I flew out of Ottawa on the morning of the 28th but I’d been feeling an uncomfortable something-something at the back of my throat in the few days prior. On the uncomfortable 13-hour flight, I
attributed hoped that the heaviness in my sinuses was just changes in the air pressure (I’m not a scientist– sue me).
But there was no denying it: I was sick again. I knew for certain when I woke at 3 in the morning (Beijing time), mouth dry, skin burning, throat scratchy, muscles weak. Maybe it’s the accumulation of weeks of exhaustion and stress, finally bursting through now that things have slowed (slightly) in the meantime, the introduction of heavy, smoggy Chinese air (it’s made me sick before), or a new open wound that I’ve been a little too careless about.
It doesn’t matter–I’d rather be sick than homesick.
I was horribly, unequivocally, viscerally, so physically homesick when I came to China in 2010– the last time I was here (and the last and only time I was here without one or both of my parents).
I don’t remember landing, I don’t remember going through customs, but I remember sitting in my aunt’s car, staring out the window at the ash-grey Beijing sky and feeling large weights drop in the pit of my stomach from enormous heights. I’m a very emotional, very intense person, but that “glance-out-the-window” moment remains the first and one of the only points in my life when my emotions completely took me by surprise both in their intensity, and how they felt like they were rising up from such an animal part of my consciousness.
(I’d feel a lighter shade of this homesickness again, a few years later, when I lived in Quebec for six weeks. )
Knowing and understanding more about myself now, I’d say that the homesickness was brought up by a few things:
- How I’m functionally illiterate in Chinese (I can speak it decently enough, but I can’t read or write anything other than my name… which is a cool party trick, I guess?).
- I was alone with family members and people that I didn’t know (though I came with my cousin, she was with her Dad most of the time)
- I felt trapped, a lot of the time, in a home that I didn’t feel comfortable leaving. (#yellowwallpaper)
I think everything is exacerbated by the first point that I mentioned above. I feel like it’s very isolating to be somewhere where you can’t participate in an act as simple as reading storefront signs and documents left behind in a house, where you can pick up the pulse of a community, what people are talking about, what they’re laughing about.
Of course, I’m probably overemphasizing the language bit of it because I went to Amsterdam with a few friends, and I felt fine. But maybe it’s the fact that Chinese is a language that, by virtue of my eyes and my race and my heritage, that I feel deep down that I should know… but that I don’t. Is it guilt, with a bit of shame whisked in? Probably.
Then again, I don’t know when I would have had the opportunity to learn. My first language was Japanese. My parents, upon seeing how much I cried at Chinese School, took me out after a few weeks and to be honest, they really aren’t that bothered that I can’t read it, and neither is the rest of my extended family. I can speak it well enough to carry a conversation (never enough to show my true personality) and that’s enough for them.
If I had more time, I’d like to learn how to read and write in Chinese, but there are lots of other things, more pressing in my life, that I prioritize over reading and writing in a language that’s barely present in anything I do. But it’s something I’d like to do to really understand my parents, and myself, more. I’ve only been fed a very specific taste of Chinese values from the ones my parents have experienced, rather than the full scale and scope of what it means to be really Chinese.