I came to China on August 26, 2008. Before then, I took an inventory of what I’d packed.

Clothes: 7 pairs of jeans, 14 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of shoes, 9 pairs of underwear, 11 shirts total, and 1 pair of glasses, no spare, no contacts.

Toiletries: comb, brush, toothbrush, toothpaste, shaving cream, razor, body wash, and shampoo/conditioner.

Movies: Aliens, Dumb & Dumber, Pulp Fiction, The Simpsons Season 5

Books: Already read—The Alchemist, Blood Meridian, Fight Club, Ender’s Game, Man’s Search for Meaning. Unread– The War of Art, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Genghis Khan: The Making of the Modern World

Electronics: Laptop, iPod, camera

Miscellaneous: highlighter, pen, thumb drive, Learn Chinese CD

That was August 2008. It’s now July 2010. Tomorrow, I will be in America, for a visit. What am I taking? I won’t try to take inventory this time. I’ve acquired stuff, I’ve lost stuff, I’ve thrown stuff away, and I will be taking stuff that I no longer need and bringing more back.

Do you pack enough to get by or what makes you feel at home? You leave home, but you take home with you. God knows I tried to when I first came here; if I could have brought more, I would have. Believe me.

But what of home now? It’s been nearly two years. You were single then, you’re married now. You were 22 then, you’re close to 25 now. You didn’t know what you wanted to do then, now…

You have a wife.

Your wife. Jesus. How did that happen? Where did that come from? Of all the predictions you made coming in, where in the hell was this hiding? To dwell on the enormity of your decision. The lives changed, the duty you have taken on. All on your shoulders. You cannot fully understand, but you do your best.

So you’re leaving again? After eleven moves as a kid and a semester abroad, plus these last two years, you’re well accustomed to leaving everything behind for awhile. Is it easy? It’s not. But that’s okay. I don’t think it’s easy for anybody. You stay somewhere long enough, it becomes home, you know that. Then you go and it becomes stranger and stranger to you, until the home you had is home only now somewhere, somewhere, out where that inner gaze shines back over the path you walk. The people you were.

The friends you had.

You have friends there. You will see each other. What will be your common ground? Your last year of college you had it. But now they’re working. Or in graduate school. Starting lives twenty years in the planning.

You were homesick, but what were you homesick for? The past, you recognized the good parts, but instead of stopping there, you allow the good aspects to swarm over and consume reality, and as a result, you find yourself longing for times that were nowhere near as great.

When you left, your sister hugged you. Told you she loved you. She appeared ready to cry, but she held back. You almost did, but I know, I know, you have this well-honed strategy of making nervous comment to conceal your feelings.

Well what about tomorrow? I think you’ll be fresh out of comments then. As you stepped out the door two years ago, you looked back to her. You smiled. You waved.

The day is coming. You cannot stop it. You’re reentering that world a person far different than when you left it. See them as you knew them, then see them as they are now. Accept them. Because they will see you.

As you are now.

As the stranger standing before them.

And when you leave, you know what will happen. She will cry. Yes, she will. But what will you do? Will you cry? I don’t think you will. No, I don’t think so. Because perhaps now you’ve come to understand something.

Friends. Strangers. Dying memories, you know that home is with the people you love, no matter how much you pack. You understand that.

At long last.


  1. There and back again?

    There is a ring of truth to what you say. Whatever you do, put the old lady on your packing list. Do it even if you have to carry her on a chain worn around your neck.

    Yours in haste,

    Matt M

  2. Great post Travis, and so much of it hits home with me. I left home with a backpack, a lonely planet guide and completely different plans that involved an entirely different continent. With the exception of a well-worn hoodie and a couple Eddie Izzard DVDs, I’ve pretty much traded-in everything I brought with me on that “trip” for the amazing and dumbfounding elements of my life today — a wife, a child, a career.

    I couldn’t agree more that “home” is where the people you love are. I’ve had a number of conversations with friends about what we call “home”, is it our home here in China (these are all long-termer laowai)? The home where we last lived? The home where our parents and family are? The home where our friends have moved to?

    To me “home” is a concept, not a place. Its the plot, not the set. The album, not the song.

    • I understand. When you take a step back and examine what’s happened in between then and now…it’s incredible to think about. And you’re right: home is a concept rather than a place. The album, not the song. That’s a good point.

  3. Wow – great post! I came to China on an expat package – so a lot came with me (along with my husband and then 2 year old daughter). One thing that I know more than ever is that the “stuff” doesn’t matter – it’s not what makes up a home. For me it’s the people, the experiences and the place – the here and now.

    I hate the question from my friends/family back in the USA – “when are you coming home?” – they mean “when are you moving back?” But, my “home” is here in China. I also get the question “where are are you from?” I’m from Shanghai, but what they really want to know is my nationality, or where I moved to Shanghai from. Both are loaded questions that I dread getting.

    Looking forward to reading more posts on the re-entry.

  4. I understand the feeling entirely. Each time I moved to and from China I tried to take stock of how my life was changing. When I first went to China in 2004, I remember thinking of a book from my childhood about different kinds of transportation. The book’s title was “Hop Aboard, here we go.” I think that is pretty appropriate for life in China. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  5. I find it amazing how quickly “stuff” multiplies when you get to a new place. We came with an inventory list of everything we brought, but now we have so much stuff that I’ve started to get rid of one thing every day. Luckily we also have a Magic Corner outside out building where we can put our junk and it almost immediately disappears.


  6. Pingback: Fact or Fiction IX: Homecoming | Lost Laowai China Blog

  7. Pingback: I like what I see | Travis Lee 查韦斯

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