Home is where I am

I felt extremely overwhelmed during the first few days when I was back in my hometown, Hangzhou. The streams of cars and seas of people made me want to go back to the peaceful Iowa. Now that I’ve stayed in Beijing for a month, which is 800  miles away from my hometown, I feel at home here, and Iowa is like a strange land in my memory.

The day after I had my wisdom teeth removed, I flew to Beijing with a bad headache due to toothache. Although I had been to this city several times and was familiar with it, I still felt a sense of lost the first night when I arrived.

It may sound funny but what made me feel at home in Beijing was the kitchen in my place. I went grocery shopping the next day and made myself a big meal. Once I realized that I could feed myself like elsewhere, I was settled.

My first meal in Beijing.

My first meal in Beijing.

Waidiren — people from other places

In order to get a pass to enter the Diplomatic Compound where I work, I was told that I had to have a temporary residence permit besides my ID. I asked why my ID wouldn’t work. The person who was busy issuing other people’s passes said without looking at me, “Because you are a Waidiren.”

Waidiren literally means people from other places or aliens.

I wasn’t born in Beijing and I’m not a resident here, which prevents me from getting lots of benefits that locals enjoy. I had known this already. But still it was surprising to me that my Chinese citizenship doesn’t work very well even in China. I had to prove that I was temporarily staying in Beijing to get the pass to work. To get the temporary residence permit, I had to go through another complicated process with the local police station, which was a pain.

This made me aware the first time in my life that I was excluded in China. I thought China was ridiculous, but wasn’t mad; it’s just so difficult to get certain things done here, and I’m just not used to the way it is anymore. I have been a foreigner (Waiguoren) in Iowa, and now I’m a Waidiren in Beijing. They are not very different.

Home is where I am

A famous saying goes, “Home is where the heart is.” It’s too abstract for me. I would say, home is where I am.

I have been away from “home”–the place where I had lived with my families for 20 years–for three years. And surprisingly, I don’t miss it a lot while I am away. It’s now my parents’ home.

I like to call the place where I stay home, no matter if it’s my parents’ house, an apartment in Iowa City, a hostel in Taiwan, or a rented room in Beijing, as long as I am with myself. If there is a kitchen, it’s an even better home. I don’t need a temporary residence permit, a household registration book, a green card or a passport to remind me where my home is.

At this point, my home is a comfy bedroom in central Beijing that I rented from a French guy who is back home for vacation, and a small kitchen that I share with 5 other people, which frustrates me a lot.

And I had friends over tonight just like what I always did in Iowa City.

My occasional homesickness was always specific about food, instead of "home."

My occasional homesickness was always specific about food, instead of “home.” (Photos by Siwen Wang and Alison Sullivan)