Just as my wife and I were waiting for our flight from China to Austria, from her country to mine, we caught the movie “For All Eternity” on TV. The story of an Austrian woman who fell in love with a Chinese man and followed him to China, all in the middle of the tumultuous 20th century.
I feel quite at home in China, to the point where the familiarity makes it difficult to write or photograph anything meaningful. What so many reporters, let alone tourists, consider strange, I consider quite normal…
And yet, I’m not entirely sure I would want to move to China; what my wife and I want from life makes Europe rather more appealing…
Jocelyn Eikenburg, author of the fabulous blog “Speaking of China” (which is all about “Asian Male / Western Female” couplings and, more generally, intercultural relationships – which is how we got in touch and what I now, again, guest-blogged about for her, too) recently went the opposite way.
The USA, that great melting pot / mixed salad of peoples, turned out rather less welcoming than expected, and so she and her Chinese husband moved (back) to China.
Focused on making oneself at home as I am, and knowing how often people think you can only be at home in places offering the comforts they’ve come to expect as normal, it was the perfect reason to ask Jocelyn for some insight…
So, let me turn right over to her:
How I learned to feel at home at my in-laws’ place in rural China
By Jocelyn Eikenburg
One fall, after returning from a summer spent living with my in-laws in China, I took out my digital photo album to show my American friends what their home was like.
There was the kitchen in their home, with soot-stained walls from years of burning wood to fire their huge wok. There was this shot of their doorway, fringed by red couplets that faded in the sunlight as well as a random motorcycle and piles of tools, pails and rope in the corner. And then there was the foyer, with a pile of black knitted hats dumped all over the unfinished concrete flooring – the same flooring used in almost every room in their house.
I assumed my friends would be curious and even a little surprised by what they saw. But what I never expected was how stunned they were about my in-laws’ home. In In their American world of sparkling granite countertops in the kitchens, tidy and uncluttered front doors, neat little garages that hid away things like motorcycles or tools, and floors covered in carpeting, tiles or wood, my in-laws home just didn’t compute. Which of course, left them with one simple question for me:
How could someone ever feel at home there?
It’s a fair question. After all, I thought the very same thing years ago when, in February 2003, I first walked through that doorway. I puzzled over the faded red couplets, the concrete flooring everywhere, the soot all over the kitchen ceiling, the random piles of stuff in corners of the yard, and most of all, the utter lack of central A/C or heating. I remember settling into one of the many no-frills wooden stools huddled around the dining room table, wondering how anyone could feel comfortable eating in a chair with no back to it. For the longest time, I kept putting off returning there – always telling John to give his parents excuses why we couldn’t go.
I’d love to tell you there was some great epiphany, a sudden “a-ha” moment that changed how I felt about that home and even them. But when does life ever work like that? No, it was more a matter of time – of me getting used to their house and then discovering the greatness under its roof. (See my post “8 Surprising Things I’ve Learned from Living in China’s Countryside” for more on this idea.)
With each subsequent visit there, I started finding small little things that I really appreciated about the place. John’s mother would always go above and beyond to stir-fry an impossibly large number of vegan dishes (more than a person could humanly finish in one meal). Most of the food on the table came from the family’s garden behind the house, and it was some of the freshest and most delicious produce I had ever tasted. John’s father would draw and hang these pastoral village scenes on the walls of their home, inspiring all sorts of delightful conversations about the little river town where he used to live as a boy. Relatives and neighbors would wander in and out of the house, bringing us their smiles, laughter and – more often than not – some delicious treat to take home. (For that matter, even John’s parents insisted on sending us back to the city with ungodly amounts of food!)
Ultimately, I came to realize that what helps you feel at home in the most unlikely places is the people. When you are surrounded by such warm generosity and hospitality, you feel loved – and you’ll come to love the people behind that house, no matter how different it is from how you grew up.
Love is a powerful thing. Powerful enough to change how you think about a foreign country, culture or even a house.
In 2009, my husband and I returned to his family home to find an enormous addition to the home, including a clean and modern new suite just for my husband and me. The bedroom had wooden flooring, painted walls, a flatscreen TV, a comfy bed and a beautiful view of the garden out back. The bathroom included a flush Western-style toilet, white tiled walls and flooring and solar-powered hot water for the shower. It was everything I had ever wanted in that house in all the years we had been visiting there.
My father-in-law later told me, “This is your home,” words that almost brought tears to my eyes. I thought about all of the years I had spent learning to adjust myself to my in-laws’ home, never imagining that one day they would actually adjust their home for me. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.
Jocelyn Eikenburg blogs about love, family and relationships at Speaking of China, and calls Hangzhou, China – her husband’s region – home.