This is not actually a “first time” story, so much as a “first time in a long time” story.
It is difficult to explain to people who have spent their whole lives in the comfort of their home cultures how profoundly living abroad can change you. When I first moved back to the United States, I spent a lot of time trying to get the people who knew me and the people I met to understand how completely this revolutionized everything about how I thought and how I saw the world.
And while those people to whom I’m closest made a concerted effort to understand and appreciate it because they cared about me and they knew that I cared, the honest reality is that most people really don’t. It’s so other and foreign and they write it off with the blunt stroke of “something crazy that other people do,” or (worse) “Oh…well, that’s nice.”
So as time’s gone on, and my Chinese-isms have become increasingly hidden beneath the layers of me who once again understands people don’t pick up bowls off the table when they eat and that it is socially unacceptable to wander into the street without checking for cars first, I have stopped feeling compelled to share my story. It is no less important or defining, but I’ve found that it’s something that makes me unappealingly different and it’s easier to let people think I’ve “always been from around here.”
But last weekend, I was working with my choir director on the pronunciations for several Chinese folk songs for an upcoming concert (songs that, singing them, got me a little misty–but that’s a tale for another day,) and the whole “So, how did you end up in China and what were you doing there, anyway?” ended up on the table.
And so, for the first time in a long time, I really told my whole story, start to finish, with a lot of the anecdotes I’ve learned to leave out, with all of the parts that Americans struggle to hear–that there are times when I desperately miss my China home, the students I left behind that I know I will never replace, relationships I had that are impossible to have in a mono-cultural setting. For the first time in a long time, I told my story.
And for the first time in a long time, I remembered that part of myself.