Transitory Tales: Honing My Definition of Self

My parents were never afraid to travel with a young child, and for that I admire them. By the time I was five I’d been through most of the countries in Western Europe with them, my mother braving airports armed with peanut butter, crackers (featured in the picture below), and a deck of cards. Needless to say, she’d taught me to play cards by that time, and that kept me entertained on long flights.

As a result, I never really thought much of physical boundaries – where one country stopped and another started. I had a three foot cardboard atlas that inspired me to visit different places, and I circled locations in messy crayon when I got it in my head that I wanted to go somewhere.

At four years old when I learned about Vivaldi from a favorite audio tape, I started begging my father to take me to Venice (we finally made it during the summer after my freshman year in college). I had certainly been bitten by the travel bug.

When the opportunity arose to study abroad in China for a summer, I jumped at the chance. At that point, a willingness to travel – a certain eagerness for any opportunity that came up – was a big part of how I defined myself. I saw myself as low-maintenance, adventurous, and curious. Four days into my summer in Beijing, I had fallen in love with a city and with a man, and my mind was made up: I’d be moving out to Beijing as soon as possible.

 

I wrangled all the money I could for my first rent payment and packed two suitcases full of clothes, things I loved, and cooking ingredients I knew I couldn’t easily get in Beijing. Knowing that I didn’t have a return flight booked was an odd feeling – always having booked flights in sets of two. It was both exciting and confusing, and as a result of that confusion, I kept calling my mother’s house “home” for over a year after I officially moved out.

I loved my life in Beijing deeply – I made wonderful friends, had a great job, had a sweet puppy, and I enjoyed the daily puzzle of living life in a non-native language. I still didn’t really think of it as “home,” though, and I couldn’t put my finger on the reason why. After my first big vacation away from Beijing, I remember stepping exhaustedly back onto a plane to China, turning to Walker, and saying, “I want to go home.” As soon as I’d said it I remember feeling shocked with myself, but I realized that I really did feel at home there.

We stayed in Beijing for three years, and we moved to Shanghai where we stayed for a year before we had the opportunity to return back to the States. By that time, we’d realized that though we’d loved Beijing, we didn’t particularly love Shanghai. We were approaching a time in our lives when we wanted to be a little closer (but not too close!) to our roots. The shippers came and packaged away every aspect of the life that we’d built in China (except the dog) and we spent the last week making arrangements with the exportation vet to make sure our Chinese beagle could leave without a hitch.

At the time I was excited to start a new phase of my life – after all, I was moving with my family to San Francisco, another place I’d never been and always wanted to go. We knew there’d be cultural readjustments that we’d need to make, and we thought we were prepared for that.

I wasn’t prepared, however, for the sense of loss I felt over shedding my expat identity. It had been a huge part of who I was, the thing that made me feel special, the thing that challenged me and kept me feeling sharp. China was the only place I’d ever known how to be an autonomous adult, learning to pay my bills, run my household, and hang up my wet towels. I grew so much there. As I blended in with the other faces on the busy city sidewalk, I was overcome with grief, even as I knew this was a choice that would mean wonderful things for us. This move was infinitely easier for the dog.

To combat that sadness, Walker and I kept up with our friends (with whom we still have Skype dates) and practiced our Chinese together. We both have amazing jobs here, and we’re beginning to make good friends again, surrounding ourselves with the community that was so critical to making ourselves feel welcome in China. We’ve kept traveling to interesting and exotic places. We bought our first house, adopted another dog, and have worked hard to find ourselves again. I won’t tell you that we’re not deliriously happy, because we are.

But.

That itch is there, at the back of both of our minds. We talk about when we’ll go back to China, and not if. And if you ask either of us, you’d hear that we both still think of ourselves through that expat lens – as adventurous, curious creatures with a passion for the unknown.

Find three more stories about our time in China here

7 comments

  1. Susan says:

    I loved this story but there were some real adventures you didn’t mention. I thought I was brave putting you on the plane at 14 for London-Paris where you took the metro unassisted to the train station and a train bound for Tours.

    Then there was putting you on the plane for Johannesburg when you were not yet 18 and ended up spending the night in Detroit before changing your flights in Amsterdam.

    What’s a mother to do?

  2. Evelyn says:

    First, those pictures kill me. That, and the thought of a pint-sized Kate circling Venice on a map. I started to wonder if a better time for traveling with children would be when they’re old enough to truly remember and value the experience…except I see your point. There’s something enviably romantic about a 5 year old that doesn’t feel the boundaries of her own country. I can see how that builds self-confidence and an entirely different frame of mind.

    I can take the beagles if they can’t go to China with you! If you and W pick me up some secret shirts while in China, deal?

  3. Susan says:

    Traveling with children is fine. You just look at things with different eyes. When Kate was 5. we were in Switzerland, Germany, France and the UK. Before we left home, we read Heidi as a bedtime story and while we were in Basel, saw the goats and goatherds on the mountains. We drove to France and Germany checking out the different Christmas ornaments and images of Santa. In London, we saw the Crown Jewels, the clock tower where Peter Pan flew around, and the place where they buried dead people in the floor and walls (Westminster Abby). You just change your expectations and target things that interest kids. Obviously something stuck.

  4. Mary-Jo Rusu says:

    I cannot tell you how much I value your story so much because it echoes how I feel. I am an expat teacher who spent 8 months in China and adopted a precious Chinese beagle named Sofi. I was so haopy there as it had been a dream if mine to go there and then I had to return earlier unexpectedly. I just wrote friends today saying how odd it is but that i feel like it was my home, too. My darling dog is with friends until I return to teach in a few months but the wait is hard. I would love to make your acquaintance!

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