So recently, I’ve been feeling a little bit down. Not depressed as such; I just had a touch of melancholy. After some soul searching, I figured out that I was feeling somewhat homesick. This was a surprise for me, as I’ve lived abroad before (somewhere in the depths of the internet is a failed blog that I began of that year, unless several years of inactivity causes it to be deleted), so surely I couldn’t be homesick, if I hadn’t been while living in France?
But I realised that living in France is vastly different to living in China. There are multiple differences, some big and some small that built up for me to then genuinely feel like I was missing home, in a way that I have never felt before, in all my travels and adventuring around the globe.
The major difference that I have felt is in fact the time difference. When I was in France, it was easy to speak to anyone in the UK, as I was only one hour ahead. In the UK, it’s even easier. Here, there is a seven/eight hour time difference – China doesn’t have a Daylight Savings Time/China Summer Time clock change like Western countries do, so now Britain is in its Summer Time zone, I’m only seven hours ahead – which means that if I want to talk to anyone in the UK, it has to be at the weekend, and is normally quite late in the day for me. While that doesn’t generally seem like an issue, it can be wearing to try to schedule a time when both parties are available to talk. It can be difficult enough when you’re in the same time zone nowadays with how busy we all are, so factoring in a time difference of this magnitude just makes it that bit harder. And it’s not just for phone calls and video calls. it’s when I message someone in the morning for me, they’re asleep, so I’m not going to get a reply until about 3-4pm, when my day is well underway. And that’s if they get up early. I’m writing this now at nearly ten at night, and my laptop is telling me it’s only three in the afternoon in England. I’ve been home from work for several hours, and you still have a significant portion of the day left to experience.
I’m in the south-east part of China, not too far from Hong Kong, and the climate is sub-tropical (supra-tropical? I am technically still in the northern hemisphere so I’m above the tropics, right?), with banana plants and palm trees and humidity. Dear gods the humidity. I like heat. Heat is my jam. Humidity, not so much. I am constantly sweaty and constantly wishing to be in a swimming pool, not being pawed at by equally sticky children.
There are so many small cultural differences here, that all in themselves are small and not too difficult, but when all added together, can make China seem like an alien planet. For example, and I’ll admit it’s the difference that I’m struggling with the most at the moment, is that the bread is preserved with sugar. Not salt. No big deal, I would seem, but the bread is sweet and it doesn’t taste like bread and all I’ve been craving for the past six weeks is marmite on toast, or a ham and cheese sandwich. I mean, that’s not the only thing; bacon is pretty high up there, as is gravy, but because I’m eating bread of some sort daily and it is wrong, my fantasies have consisted of these most simple of fares. These are the ones that are the most difficult to find as well. If I want a burger, there are a number of Western joints that will sell you one; Pizza Marzano is China’s name for Pizza Express and I know a place that does a really nice Mac’n’Cheese. Therefore, while I miss cheese, I don’t miss it with the fervour that I do bread that is preserved with salt. My parents like to rub this in by eating a bacon sandwich when we are on the phone together… (just kidding Mother, I love you!)
The language barrier is a huge issue. While I am trying to learn Chinese, and am progressing slowly but surely, as soon as I’m with an actual Chinese person, I understand literally nothing they say. I also do not get understood when I try to speak Chinese, because my language learning app (HelloChinese for no-one who’s interested) lies to me when it tells me that I’m getting the tones right and I’m actually getting them all wrong (as confirmed by a real life Chinese person, and real life Chinese children who laugh at me when I try to speak to them in Chinese). I may have insulted many people while trying to tell them that I’m English and that I have three cats, but I don’t know because I haven’t moved onto the Chinese swearwords portion of the language learning process yet. So I don’t understand them, and they don’t have enough English to understand me either. Inability to communicate is a thing that can cause problems, and when combined with a cultural difference of opinion as well, issues can absolutely arise. They have a little sometimes. Not enough to cause an argument, but enough to have gripes with folks that’s normally worked through with a bit of good-hearted venting. And it’s not just that. The folks that I live with are introverts like me, so while they’re perfectly nice, we sometimes end up being a little like ships in the night, and I then realise that I haven’t had a conversation with an adult in a number of days.
This paragraph is going to be a list of other teeny tiny cultural differences that build up to wanting to be back in the UK: the phenomenon I like to call the “Squatty Potty”, a.k.a. the hole in the ground. There’s no such thing as cold water in the school. They get confused when I fill my bottle at the lukewarm water option. Hot water is seen to be a much healthier option for you, and as the tap water isn’t always safe, I can see the logic behind it, but sometimes, when the temperature feels like 37°C, all I want is an ice-cold water. The hawk/spit – the Chinese see spitting as similar to peeing/pooing; it’s a way to get rid of bad stuff that the body doesn’t need. You get used to it after a while, but the first few times you hear the well-known “hwaaaawk” noise, you still cringe a little. The lack of forks. I have seen exactly zero proper forks since I have moved to China. I am a pro at chopsticks now though, until I have to pick something slippery up, and then I’m as dextrous as a three-fingered monkey. I will admit that I have seen little plastic forks that come with my instant noodles, but they’re not real. The Chinese are direct. They don’t have the social courtesies and formalities that we do to avoid hurting/insulting/discommoding them. They tell you the thing directly. There is no, “please may I have…” in Chinese; it’s “I want…”. They are not prone to giving you compliments. They tell you what you need to improve.
That’s all I can think of for now, but I’m sure that there are more. These are also just things that I have noticed, in my own narrow view of the world. There are probably other cultural differences with further reaching cultural consequences, but I am writing this blog to share my perspective and I am the first to admit that it is flawed and not a complete view of the world. I hope that you can see that with all these things combined, along with the fact that I am in a this foreign country by myself, could cause someone to feel homesick for the first time. Yes, there are other English folks here, and that helps, but two and a half months ago, they were strangers to me. I had no idea who they were and knew nothing about them. Now I know a bit more and that’s good, but it’s not the same as the friends that I’ve had for years and that know everything about me.
I wish I could tell you how I got through the homesickness, as far as I can tell. All I know is that a few days break from the school routine, some nice deep conversations with the English folks, and a couple of long helpful chats from my parents at the scheduled time, and I’m feeling better. It may be temporary but I’m leaning towards the homesickness being more temporary than this improved outlook. That’s what I’m hoping for anyway.