Fitting In

I’m sitting here thinking about the things I know for sure, and the whole list can be whittled to just a few things:

  • If I’m going to have coffee, I want it strong.
  • I’m at my best in the morning.
  • I’m not much good at sitting still.

And that’s about all I know. The things I don’t know fill the ocean in between here and there. I don’t know how long we’ll live in Hong Kong. I don’t know how homeschooling is going to work out. I don’t have any idea how to rectify the issue of my simultaneously not wanting to travel back to the States every year but wanting my kids to see their family regularly. The obvious answer is to not live in China. I don’t want to do that either. When I think about American teacher salaries and the hoops we’d have to jump through to have a tenth of the standard of life we enjoy overseas, I shut down.

I’m less of an American than ever before. I can’t believe the girth of the people around me, and I’ll go to hell for saying it, but I think the body acceptance trend is just a coping mechanism. Y’all’s grocery stores are enormously large, and it’s not because more strange fruits and vegetables are available to you guys. It’s because you make all of these fake foods out of chemicals and processes and then you sell them in pretty boxes and bags. And then you pat yourselves on the back for still maintaining a smile even though you’re enormously obese.

That stuff isn’t food. The rest of the world doesn’t live this way.

I know I don’t want my kids raised in a country that allows its citizens to buy a gun from the same store that sells bread and diapers. I’ve been living abroad since I was 24. My whole identity is that of an expat. But when I see the way my children fold themselves into the embraces of their families, I can’t deny the pull. Any Chicken Soup for the Soul book will tell you that family is the most important thing, and I never get tired of watching people love my kids. I think extended family dilutes the presence of the parents. In a good way. They help keep us in the middle a bit more, which is important. Especially for us. Because we swing to a weird left otherwise. With all of our ideology and perusal of the current research, we could use a little dilution.

My kids don’t fit in. Not all the way. They miss all the cultural references, and they’ve been shielded from media in a way that, it seems, most of the American folks we’ve hung out with have not. They do their whining with a British accent. And that’s okay. For me. I don’t know what that’s like for them.

My marriage, though not my relationship, is largely untested by family. We live abroad, on the other side of the world, away from both sets of in-laws. We spent many years together with them closer, but we’ve grown into our own removed from our families. We are each other’s families. I am a person who gives everything she has to one or two people. Everyone else is kept pretty much on the fringe. I don’t let people in, and I don’t let my guard down until years have passed. Over the summer, my husband is no longer strictly mine. He’s not just a husband here. He’s a son and a brother and a cousin. And I love watching him in those roles, because, for the most part, he handles each with grace and love. It’s a thing I could stand to learn. But at the same time, he becomes less mine. And I miss him.

Even while I enjoy our experiences here, I’m craving the mundane of there.

If I were to list the things we’ve done this summer, the list would be impressive. It would rival many people’s lists, I think. Parks and museums and concerts and hotels and sex in the ocean and picnics on the beach. Fireworks and pool parties and boats. Manatees and alligators. Canoeing and swimming. So it makes me quite the spoiled brat to say I’m not having much fun. Context is everything, and this all feels so partitioned, so doled out. It feels so time-sensitive and limited. It feels very much like a ‘cram it all in, it’s got to last a year.’

We keep saying, every year, that we’re not coming home next year. Most long-term expats don’t go home every year. It’s too expensive, for one. My other explanation would be that it feels too rote, too routine. This year is a cookie cutter replica of last year and the year before. Minor changes, yes, but for the most part—it’s the same. We spend thousands and thousands of dollars to do this, and it winds up feeling a lot like work. I wonder what it would feel like if the whole thing were less bipolar. Less here and there. Less then and now. Less vacation and more real life.

What’s our alternative? Not going home. I’m not sure that’s acceptable either.

So instead of chilling out and enjoying this sun on my face, I’m tangling with the big questions. It makes me a real joy to be around, I’m sure. Maybe the problem will solve itself, as I become too bitchy over the summer for anyone to want to share time with us anyway.

First World Problems

I’m in a weird place.  Teetering on the brink of a sadness that doesn’t really make any sense.  Maybe it’s stress.  Can you be stressed when you have a lifestyle like mine?  I almost don’t think so.

I should be more excited about flying to the States in a week.  I should be.  And I don’t know why I’m not.  I think I’m starting to feel too old for living out of a suitcase for two months out of the year.  I feel resentful for all the money we shell out to go visit people.  For the first time ever, I have this vision of everyone sitting in their houses, sitting on literal stacks of money, while I sit in economy for 30 hours with two little kids.  I imagine them sipping wine in clean clothes, waiting for us to get off the plane all haggard and broke.  I think about my parents who don’t have to leave the house but get to spend all this time with my kids, because we bring them literally from the other side of the planet into their living room.

That’s stupid.  We’re the ones who moved, how can I possibly be angry about that?

My husband said it first, but once he said it, I realized I’d been feeling it too.  He said he felt too old to spend so much of his money every single year traveling back to the same place in Florida.  We love seeing our family.  Obviously.  That’s so obvious, I feel like I don’t even have to say it, but at the same time, saying it three thousand times wouldn’t even be close to enough.

But it feels like last summer was two weeks ago.  This has been, by far, the fastest-paced year of my life.  I have no idea where it went.  When I think about my son’s injury, it feels like ten years ago.  When I think about driving back and forth to the grocery store in Florida, it feels like yesterday.

I think we’ve fallen into a routine here in Hong Kong, one we haven’t experienced yet in our married lives.  The kids are older now, and the change in them is remarkable.  Overnight, they became people instead of things to manage.  They require so much less of us now.  There are no diapers or bottles.  They can (and do) make their own breakfast.  Bedtimes aren’t the end of the world.  It can happen at 7 if they’re exhausted or at 9 if they’re not.  The rules have become more flexible, because their needs have changed.  And that change means that they feel more a part of the family now and less like cute little obstacles.  Somehow, this makes the time fly by that much faster.

It’s not that I’d rather be somewhere else.  I can’t imagine packing for a summer in Bali (although, now that I type that, maybe I can).  And it’s not that I don’t desperately miss the people I miss.  I do.  If I could, I’d choose to spend every day with a handful of the people I’ll be seeing soon.  So it’s not that I don’t want to see them.

I think it’s just that the more time we spend away from Florida, the less it feels like home.  Especially with the kids where they’re at right now.  And if we’re traveling all this distance and spending all this money to go to a place that doesn’t feel like home but is nowhere near glamorous enough to feel like a vacation, then what, praytell, are we doing?  Spending a lot of money and living out of a suitcase.

It’s the downside to expat living, and I promised myself ten years ago that it would never happen to me.  Every expat I’ve ever met complains about this very same thing.  They say it more succinctly (no shit, right?).  They usually say, “We spend all the money and spend all of our vacation time going to a place that kind of sucks.”  And I’ve always quietly judged them, because. . .really?  You’re going to complain about that?  Then maybe you should either move back home or else not freaking go there every summer.  Don’t blame everyone else for not spending their money and vacation time traveling to a place that they probably never had any desire to visit.  But I get it now.  Not going home is not an option, because I miss my best friend somewhere deep in my bones.  But the appeal and allure has definitely worn off.

And that’s kind of a crappy place to be.

Things To Love About Hong Kong

I’ve been living in Hong Kong for nearly three years now.  It’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere since college.  Although I can’t deny having itchy feet and I’ll freely admit to the pollution getting me down, I still love Hong Kong.  I love it for all of the obvious reasons–huge city, international cuisine, beaches, mountains, public transportation, etc–I think it’s some of the more subtle aspects to the city that keep me here.

1.  The elderly.  I grew up in a culture where the elderly are hidden away inside public or private homes, where they do their shopping from a motorized wheelchair.  When I think about getting old, I think about pill cases.  The two are intrinsically linked in my mind.  But Hong Kong takes such a different approach to old age.  Scattered at very regular intervals throughout the city are playgrounds for the elderly.  They’re usually placed alongside a playground for children and include exercise equipment specifically designed for the elderly, to keep them moving and exercising.  If you take a walk in the morning, you see throngs of old people lined up, practicing tai chi with their faces towards the sun.  The sea is full of old people swimming, the dock lined with the canes and slippers they left behind.  It’s a new perspective, and it makes the idea of growing old kind of seem awesome.

2.  I see a lot of old people here caring for babies.  I suppose I could research it and get the stats, but I prefer my casual, non-scientific observation, that a lot of grandparents are responsible for watching their grandbabies during the day, while the parents are at work.  It is so heartwarming to see really old people playing with really young people.  You need to see the looks on these old people’s faces.  It’s pure joy.  I think it must be nice to have a purpose and it must be really nice to be surrounded by all that cute.

3.  The exchange of money is done quite formally here in Hong Kong.  When you pay for something, you should hand the cash or credit card to the cashier with both hands.  They hand you back your change or your card with both hands as well.  It took me a minute to get used to it, but now I love it, and I don’t think I’ll be going back to the old one-handed way.  I don’t know why, but it seems really respectful of both the merchant, the buyer and the idea of trading hard-earned money for some thing or service.  I like it.

4.  Fruits and vegetables.  Specifically, vegetables.  Every few shops, there’s a vegetable stall.  There’s one on the ground floor of my apartment.  They sell veggies without any packaging.  You bring a bag, fill it up, they weigh it, you pay and off you go.  It seems everyone is always walking around town with a bag of veggies.  People here tend to do their shopping daily, and it’s so encouraging to me to see people lining up in front of the vegetables, getting their daily fill.  I like that healthy eating is so visible here.

5.  And this one is just silly, but Hong Kongers take their early childhood education pretty darn seriously.  Schools here are quite selective, and if you want to get into a ‘good one’, you’ve got to start your work early.  This means that impossibly small children go to school.  Add to this the fact that most (all?) schools here require a school uniform, this means that in the morning and early afternoon, the streets of Hong Kong are filled with tiny little children in uniform, and it is the cutest damn thing ever.  I have to sit on my hands every day to not take pictures of them.  The uniforms range from a typical shorts and t-shirt (not the norm) to full-on bow tie, vest, knee socks, the full kit.  You know I’m not a huge fan of formal early education for my kiddos, but that doesn’t stop me from swooning over all the little guys decked out in formal attire.

In short, Hong Kong is still awesome, three years on.  You should come check it out.

End of Year Ennui

I think I have senioritis, even though I’m not a high school senior, a college senior or (yet) a geriatric senior.

I’m a mess.  I have 30,000 projects going on, all in various states, none of them anywhere near complete, all missing vital components.  And I can’t find the motivation to finish a single one, allowing me to move on to the next in an orderly fashion.

My mud kitchen needs a 2×4 for the legs.  I need it.  It’s the next step, and I can’t proceed without it.  I think I see one at the dumpster downstairs, but it’s so hot.  The idea of even walking down the stairs empty handed is a bit overwhelming.  I can’t even face the idea of walking down, picking up said 2×4, walking up 120 steps with it and then measuring it, cutting it and nailing it.  Not in this heat.  I’d die.  Or, worse, I’d need a cold beer afterwards.  And since it’s 11 am on a workday, I can’t go there.

I’ve started making magazine beads for necklaces.  I’ve got a million of them, and I’m obsessed with making them.  But I haven’t bought the varnish to finish them yet.  And I have to do that before I can string them.  But the idea of trying to make the chinese-speaking folks at the stationery store understand that I need clear varnish for sealing homemade necklace beads is almost as overwhelming as the 2×4.

I’ve been collecting plastic bottle tops because I’m going to make a curtain for the kids’ playhouse out of them.  I’ve got approximately four billion of them, and I think it would be both easy and fun to drill holes in them and string them, but then what do I have?  A curtain for a house that doesn’t exist.  I honestly think that if I make the curtain first, I’ll never make the house.  So I can’t.

I’ve got a list three thousand miles long of stuff I have to do and buy and retrieve before I fly out in two weeks, but it still feels a bit early to be stressing out about that.  When you live in 700 sq ft, you don’t get the suitcases out of storage until last minute.  You certainly don’t buy things you don’t need immediately.

I’ve got documents open, ready to be printed, for the clients I have tonight.  But, ugh, the idea of plugging in the printer. . .

Two weeks until we fly.  I am, clearly, already mentally on vacation.  That flight can’t come soon enough.


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