Visiting the folks back home can be a
A seasoned expat friend warned me
recently that after spending a certain amount of time overseas,
confusion sets in as to what to call home. Having returned with Elsa
from a three-week visit to my parents in the UK, I now fully
understand what she means.
We’ve made fairly frequent trips back
to our motherland, but this one came after our longest spell away. I
felt indefinably different tackling the subterranean maze that
masquerades as London’s public transport system, an outsider in my
own country who no longer knew the rules. Struggling to remember how
to put credit on my UK mobile, I turned the wrong way down previously
familiar passages, hastily stifling duibuqi’s as Elsa’s
pushchair bit into the ankles of dawdling commuters.
Elsa, I could tell, was similarly
perplexed by her strange surroundings. Once successfully aboard our
train, she looked round assessingly for long moments. “Big taxi?”
she questioned uncertainly, her usual uber-confidence in her own
opinions having clearly taken a battering. (I was quite impressed
with her lateral thinking, though a bit shamefaced about what it said
about our transportation habits.)
Things settled down somewhat once we
were safely in the bosom of our family, deep in the West Country in
rural Exmoor. Every now and then, however, little oddities would
surface, jolting reminders of our other life. After my mother got
hold of my washing, for instance, I was disturbed (though rather
pleased) to find my Yashow jeans several degrees of blue brighter.
Apparently, the brown tinge they had formerly sported was not an
intrinsic part of the design after all.
While I was getting cleaned up, Elsa
was rapidly degenerating. Fascinated by the sight of my parents’
two golden retrievers performing their ablutions on the lawn, she
would whip off her nappy and rush outside, desperate to follow suit.
This canine identification soon extended beyond matters of the
toilet, with Elsa insisting on sharing their breakfast. Fortunately
the dogs are treated as surrogate grandchildren, so replicating their
bowls of milk and cereal was not the trauma it could have been.
But by far the most difficult
adjustment was to Elsa’s new bedtime regime. To my horror, she had
obviously decided that her English bedroom was not up to Chinese
standards. With a speed that would have made Houdini jealous, she
quickly perfected her exiting-the-sleeping-bag wriggle, topping this
with a heart-stopping launch over the side of the travel cot and a
mad dash out the door. In despair, my mother and I turned to Google
for advice, and 1.7 million entries for “2-year-old won’t stay in
cot” revealed the scale of our problem. Following the general
consensus, we made up a proper bed for her and endeavoured to make
this an attractive option, but drawing attention to the mattress’
superior suspension was perhaps not the smartest strategy. Although
this succeeded in eliciting a touching affection for her new bed,
Elsa was noticeably more enamoured of its trampoline-like properties
than its sleep-inducing merits.
Notwithstanding these puzzlements and
frustrations, we had a wonderful time “back home” and it was with
mixed feelings that I got on the plane at the end of the visit. Now
that we’re back in Beijing, I fear we may be in for a similar
process in reverse. I had hoped the reassuring familiarity of her
permanent cot would persuade her to stay put a few more months, but
it seems Elsa has brought her English tricks home with her, and the
hastily purchased Ikea child bed is not proving much of a remedy,
despite its alluring cat and dog headboard. Thus, I’ve been greeted
most nights this week by a midnight visitor determined to upgrade to
As I suffer the nocturnal consequences
of our holiday experiences, Ayi has been bearing the brunt
during the day. Elsa now completely refuses to speak Mandarin, and –
beyond “kiss kiss” and “bye bye” – Ayi has no English.
But, at least with the dogs mercifully absent, she no longer demands
that her breakfast be served in a bowl on the floor.