My mom made pancakes for brunch my first morning home. After eating, I wandered the house taking everything in. It was pretty anticlimactic, as everything is exactly as I remembered it. Granted, the living room was redone and there are new faucets in the kitchen and bathroom, but those things come and go with houses. The microwave, the one constant of my 22 years of life, is still in its position over the oven, and that’s what really matters.
I had to drive all the way around the Riverdale shopping area to find Panera, and I still don’t park well. Like I said, everything is exactly as I remembered it.
There were two loving dogs waiting to welcome me home, but they weren’t quite as cute as I had pictured them during my time away. Itty, my brother’s dog, had surgery and currently looks like she tried to walk through a lampshade. Bud, my parents’ dog, had an unfortunate experience with my dad experimenting as a groomer, and looks like a mangy stray.
My closet is full of clothes, mainly more skirts than I think I have ever seen in one place. How do I have so many clothes, and how was I able to part with them for an entire year? It’s a good thing that I had a full wardrobe at home, though, because my clothes suitcase was the one that got lost. It didn’t arrive until nearly a full day after I had. When I opened the door to accept the delivery, I had to keep myself from bursting into laughter. “If I sign, it just means that I received the suitcase, right? Not that it’s okay, right?” I asked. “Because . . . it’s NOT.”
I really have no idea how they knew this suitcase was mine; I had described it as green and rectangular, but its current shape was anything but. If I had to guess as to what had held it up these past few hours, I would say that it got into a fight with a bear and was then run over by at least one jet plane. That’s the only way to explain the frame bent beyond recognition and the ominous scrapes and tears along all surfaces.
I also have a collection of half-used lotions that could moisturize the skin of an entire sorority for a year, and a whole glorious bookshelf filled with all my favorite books. I felt happy just looking at it until I realized that my dad had done some rearranging and my library was no longer impeccably sorted. Oh, the horror! I added my new books (making the language shelf a little more crowded) and now my world is again as it should be.
I think I’m going to be at home for the perfect amount of time. For two weeks, my parents are just really happy to have me home and are about the most wonderful parents anyone could imagine. Mom cooks all my favorite foods, and Dad’s okay with paying if we want to go out to eat.
They brought me a sandwich to eat in the car that first night, took me to dinner at Texas Roadhouse (my traditional coming-home-from-China dinner venue), and Mom prepared an amazing dinner of pork roast, green beans, Mom’s legendary mashed potatoes, and a cake for my dad’s birthday (and, if I may flatter myself, for my return). I made myself a quesadilla for lunch one day, relishing the tortillas and sour cream even as I realized that canned salsa almost isn’t even worth eating.
For my first two days back home, I was completely unconnected. My laptop was half dead and I didn’t have a US cell phone, so I was reduced to using a land line (I know, right?!) for all communication. But on Friday night we went to Best Buy as a family and got smart phones – smarter-than-us-phones, to be specific. Before I went to China I had never really texted, but I did find it pretty useful in China (if only because texts in Chinese were slightly less terrifying at the beginning than phone calls in Chinese) and I guess it will be good to have now in the States. I also have facebook on my phone, which is so ridiculous. A few days ago, I had to be in my room, plugged into a LAN, and signed into a proxy to access facebook; now I can access it anytime, anywhere from the phone in my pocket. Insane!
Our trip to Best Buy seemed so typically American. First of all, I ran into a friend from high school and got to catch up with him. The fact that he was dating a friend of one of my college friends made it feel even more small-town. But even more so, everyone was so incredibly nice. We were greeted with a smile (not just an emotionless 欢迎光临) when we entered, and were approached immediately by employees offering to help. The woman who ended up helping us was warm and personable throughout the whole process, so much so that we didn’t even realize until we left that we kept her there 15 minutes after closing! This kind of courtesy is totally unheard of in China, where workers usually treat you like scum even when you’re there during normal business hours.
And it’s not just the employees. People hold doors open for each other here – and accompany that action with a “hello!” or a “have a nice day!” or other such pleasantry. After a trip to a store I feel overwhelmed with warm fuzzy feelings, like I just went through an affirmation process or a group hug. Some of the papers that I was given by the TU Center for Global Education to prepare me for reentry talked about how many students struggle with the rudeness of Americans. I’m not sure where those students are coming home from, but compared to China it’s like every single American is my best friend or something.
That evening at Best Buy we became even more connected than we’d ever been (and this from a family with a 2:1 ratio of computers to people), but we took a step back and went analog that night. My dad, recently retired, has been indulging even more in his passion of organizing and editing old negatives and slides, and he treated us to a slideshow of old family photos. We saw pictures from my babyhood in Ohio and childhood in Oklahoma, the days when I was an insanely cute little girl. Okay, 95% of my cuteness came from the fact that I was an really chubby little girl, but still – I was adorable. I had cankles, my brother was knock-kneed, my mom had huge glasses and too much hair, and my dad used to have hair (as opposed to now . . . ). Basically, we were one good-looking family!
So now I can contact people any one of five ways from my phone, and we hooked my laptop up to another monitor so I can use it. I got on QQ for the first time since I got home, and had a new crop of Christians who wanted to talk to me about Jesus. There was also a message from LiuQin, the maddening woman from church: “Maria, I heard the bishop say you were going home and now you’re gone. You never said goodbye; you really aren’t a very good friend. I don’t even know if you foreigner understand me! When war breaks out between China and America, I won’t wake care of you.” She really is crazy, I think.
I went to Mass on Saturday morning, only my second [intelligible] English Mass this year. The similarities between English and Chinese Mass are far greater than the differences, but the little differences have a large impact. Shaking hands during the Sign of Peace instead of bowing, receiving wine during communion – it felt good to be back. I did find myself mouthing the Chinese along sometimes, though, and my Xiamen diocese friends were never far from my mind. We sang “Sing of Mary Pure and Lowly” and I teared up at the last line:
And the Church her strain reechoes
Unto Earth’s remotest ends
because I think, in geopolitical terms, southeast Asia is about as remote as it gets for Catholicism.
Saturday afternoon, my mom and I set out on a mini-road trip down to southern Minnesota. We stopped first in Eden Prairie to see a college friend of mine; she had been the last college friend I saw before leaving for China last year and now became the first one I saw upon my return. A year a six days had passed, which means I will go at least a year between seeing any of my other college friends.
From there we continued down to Winona, where one of my oldest friends was getting married. I’ve known Rachel since 2nd grade, and we’ve been friends almost as long. (Only “almost” because I very plainly told her when we moved to Minnesota that we were only going to be there for a few years and I didn’t want to make new friends. I was a very practical 2nd grader.) I had saved this date well before I left for China, and while it took me 10 months to buy my return ticket I always knew that it would be for some day safely before July 24th. I wouldn’t miss her wedding for anything (not even, thankfully, the incompetence of Cathay Pacific).
I think Minnesota is a beautiful state, green and blue everywhere you look, but the Mississippi River is certainly the jewel of our state. The drive down to Winona is gorgeous, with trees and wheat to either side and bald eagles soaring through blue skies overhead. This is what it would be like to drive through Catan, I imagine. Makes me wish I had a wood port . . .
Winona is a nice city, too. The river is lined with majestic bluffs and the streets are lined with quaint old buildings. My friend’s wedding took place in a park outside, and they were blessed with a beautiful Minnesota summer evening. They had the most perfect setting to say their vows!
There was a reception afterwards in a local hotel – hors d’oeurves, speeches, and dancing. I was excited to hit the dance floor with some of my old friends, but wasn’t sure about the music situation. See, I really only dance when I can sing along, and a lot of music had come out since I was last in the States. But my nights at The Key and 10 gigabytes of downloads from Google Music apparently served me well, because I knew almost all the songs that were played. One friend even remarked at how much of the lyrics I knew, but the facade came tumbling down when a song I didn’t know came on. Everyone else shrieked and sang along while dancing, while I just stood there and felt awkward. “I just got back from a year in China,” I remarked to the groomsman standing next to me. “Oh, you’re the China girl, aren’t you?”, he responded.
Yup, that would be me. The China girl.