The experience of being away is always beneficial, but in ways you might not expect. We are in a three-day hiatus between guests, so Jonathan is writing lectures he will be giving here and I am working on a new manuscript, and for some reason we felt more homesick yesterday than we had been to date. In my case it probably had something to do with not being able to watch the Oscars, which would be embarrassing if I were capable of it. For him it probably had something to do with his wife asking him to fix the Internet connection every half an hour.
In your home environment you have, if you’re lucky, tailored everything for efficiency: your route to work, your morning and afternoon habits, where and with whom you’re having lunch, what to have for dinner. Here Jonathan works on the dining table in our apartment, as he doesn’t have an office. To go to a cafe to work means finding an actual cafe, not a tea shop, and trying to communicate with the waitress who rightly doesn’t know what Wifi or ‘cheque, please’ means, so you find your app and type it in and hold it up. They must occasionally want to take our smartphones out of our hands and thwack us upside the head with them.
We’ve worked out a routine for taking the subway into town, but we can’t take taxis without painstaking preparation involving intricate characters and sounds we don’t understand. We got into a cab the other night, waving our Fudan University characters at the driver, realized he didn’t have a meter, and spent the ride wondering which field he’d dump our bodies in. He was actually very nice considering his passengers were yelling hysterically at one another.
This is easy for a month. What’s it like for immigrants? Maybe you learn a little of the language or a lot, or you watch your children become a seamless part of the society to which you’re raggedly stitched. But there must always be homesickness for you, not just for a while. Toronto has entire neighbourhoods of immigrants, Koreatown, Chinatown, Little Italy, Little India and more, where there are foods and clothes and cafes that feel a little like home. Until now I just thought of them as great places to visit, because I took for granted that the whole city belonged to me. We are so bloody lucky.