This last time that I went home for a visit was a special one. Not because of who I saw or what I did, but because of the message I bore with me that time. It was a message that was a long time in the making, slowly gaining substance and taking on a concrete form. It was a message that had to be shared with my family, and I wanted it to be done in person.
In the very beginning, when I first decided to go to China, I told people that I planned to stay for a year or two, to get a feel for the language. In reality, I knew it would be longer than a year, and likely longer than two. I had experienced life abroad in Japan, and I liked it. I knew any proficiency in Chinese would take time, but I also had a special feeling about China, even before I had ever been there. Still, I didn’t really expect anyone to understand those things. It seemed best to keep telling everyone that I planned to stay for a year or two.
Well, year two came and went, and as I expected, I was not ready to leave China. Friends back home would ask how long I intended to remain over there. I usually gave an elusive “maybe another year.” I didn’t want to say that I had no idea when I would be ready to leave. That would make it seem like I had no direction. The truth of the matter was that the longer I stayed in China, the more direction I felt I had. But again, I found it hard to explain. “Maybe another year” was an easy answer, and most people didn’t really need to know anyway.
Still, I had conflicts. I knew that my main interest was Applied Linguistics, and the program at UCLA looked appealing. I knew I could get in and do well in that program, and I wanted a Masters from an American university. But what after? It seemed logical that after I had my degree it would be time to settle back down to life in the United States, time to “get a real job.” The only problem was that I was not ready to leave my life in China behind, and that was what going for the degree seemed to represent for me.
The summer of 2003 a friend who was also teaching English visited me from another part of China. We got to talking about our lives in China and our plans for the future. What he said shocked me. “I’m staying here. I’m going to make a life for myself in China.” Up to that point, I had never seriously considered such an option. It was a possibility I would mull over for some time.
Throughout my own confusion, I had no problem giving friends vague answers, because the truth of the matter was that my own plans were still pretty vague too. I longed to share some of my thoughts with my family, but I wanted to sort everything out for myself first. The question I found to be the hardest to bear, though, was one that I really only got when I visited home. It was always asked innocently, yet in complete earnestness, and it pinched my heart every time. It was my mother’s quiet, “John, when are you coming home?”
I think it was that question, more than anything, that put definite pressure on me to adopt a real plan in lieu of a “take things as they come” philosophy. I needed to know for myself too.
I weighed the factors. What did the USA hold for me? Family. Old friends. A miserable job market. What did China hold for me? Passion in my life. Excitement. A society that would never fully accept me. The possibility of a real, promising career in the very field I was into. And a love relationship I was not willing to leave behind.
I think it’s obvious which I chose. Yet to feel good about it, I felt that I really needed my family’s full support. I knew my sisters would support me, and that my parents would tell me they wanted me to follow my dreams, but I wanted more than that. I wanted them to understand why I was doing it, and I wanted them to support me with their hearts, because I already found it so difficult to see them a little older every time I went home. The years before they’re actually old were dwindling, and I couldn’t continue my life in China and be with them at the same time. I didn’t want there to be any resentment or disappointment on anyone’s part that I had spent those years in China.
On my recent visit home I had a talk with my family. It was really hard for me to do. And they gave me the support I hoped for. I know that they’ll miss me as I do them, but they understand what I’m doing, and they would never ask me to do anything other than that which I love.
Now I am ready to confidently proceed with my life and my career in China. I still plan to go to graduate school in Applied Linguistics, but it will be in Shanghai, in Chinese. My life here is more full of promise than ever.
And when people ask me how long I’ll be in China, I know my answer.