In front of the foreboding and stout Shanghai Xuhui District No.1 elementary school gates, I stood shivering in the wind. Where before there were a thousand steel rods connecting me to Shanghai, there now seemed to be only one, and it was one ready to break at any moment. I had raced myself for the alien quality of my so-called home, but I had never expected it to hit this hard.
It took three days of letting myself get lost in Shanghai completely to understand what it means to reconnect.
I recently spent a winter revisiting Shanghai, the city where I spent the first eight years of my life. I walked around the various landmarks of my childhood, from the small chicken restaurant adjacent to my family’s first Shanghai apartment to a late-afternoon walk around the Bund, where I immediately lost my way to the subway.
Huffing and puffing my way back to the hotel room at 11 p.m., I nonetheless felt a definite reconnection, something that almost never happens for me, a person who has moved all her life.
I moved in second grade, when my parents decided that a Chinese education just didn’t cut it anymore for yours truly, and they pulled me to New Zealand, where everyone was tall, spoke a mysterious language and wore shorts in winter. I was too shocked to even put up a fight. I never thought this trend of removing myself from a place once I finally started to feel comfortable would continue on.
I moved again in eighth grade, when I was so ready to accept a future of weekends at the beach and NCEA examinations that I didn’t even think of what would happen if we moved back to Beijing. I cried for days in my room before accepting that calling New Zealand “home” is reaching an end.
Now I’m in America, feeling maladjusted at every turn. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy American college life, but I find moments during which I yearn for somewhere to return — not for forever, obviously — for a corner in the world where everything will suddenly feel familiar and cozy.
Reconnecting is confusing for any international student. To drift around for your whole life while the concept of “home” becomes more and more vague, to stutter whenever someone asks you where you really come from — these are things that we’d rather do without. Eventually, the memories may even fade away completely.
Going “home” is a hard process for us. The entire effort is almost like therapy: tracing back your footsteps in order to validate yourself and pick out the problems and joys that had once been in your life. Sometimes, the footsteps will depress you. Your memory will fail you, and you will be stranded in the middle of the strangest place with no way to escape. Reconnection is embarrassing, as relatives from years and years ago may stare at you unknowingly while you try to whip out small talk using your limited Chinese. Reconnection is terrifying, especially when you look around once you’re out of the airport and can’t remember a thing.
Still, we have to go back home because reconnection is so vital to who we are.
Do not be afraid of not having a home. Reconnection means having the courage to turn back from where you’re currently at and say, “I’m going home.” Reconnection means having the huge self-confidence required to leave a place that you’re settling into and to look back at yourself and all the journeys you’ve been through. The journey of any international student may be erratic at best, but it at least gives his or her life meaning. Looking back may feel scary, but the process of taking back your history bit by bit is something that will eventually pay off.
Visit your first kindergarten in one country, and then go back to your old house in another country. You will find meaning in all those nooks and crannies where you’ve both cried and laughed. Reconnecting means coming to terms with what we might have forgotten — the younger, but certainly significant, bits of our stories that we have yet to piece together. When we go back to the countries that raised us, we just might get back a sense of security that has been missing for so long. We will find a place that we used to visit every day as a child, and we just might sit there, close our eyes and remember.
To us international students, home means two, three or four countries. Home means a multitude of memories hidden in local food carts, crowded streets, foreign languages and open beaches.
Remember, home is never far away.