Not the Home of My Memories, but Still Home

We’ve been hearing a lot about how studying abroad changes your definition of home.  Olena found it difficult at first to settle back into life in Ukraine.  For Sebastian, transitioning between Kansas and Bolivia is easy, but he struggled to accept that Kansas now feels as much like home as his birthplace.  Qian too feels she has two homes now, but going back to China is not exactly how she imagined it would be.

Creative commons photo Shai Barzilay
Photo by Shai Barzilay

For American college students, time off such as Thanksgiving week, winter break, spring break and summer vacation usually is a time to go home.  But for Chinese students in the U.S., myself included, the cost and distance to get home, combined with the requirements of school work and internships, can sometimes keep us away from home for quite a while.

As a result, the home we go back to is not always the same one we left, or that we imagine in our heads.

For example, I have a 9-year-old cousin, once my sweetest little angel, who I watched grow up. This winter when I went back to Chengdu, I bought her several child-size-10 dresses as Christmas gifts. However, as soon as I met her at the airport, I realized those dresses were too small for her; she was already in 5th grade and in the year since I’d seen her had grown to almost five feet tall!

I grew up in Chengdu, a beautiful city located in the southwest of China. When I miss “home” while I’m at school, I usually think of the comfortable weather, the relatively cheap price for goods, and the busy streets. But when I go home, I find that each of these things are different than what I remember.

Because of the recent financial crisis and inflation across the country, I have become very unfamiliar with the value of the Chinese RMB. I got so frustrated in the shopping mall because I couldn’t decide whether the clothes I wanted were expensive until I converted the RMB to U.S. dollars. The only obvious thing was that everything had gotten so much more expensive from the time I last left for the U.S.

Some other changes come from my change in perception.

Chengdu is humid and hot in the summer and wet and dry in the winter. It doesn’t usually snow in winter, so not a lot of people use heaters. The weather in Syracuse is a lot harsher. There are snowstorms every winter and freezing temperatures begin around October. I have to put all my heavy clothes on to survive a prolonged Syracuse winter. However, during my two winter breaks at home in China, I’ve actually felt Chengdu is colder than Syracuse. We don’t use heaters in South China, and so no matter where I go, I need to wear all my gear.

Perhaps the weirdest change is that I actually got lost in Chengdu – the city where I grew up. China is growing and urbanizing really fast, and Chengdu has become twice big in the last ten years. New buildings and shopping malls are everywhere.

I’m more like a traveler in my hometown and get lost so easily. Even walking around my high school campus is like a true urban exploration. How can someone get lost in his or her own hometown? It’s ridiculous.

For some international students, home is no longer the most familiar of places, unchanged, that stay in our hearts for many years. We miss our family and hometown but also feel scared about staying too long at home. We miss our food but are no longer used to once-familiar spices.

We live in two different cultures, environments and at two different price levels. We always have to adapt to the changes either at home or in the U.S. Home is always home, but it has new meaning to us international students.