It’d been twelve hours in the Beijing airport. I’d spent a good eight hours straddling my luggage as I’d shift in the metal seat, attempting to find a moment of comfort in which to close my eyes and drift off into a few moments of sleep. I passed the time watching the woman in the New York Yankees hat take shameless selfie after selfie, and the happy couple with the pink and blue luggage feed each other bites of sandwiches as they’d giggle at the woman snoring next to me. She had fallen asleep within the first five minutes of sitting down, upright, arms crossed, and mouth opened. I was envious of her ability to pass out. Minute after minute trickled by, and I remained in the haze of a sleepless stirring, hoping that every time I opened my eyes, the hours would have passed, but the magical disappearing act of time was a no show. It was like a middle school lock-in, boys and girls in their little cliques sprawled all over the airport only instead of the 12 year old dream of pulling an all nighter, the goal of our evening was to fall asleep.
The next afternoon, as I sat in front of the gate that would take me back to the Midwest, I people watched and wondered which paths my fellow Americans had taken to lead them to where we were now. There was man and his two daughters heading back home after a tour of the country. Couples were heading home to meet the parents for the first time, nomad travellers going back to their origins for the holidays, and a spattering of loners joined together in a silent union. Among the couples were many new families, young men with their Chinese wives and newborn babies. One little girl had the lightest sandy brown hair pulled up into a floppy ponytail that spilled stray strands over her round face. Her head bobbed up and down as she switched seamlessly from Chinese conversations with her mother to English with her dad. It was a plane full of bilingual babies. An old couple came and sat down next to me. The lady was wearing a red Christmas sweater, complete with styrofoam presents wrapped in shiny paper under the tree decked out in real jingling bells and strands of plastic lights. Seeing the ugly pullover squeezed my heart with excited anticipation for my arrival back home. Something about Christmas just isn’t complete without an lovely old lady in a lovely Christmas jumper.
Time ticked away, and soon the pilots and stewardesses started coming through to board the plane. Seeing the flight crew sparked a strange sensation in my gut. As I watched the Detroit Delta flight attendants chat, I felt a swelling inside of me that pushed upwards to my lungs, clenching onto my breath. I could feel tears building behind my eyes, threatening to leak out in a creepy stream of euphoria, disbelief, and complete relief. I was going home. Something about these women, with their leathered skin that had seen too many rays of sun and their eyeliner tattooed to their tired eyes and their voices cracking from a lifetime of puffing cigarettes, something about them made me want to run up to them, hug them, and cry. These were my people! I was going home to people who understood me and to people I understand! The Delta ladies were there to lead me back to my salvation from the homesickness that I had been feeling for the past six months. I managed to contain my tears until I arrived in Peoria almost a day later. When I saw my dad waiting for me outside the gate, I might have lost it a little bit with happy tears.
Getting back to the cornfields, blue skies, and big trucks was the best. It’s strange how comfortable it is going home, how safe and easy it is to slip unnoticed right back into a previous life, as if I’d never left.
There were a couple of things I was expecting pre-arrival to my hometown.
- Peoria would have changed in a way that would make me either want desperately to be back, or make me happy to have left.
- I’d gain about ten pounds from gorging myself on Christmas treats and all of the food that I wouldn’t be able to get once I went back to China.
- I’d have forgotten how to drive and need to be toted around everywhere.
- I might be a bit at a lost on knowing what to say to my friends and family after being gone for a year.
- I’d be a panicked mess trying to fit in everything and everyone I could over the ten days I’d be there.
- I wouldn’t be ready and wouldn’t want to go back to China when the time came.
- I’d be very awkward because I’m so used to China mannerisms that I wouldn’t know how to respond to so many savy Western people.
I was wrong on most fronts. Here’s how it actually went down.
- Peoria hasn’t changed much at all. It’s still my sweet, stable, hard-working, and relatively blue-collar town. It’s almost as if I was expecting Peoria to have morphed itself into a new city, flourishing upon my absence and rebranding itself into a city that any one would be crazy to move away from. It’s as if I wanted it to be a place that I needed to be in. And yes, some things had changed: a new brewery had opened up, two new art centres were offering wine night painting classes, a few new restaurants had opened and a few had failed. Overall though, nothing had changed. It’s kind of beautiful how some things don’t change. And it’s comforting knowing that I can always go back to that place, and have things be completely the same. Untainted by time except in the smallest ways that don’t affect everyone, like a friend getting married, colleagues changing jobs, ex’s getting engaged, and babies being had.
- I actually lost a pound or too because food back in the States just doesn’t taste as good as I remember it. Maybe it’s because Chinese food is delicious and fresh or maybe my tastes buds have changed— but American cuisine doesn’t do it for me anymore. Most of what I ate didn’t taste like real food, and it’s actually nice to be back in the land of stir-fry, hot pots, and un-named veggie dishes.
- Apparently we don’t forget how to drive; however, I didn’t attempt to try to remember how to drive a stick. That I’ll save for another trip.
- The best thing about best friends is that no matter what changes, when you get back together to chat it up, it’s as if nothing has changed just a few more stories to tell.
- I might have been a bit of a panicked mess as the days neared my departure.
- I wasn’t ready.
- And I’m just an awkward person in general regardless of the added Chinese factor. Still Chloe. Still awkward. But I didn’t spit on the street or eat with my mouth open, so I think that means I’m still pretty American.
What did overwhelm me was the general niceness of people. The Midwest is always stereotyped as being some of the friendliest parts of the U.S., and I now understand why. It’s utterly amazing coming home to smiling faces of strangers that ask you how your day is and act genuinely interested in hearing your response. I didn’t realize how much I missed little moments like talking to the barista as I wait for my latte to be made, or chatting it up with the front desk people at the gym, or making friends with the mailman who asks you about your dog every time you cross paths. These connections make the world a better less lonely place. I never appreciated it until I stripped myself of the ability to fully communicate with the general population by moving to China. Besides my family and my friends, I think that is what I miss most about living in the United States. Being able to communicate without barriers.
Part of me was hoping for massive epiphany, wanting a distinct realization that I needed to come back home to stay, or some definite reassurance that China is where I’m meant to be for now. That epiphany didn’t come so I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, being open to life and opportunities that arise.