My family has been sending me pictures of home, as if trying to entice me back for the holidays. I think they miss me. Which is fair this time of year. It’s hard to not want to be in your own childhood home, reading a book by the lights of the tree and the fire. A picture of mom’s homemade cookies, though?
To understand the place this image took me to, you have to understand the following: First, the stares and audible exclamations of “外国人“ （wàiguórén! Foreigner!）and “很高啊！” (Hěn gāo a! So tall!) that trail me whenever I’m in public have passed into the subconscious. They still leave some small but lasting impression, though. And they build.
Second, everyone who’s traveled in a foreign cuisine knows the deep-seeded link between food and the comfort of home. I still remember that night my friend Richard and I found french fries in a night market in Thailand. In the US I ate french fries at the rate of any pediatrician’s son–approximately never–but somehow these ones spiked my primary-school brain with endorphins in a way that 3 weeks of delicious new food could not.
I do not easily turn to homesickness, but that picture wove together all the longing and frustration that had slowly built over weeks. That’s how travel tends to be, though: Minor daily struggles and eventual, unexpected catharsis.
On a cold, clear day earlier this week, I awaited the arrival of a miscommunicating tutee in a hospital classroom, watching a lively game of basketball through an open window. All of them primary-school aged, the older players exhibited their extra 2 years of wisdom by stopping the game for an impromptu screening lesson. The youngers either listened respectfully or rolled their eyes and made known what I’m sure was their desire to play the game already.
The world slipped into focus, and the feeling that had haunted me ever since I arrived in China was gone for a moment. The foreignness fell away, and the truth that my conscious brain had been preaching for months became real. I forgot where I was for a few reverent moments. I felt how life fit together here, and the players’ out-of-breath shouts were both incomprehensible and easy.
Walking home that night after dinner with my tutee’s family, that feeling came back. I was a child, not understanding the world around me, but feeling it move. I was not scared, not uneasy, but comfortable in my not-yet-knowing.
It’s moments like these that make me keep on down this path. You can be comfortable when you’re lost, if you believe that you don’t want to be found. “The Idea” by Mark Strand, for me, is about the tension inherent in pushing ourselves beyond what we were. Becoming is inhospitable, but it’s what humans are all about. The minute we are found, the minute we take respite, three things happen: change becomes hard, being becomes comfortable, and having the comfort loses its importance.
Last week was a resettling of the becoming-tension, my mother’s cookies the north wind (I feel closer), and “The Idea” a timely reminder of the need to push on.
And that’s exactly what I’ll do when we’re done with finals here. This next week I have the bulk of my finals to give and grade, and I want to give the Lima/Paris talks the time and research they deserve, so keep an eye out next week for that and my travel plans for the coming two months.