Getting Past that Foreign Feeling (Again)

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I’ve discovered that when you write a memoir about your marriage, you open yourself up to a lot of hard and very personal questions. Readers want to know if my marriage and my husband are really as wonderful as I portrayed them in the book. They also want to know whether we have really transcended foreignness. Yes and no is my answer to all these questions. In two months away from my Hong Kong home and husband, it’s hard not to focus on the cracks.

My husband and I were in our forties when we found each other, and we started out long distance. From the beginning, we promised not to hem each other in. We had separate friends and interests as well as different cultural backgrounds. His family was in Hong Kong, and mine was in Washington State and Texas. Sometimes we visited family together and sometimes alone. We had different professions, so he went to ethnomusicology conferences, and I went to seminars on museums. While he taught summer courses in Beijing, I used my alone time for writing. As I tell my friends, I like to miss him. Most of the time.

Last year I traveled to the US and stayed five months, thanks to my sister’s cancer and the pandemic. My husband and I agreed that was too long to be separated. This year, I left at the end of July, and I can already feel us coming a bit unglued. Our time zones don’t mesh. He’s frowzy with sleep while I am cooking dinner for my mother and sister, or he’s racing off to class while I am unwinding into evening.

The more we try to share our daily routines, the more foreign our separate activities can begin to feel. I missed Mid-Autumn Festival. He missed a visit from my daughter.

He’s schlepping our beloved cat to chemo treatments and begging him to eat. I’m baking cookies for my ninety-six-year-old mother and trying to locate her Life Alert that has been misplaced for the zillionth time. He’s creating syllabi and trying to get steroids into the uncooperative feline. I’m picking out light and plumbing fixtures for the retirement home we are in the midst of building.

I want him here. He wants me there. When we do connect on WhatsApp, our conversations are often disjointed and frustrating. We each feel like we’re doing each other’s job: I’ve had pets all my life, and he’s used to organizing projects. I have meltdowns about construction costs. He’s teary about not being able to alleviate animal distress.

Old patterns set in when we spend more time with our families than with each other. My daughter says I start channeling “a 1950’s Betty Crocker vibe” when I get to my mother’s house. He becomes more blustery and direct when I’m not around. Or maybe I just hear him that way when I’ve been steeping in my family’s brand of conversational indirection. A couple of weeks ago, I hung up on him for raising his voice. He swears he didn’t. In getting re-tuned to my American family’s sensitivities, I’d forgotten that he nearly always says what he means. Loudly and with no malice intended.

Sometimes we go places the other can’t follow. I’m drafting a new book about a part of my life that happened long before he came into the picture. Earlier on this trip, I visited places I had lived and people I had known when I was a different version of myself. In the same way that my Hong Kong life is too foreign for most of my American friends to understand, my past is too foreign for my foreign husband to imagine, at least until the book is finished.

We resort to emoticons–lots of hearts and kissy lips. I used to hate emoticons, but I find myself looking for the face that says what I can’t say in words. In person, we’d need only a look.

Today I started packing for my trip back to Hong Kong. When I traveled to the US, I planned for relatively easy re-entry. In addition to my two Pfizer vaccines, I got a covid antibody test that would reduce my quarantine time from fourteen to seven lockdown days in a government-approved hotel. Then the US got hit by the Delta variant, and the Hong Kong government bumped the US into the high-risk category. Now I will be quarantining for twenty-one days. Three more weeks before I can kiss my husband, comfort the sick kitty, or get back into our daily routines.

Isolation is not what I would prefer. After twenty-three years together, his is still the face I want to see when I disembark. We could both use a long hug. The reality is that we get the long tease of a decompression zone. While we wait, we’ll wake up at the same time and both be frowzy. I’ll write, and he’ll teach. We’ll confer on cat care and house plans, and before long, our familiar will once again overtake that foreign feeling.

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