Uh. The people. Duh.
That’s the only respectable answer to the question most often asked of people who have recently moved across the planet . . . “What do you miss the most?” It has now been five months since my family and I relocated our lives from China back to the U.S. and just as I expected, I am missing the people like crazy. Also no surprise is number two . . . the food.
The crazy bit is the number of things that I’m finding myself missing that I never dreamed I would.
Here’s my short list of the most ironic things I miss about China:
1. Stinky Toilets
This never would have made my list had a friend of mine and China expat veteran not blown my mind and saved my bacon at the same time. I challenged a group of expats once to find the good and the bad of every part of their transition. Confident I could pull off this discussion I threw out the bait, “What was the worst part of your first year in China?” Without skipping a beat the voice came from the back, “SQUATTY POTTIES”. The whole group groaned in agreement (no pun intended).
Internally I was sure that my theory was busted but I was too far in to turn back. “Ok can anyone think of anything good about squatting your fully exposed posterior over a foul smelling, nasty, stank infested, porcelain hole in the ground?”
The awkwardness was finally broken by my friend who said, “the worst toilets I ever smelled and the best people I ever met were in the Chinese countryside so now every time I smell a nasty toilet I am reminded of my time there.”
Brilliant. I miss stinky toilets.
Here’s a post about that: China’s Beautiful Countryside
2. Hoofing It
To be clear, when I was in China the one thing I missed more more than anything (except the people – duh) is driving a car. I also complained daily about having to walk so far just to find a taxi (which I also complained about because it reminded me that I didn’t have a car). However, I’m realizing, now that I have a car to carry me everywhere, that my body and my mind are both missing my daily walks. Long walks gave me a great chance to process my day, plan the next one and complain about the fact that I didn’t have a car. They were also infinitely more healthy than sitting behind a steering wheel complaining about the fact that I never get to walk anywhere.
I have spent a ridiculous amount of time writing and rewriting this paragraph because I’m confident that any way I explain it, it’s going to come out horribly wrong. So I’m settling on short, sweet and trusting you, the reader and my fellow Americans (if you are), to understand that I have not switched allegiance to the Communist party nor am I the least bit unthankful for the freedoms of my beautiful American life.
However, a refreshing side note to Chinese Communism is that I have met very few Chinese people who both:
- Claim loudly to be living in the “Greatest Nation in the World”
- Complain incessantly about how horrible everything in their nation is
The opposite seems to be true around here. Moving on.
I read Chinese at about the same level that my four year old reads English. We both stumble around in virtual darkness and jump for joy when something makes sense. It’s bonding really. Although it is nice to be able to read again, ten minutes in front of the tabloids at the grocery store makes me miss the golden days of blissful illiteracy.
5. Faking Chinese
For seven years the most consistent challenge of my daily existence has been saying words. It has become a very normal cycle of my everyday routine to
- Need to communicate a thought
- Realize I cannot
- Learn a new word
- Try to use it
- Receive a blank stare
- Try again
- Act it out using hand gestures and props from around the room
- Give up.
My Chinese is still pretty shaky but my mime skills have gotten crazy good.
99% of the time it has been something super simple like “do you carry flourescent light bulbs ?” or “please don’t put ketchup on my Egg Mcmuffin”. It’s the 1% times like, “my son is having a seizure, please do something” that have left the most lasting impact. Some combination of learning Chinese and learning how to fake it have helped me make it through the past seven years one awkward mistake at a time.
And I’ll be doggone’d if I don’t miss it every single day.
Check out some of my favorite posts about faking Chinese
- Confessions of a Language Faker
- Humbling Moments for a Language Faker
- Language Faking Gone Horribly Wrong
6. Being Stared At
Strange I know. Doesn’t make a bit of sense to me either but after a while you kind of get used to being a walking confusion storm. That’s what my family is in China. We don’t make sense no matter how you look at us. Two white foreigners with a Chinese daughter (who speaks remarkable English) and a black son who has just recently become a ninja. Yeah. We’re confusing. So people stare (and sometimes take pictures) because it is perfectly, culturally acceptable to stare at weird things in China. Given the fact that we were taught that it is absolutely unacceptable and terribly rude to stare at weird things (until you know for sure that they are not looking at you), it can be one of the frustrating bits of cultural adjustment.
And still . . . I miss it.
7. Taking Taxis
Great conversation. Deep cultural insight. All the cigarettes he can smoke. Near death thrill rides. What’s not to miss?
8. Being a Foreigner
There is something profound and humbling about experiencing life as a bumbling outsider. Tripping over culture every single day. Miscommunicating every word and every thought. Wondering what people think when they look at you. Getting cut in line by tiny elderly women. Being told you’re too fat or too old or too black or your baby is too cold or too hot or too diapered. Daily feeling smugly pompous about how much righter you are than them and then wondering if you’ve ever been right about anything.
It all blends. It ain’t always pretty. In fact it’s often quite messy.
But dang I miss it.
How about you? Expats? Repats? What are you missing that you never thought you would?