot of times they have odd flavors, like they're sweet, or egg flavored, or have raisins. I have found bread that I deemed good enough for sandwiches, but I had to search a long time for it- and I don't even buy it any more, it's not worth the trouble, and it gets moldy fast in the Shanghai heat.

I bring my own pop-tarts from the US, because I can't buy them here. I order Cheerios online. There aren't any bagels here. And do you know how expensive cheese is?

And you know what may be even harder than the fact that I can't get all the food I like is the fact that Chinese people don't understand. Sometimes somebody asks me about what's hard about living in China, and I start talking about bread, and they're like "but just go to a bakery, we have a lot of bakeries." Yeah, none of that bread is "normal" from my American perspective (though some of it is very tasty and good for snacks). And when they continue to be confused, Hendrix tries to explain "she has a lot of requirements for bread."

Things have been happening in the US in the past few years, and all I can do is read about them on the internet. The politics and culture of the US has changed. The Black Lives Matter movement gained national attention after Mike Brown was killed in 2014. And the whole 2016 election- the Republican party nominated a clown who spent the whole campaign making increasingly shocking and hateful statements that showed he was in no way fit to be president, and somehow a ton of people voted for him. After the election, I didn't see another American until several days later- finally there was someone who understood my pain, our American pain, and we could be sad together. What's going on over there? What's happened to my country? All I can do is check the news from the other side of the world. I wish I could do more.

Also, y'all had an eclipse over there and I totally missed it.

And there's no Pokemon GO in China. I missed that whole fad.

(And maybe I would have married a white American boy if I had stayed in the US. Should I add that to the list of things I gave up when I moved to China? It's just speculation though- who knows if it actually would have happened? And I love my husband and wouldn't want to trade him for anyone else, but there are some aspects of life that would be easier if we came from the same cultural background.)

I didn't know how hard it would be to be so far from my family and my people and my culture. Sure, I knew that I was moving to the other side of the world and would only be able to go back once or twice a year, but I didn't know how it would actually feel to go to work on Thanksgiving and have no one who understands what we're "supposed" to do on that holiday.

Back then, before I came to China, I was immersed in radical Christian missions ideology. I didn't really see myself as "giving up" something, because I believed God loves everybody in the world and it's just by chance that I was born as an American with money. I didn't see my heritage and my American life as really belonging to me or as something I deserved. It all belongs to God, right? And of all the places in the world I could live, why do people expect that I would live in the US among people who share my culture? How narrow and arbitrary- right?

It all seemed so exciting and I didn't count the cost.

Really, there was no way I could have counted the cost. You can't know how it feels to miss four Thanksgivings until you've actually experienced it. I'm not saying it was a bad idea or I shouldn't have done it. I'm glad I have the experience of speaking a second language and living as a minority, and I'm really proud of myself for what I've accomplished. I'm working as an engineer and I have to speak Chinese every day at work, and it's so cool that I'm able to do that. (Also I now have a much better understanding about things like language, translation, and cultural differences, which I couldn't have gotten any other way.)

But wow, the cost. I'm on track to spend most of my 20's in China. 4 years so far- that's about 15% of my life.

Back then it seemed so easy- go, give up everything, be a missionary. And even though I didn't come to China as a missionary, my decision was heavily influenced by that ideology.

Well, sort of. More than anything else, though, it was my overwhelming desire to learn and experience a different culture and language, and take on the challenge and see if I could do it. It was the only way I could make sense of what I'd seen on my first trip to China- a several-week mission trip where I discovered that other worlds exist which are totally unlike anything I could ever imagine. Where people drink hot water and hot milk and think I'm the weird one for wanting them cold. I couldn't experience that and then just go back to my normal life.

And yeah, it was a good decision, and it was what I needed to do. But wow, the cost. I didn't count the cost. I didn't know it would be this hard. I didn't know how much I would miss the US.

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