My family and I just returned from our first visit back to the US since we moved to China almost a year and a half ago. This was a somewhat unplanned trip, and our intention was simply to give our lungs a much-needed break and to restore some sanity after a bit of a tough year here.

Now that we’re back in Beijing and almost halfway through our term in China, I’ve been trying to gather some of my thoughts on our time here. Partly, this has led me to acknowledge just how behind I am on blog posts! There have been so many experiences I’ve wanted to share here — about our travels, encounters with local life and culture, recipe experimentations — but for some reason or another, I have just gotten stalled on them. I also haven’t quite figured out how to share more about everyday life here without turning this into an expat blog, and I’m hoping to find a way to do a little more of that.

Among the reasons I haven’t been writing as often as I’d like (besides wanting to spend more time with my son!) is that I’ve been down with sickness much more often this past year than I think I ever have been. Whether it was food poisoning (I don’t think I’d ever even gotten food poisoning in my life, despite all the questionable things I consume when traveling, but I was out for a full week earlier this year for no apparent reason), or asthmatic episodes (I also have no history of asthma but was hit with an episode right at the start of 2013, when the air pollution in Beijing made world news), or just constantly coming down with colds and terrible sinus infections. I also think many of the challenges of living here have put a strain on my psyche (I have become a total hypochondriac! And claustrophobic, among other things). The rest of my family remained fairly healthy — that is, up until this past summer, when our toddler began to show symptoms of asthma as well. I have to say that my already low spirits really plummeted at that point, and I had to ask myself why we were here, and more importantly, how could we have brought our baby here? It was hard on everyone to have to physically force our little one (he was not yet 2 then) to use an inhaler, even with the spacer tube for toddlers. Even though we have an upcoming trip scheduled to the US in the spring, we decided it would be worthwhile to take a break from China now.

View from our compound on a bad-air day in Beijing.

So E and I spent a little over five weeks in Portland, where both my and my husband’s families now live (my husband later joined us to spend Thanksgiving there). Neither of us have ever lived in Portland, but it has definitely become one of our favorite cities (coffee shops! bookstores! food carts! FRESH AIR!!). And coming from China, I just can’t think of a better landing place. It really felt like we were in an alternate universe at times — some otherworldly place where the entire city composts, the air is crisp, the tap water tastes good, there are bike lanes everywhere, and drivers actually stop for pedestrians not only at stop signs but pretty much any time you look like you’re trying to cross the street. (Side note: stop signs were one of my reverse culture-shock moments — I completely forgot they even existed and often waited for traffic to clear before crossing the street.) Indeed, I think Portland is considered somewhat of an enlightened place even for visitors from other parts of the US, so landing there right after 16 months in China truly felt like we were heading to another foreign country.

Fall in downtown Portland.

Among the liberating experiences upon arriving back on American soil was being able to get in a car and drive anywhere I wanted to go — not to mention that I knew just where to go for anything that I needed. (We haven’t gotten around to getting our driver’s licenses in China; it’s one of our priorities in 2014, and I’m sure it will be an interesting experience!) Another reverse culture-shock moment was seeing how people don’t use GPS systems anymore — they use their phones and attach them to these nifty little devices that hold them up in the car — how completely novel, right? :) I asked my husband, “Do you catch yourself thinking, ‘Oh, so that’s what people do these days,’ or ‘So this is what the outside world is like’?” :) I marveled at how cheap everything was (like plain, no-sugar Cheerios, which, when I finally managed to track it down in Beijing [at City Shop, if that helps anyone out there], cost about 10 USD a box). I went to Target every couple days and wished that I could buy everything (and bring it back with me to China!). We also went on walks and short hikes in the forests and spent lots of time with family and friends and had playdates all around the city. A dear friend of mine lent me her bike, and I was even able to slip out one morning before E saw me and take a short ride on one of the trails near my parents’ house. I savored the luxury of uncensored internet, not having to show ID every time I came home, and not living in a bugged compound where we sometimes find ourselves writing notes to each other.

All in all, I felt like a human being again!

Lower Macleay Trail in Portland

Yet at the same time, I’ve been trying to tell myself that many of these new experiences and realizations are one of the reasons why we wanted to live abroad. We still believe there’s meaningful work to be done here and enriching experiences to be had. The expat life can be so surreal at times. One moment you’re sitting down to a beautiful Italian meal deep in the back alleys of Beijing, and then in another moment you’re desperately trying to save every last precious Cheerio that your toddler spilled all over the kitchen floor. I find myself conflicted as to how exactly to share about our life in China at all, because it can by turns seem either ridiculously extravagant (like jetting off to Seoul for a few days) or woefully unreal (like questioning the safety of every imaginable thing).

Life in the hutongs (back alleys) of Beijing (as viewed from an Italian restaurant where my husband and I had an anniversary dinner).

For now, all we can really do is to try to take things as they come. Our intention has been to stay here for a 3-year term, and possibly even extend that stay. Now, we find ourselves saying, “let’s take it a year at a time,” or “let’s see how this winter goes” — if not even just “let’s see what the pollution is like tomorrow.” Indeed, the unpredictable air quality here means that when the air is suddenly good outside, we immediately drop all our plans (including potty training) and head outdoors for as long as we can. Just this past weekend, the air quality index hovered around 450 (for reference, 50 and below is considered good, and 500 is the top of the index), and then suddenly on Sunday night it started dipping down toward 50. So of course we ditched the rest of our stay-at-home plans, slapped a diaper on our kid (they say this negates your training efforts, but what can you do?), and went out for dinner, some errands, and a walk.

So this, dear readers, is some of what’s been transpiring between posts over here. Thanks for still sticking around and for reading thus far. Hopefully, over the next little while, I can fill in a bit more on other happenings that have taken place, like visiting more fish sauce factories, eating ramen anonymously, and thoroughly enjoying ourselves at the fresh farmer’s market in Portland. Stay tuned!