A Return Stateside Brings
An Elusive Sense of Home

August 18, 2006

I am writing this column from Maplewood, N.J., sitting at my aunt and uncle’s kitchen table, right in the heart of the cozy little neighborhood we called home for eight years before moving to Beijing almost exactly one year ago. I am directly across the street from my house, which we still own but have rented out to tenants who are themselves expats, from Denmark. It is calming and reassuring to look out the window and view the house, which looks lovely. Yet I feel surprisingly dislocated, pining for China and my life there far more than I anticipated.

I have been in the U.S. for a month now and I want to get back. I’ve been trying to sort out just what I’m longing for. In part, it is my house and possessions, the things you see every day which ground you and remind you who you are, but it’s much deeper than that. Last week, I wanted to jump up and hug a couple I surprisingly heard speaking Chinese in a state park in Bay City, Michigan.

This is my first summer living as an expat and I largely followed the lead of others. I actually moderated the “get the hell out of Dodge” approach many have, in large part because my wife Rebecca and I really don’t like lengthy familial separations, which are common among expat families. We stayed three weeks after school finished and enjoying a less harried daily life before heading back together. Still, I decided to stay on in Maplewood for an extra week with my two sons after Rebecca returned to work. (I wisely thought better of flying home solo with all three of my kids and sent three-year-old Anna home with mom.) That pushes the visit close to five weeks, and it’s too long. The result of this lengthy sojourn away from my daily life is a strangely disassociated feeling.

Everywhere I go, people ask me a variation of the same simple questions: “How’s China? Is it weird to be back?” Depending on my mood and to whom I’m speaking, I answer the first question with anything from a muttered “great” to a lengthy disposition (all the while resisting the urge to simply ask, “Don’t you read my damn column?”). The second question is a little tougher to answer honestly.

Upon arriving here last month, the strangest thing about being back was how not strange it felt. Within a day, it seemed like we had never left, like everything that happened in the last year was just a dream. But it’s gotten more complicated as the weeks have rolled by and we have made pilgrimages to our most familiar, comforting places, including Beach Haven, N.J., Ann Arbor and Bay City, Mich., and my parents’ house deep in the Pennsylvania woods. Returning to each and every one of these locales and the dear friends and family who populate them is a positive and grounding experience, but the cumulative effect of a month dragging kids and bags from place to place is something different. You start to feel lost in time and space. You’re not quite on vacation but you’re definitely not home either.

Our first morning in Maplewood, we took a family stroll into town to get breakfast. The tree-lined streets we formerly took for granted became objects of fascination and awe. We marveled at the chirping birds and scampering squirrels and oohed and aahed at the gentle breeze and the morning light filtering through the dense overhead foliage. All of these sights are common to leafy, suburban America in the summer but rare and wondrous in Beijing and its environs.

This was not our first trip back since moving. We also visited at Christmas time, just four months after moving. We wavered on returning home so soon, before my father’s illness made the decision easy. Ultimately, it was a good decision, one that somehow helped clarify for all of us that we now lived in China; sometimes you have to leave and return for a place to truly feel like home.

But it was also a strain at times to stay so close to our house. The kids wanted to go inside, they wanted to see their rooms, and they didn’t like the fact that other children were living there. We considered bringing them over to see and get it out of their system before deciding against it. Only I went in, to pick up some documents. It was nice to see and the house looked great, but it was not in any way a profound or moving experience.

This time, no one has asked to visit the house and it hasn’t felt weird for a minute to be staying across the street. That seems like good news. The kids have had a great time visiting grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and cousins and frolicking at some of their favorite spots, but they have never once wavered about returning. We were walking down the Jersey shore beach when we passed someone reading New York magazine’s “Best Cheap Eats” issue. A large bowl of Asian food was featured on the cover, causing five-year-old Eli to turn to me and say, “I really miss Chinese food, dad.” Boy, did I understand.

We’ve visited with friends and families, rejoiced in my father’s good health and rather amazing recovery, seen doctors and dentists and filled bags at Target, Nordstrom’s and Modell’s Sports with hard-to-get-in-China items. We’ve dined on cheesesteaks, Jersey corn, tomatoes and pizza, Michigan pasties, banana splits and other only-in-America culinary delights. We’ve endured a scorching heat wave and reveled in the sweet late summer weather that followed as we visited beaches, parks, state fairs, amusement parks and water slides. And now we’re ready to get back to dumplings and pollution, uniforms and compound walls. We’re ready to get back to our lives. We’re ready to go home.
* * *
Readers Respond

Write to me and I’ll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don’t want your letter published. Below are selected, edited responses to my previous Expat Life column, about unexpectedly and painfully getting “cupped” on a massage table. Thanks to everyone who offered suggestions for treating my chronically sore shoulder, which ranged from physical therapy to shots of B12 to more cupping.

You can get used to chronic, long-term shoulder pain especially if, like so many of us, you’ve been taught to “grin and bear it.” But when the flair-ups get more frequent, you may find yourself more irritable, that the activities of daily living are more difficult, and that what you’ve grown to take for granted is a constant feeling of pain that hurts all aspects of your life.

Ignoring for a moment the intangible, undocumented, and anecdotal benefits of Eastern medicine, I suggest you look into Western physical therapy. I wasn’t familiar first hand with PT until my own shoulder drove me to an orthopedist for help. Rather than diving in with lots of medicine and surgery, he prescribed a few weeks of physical therapy that produced great results.

Take care of the little things so you can enjoy the big experiences — and thanks for sharing those big pictures, as reflected in the vignettes.

— Guy Barudin

My wife is a physical therapist and she has done miracles for many patients with “trigger points.” They had various, inexplicable aches and pains, which were completely alleviated by applying pressure at appropriate trigger points where muscles went into spasm. If you have a trigger point, a knowledgeable PT can diagnose it and fix the pain.

— Alfred D’Souza

Thanks to you both. I am definitely open to PT and may well explore it down the road.
* * *

I am Chinese and knew about this type of treatment, which is very common (including the pain after the treatment). The interesting part was the lady who administrated it. Usually it is carried out by Chinese doctors [not] a lady in the massage parlor! If you feel the treatment was good for you, you should go back and thank her.

— Ken Fong

I actually have returned to the massage place to try to talk with the masseuse but have not been able to find her again. It closed for a renovation and recently reopened. I may try again.

* * *

Another name, more commonly used in the U.S. is Gua Sha. As you experienced, the technique can be uncomfortable and sometimes bruising, but it is very effective for breaking up chronic scar tissue, muscle fibrosis and trigger points. My patients have a love-hate feeling for the technique.

— Robert “Dr. Bob” Konowitz, DC, DACBSP

I do not doubt that anyone undergoing regular “gua sha” treatments would have a love-hate relationship with the technique.

* * *

I’m a certified massage therapist and hadn’t heard of cupping before. It was interesting that you mentioned Starbucks, as I have noticed that I, myself, get some muscle tightness in my right shoulder blade area when I drink coffee. Coffee is a stimulant and sometimes causes tension in muscles. When I stop drinking coffee for several days, it goes away.

— Paul

You raise an interesting point, but quite a disturbing one. Can’t… go…without… coffee… I readily admit to a severe addiction. I try to drink only tea in the afternoon (which is rather pleasurable in China), but this column would really get interesting if I gave up coffee. In fact, I just packed six pounds of Peets into my bag for my return trip.
* * *

As someone who knows a thing or two about cupping, I really urge you to try at least several more sessions before you give it up. It is a common folk remedy in China, and, speaking from personal experience, it works. Cupping could be the best thing for your shoulder ache, and you owe it to yourself a few more cupping sessions.

— Mark

I am certainly willing to give cupping a try in a slightly different setting. Part of the intensity of my experience was simply that I had no idea what was going on and did not know it was coming.
* * *

I have been treated with cupping, but with small cups all over the back. It did not hurt but felt tight and warm. Afterwards I noticed the bruising was in tiny circles that followed my backbone. I forgot all about it until I walked out to the pool at the local YMCA for a swim and realized it might look like someone had been beating me. But then I also realized that most of the swimmers were Asian and would know exactly what treatment I had had.

Fortunately, my acupuncturist speaks English. I don’t know what I would do if I felt tortured and couldn’t get it to stop and tried to communicate in a language I wasn’t proficient in.

— Elizabeth Zima

I could have communicated, “Stop it right now,” and definitely considered doing so. But I was intrigued to find out what was happening. As I said, I’m still not sure if my passive acceptance makes me a very strong man or a very weak one.
* * *

Attempting to draw conclusions based on your “series of one cases” may mislead those who are unfamiliar with the concept of “scientific method.”

— Michael Corbett

I was just relating my own peculiar experience and in no way intended to draw scientific conclusions.

Write to Alan Paul at expatlife@dowjones.com

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