While living abroad, you hold fast to a certain impression of your home and home country. Although moving to another country three years ago was a challenging experience, I managed to find a blissful home in Beijing. So I was surprised to find myself feeling mixed emotions during a trip back to Germany this summer. On one hand, I was excited to see how the place had changed, but on the other hand, I feared those exact changes. What did it feel like to stand on German ground again? Like a stranger in my own home country.
I knew that nothing was going to stay the same after I left, but I didn’t expect friends to have trouble relating to me. My casual friends often can’t imagine what living in Beijing is like. Some think that it’s all private schools and parties, while others are shocked by what they hear about the air quality. As it turns out, living in Beijing can get just as banal as in every other city, but who wants to hear that?
People don’t rest and wait for you to come back, and I discovered that friends’ lives had taken surprising turns. While one friend got married at the age of 19, another one had decided to push ahead with his music and was traveling around Europe to compete in violin competitions. In the end, I didn’t view these changes as negative ones, since I got to know my friends in an entirely new way. But still, my former ideas about who they were lingered on even while we were all getting reacquainted.
During the first days back, I felt like I was walking on tiny pieces of broken glass. Big and little changes made deep impressions on me. I had to suppress the constant wish to say “ni hao” to everyone, and it was confusing to realize that people actually understood when I spoke German. Visiting a Beijing friend in Italy on the same trip, I could only laugh when she naturally tried to instruct the Italian cab driver in Chinese.
Another great shock came when I was standing at the crosswalk, waiting for cars to drive by first. It dawned on me after several angry honks that I was supposed to cross the street first. A few moments and a round of screeching brakes later, I learned that I’m not supposed to cross streets when the traffic light is red.
But once I got over the initial sense of helplessness, curiosity and a desire for adventure seized me. I happily went about rediscovering Germany. I enjoyed food that one can’t find in Beijing, such as Maultaschen, a dumpling-like pouch of meat and spinach. I made a trip to the Stuttgart Zoo, which I last visited when I was a child, and took a swim at the hot springs.
I’ve changed a lot too, of course; acclimating to a city like Beijing is no small feat. Take staying calm, for example. Nowadays, I don’t get nervous when everything around seems to sink into chaos or when I navigate the city without understanding the local language. I even started missing Beijing – the Chinese signs on buildings, the food, even the din of a crowded street – after the first week. To my surprise, I took comfort in the noise of the city railway, which started rumbling past my room in Germany at four in the morning each day.
Waiting at the airport in Frankfurt to check in for my seventh (and final) flight in two weeks, I realized how much I myself must’ve changed. If someone had told me a few years ago that I would live in China one day, I would have never have believed it. Squeezing my way through the busy streets of Beijing, I feel warm and safe and more content than in any place I’ve ever lived. At the same time, going back to Germany doesn’t seem that impossible anymore. The best feeling of all? Being at home in two completely different places.
German, Katharina Schulz, a Grade 13 student at the German Embassy School of Beijing, has lived in Beijing for two years.