"It's strange," my friend said to me over beers one night. "It feels like you never left. Like you were just here a week ago."
We'd been out hiking — joking and laughing and gossiping as we went — and were settled in for a well-earned brew. I laughed. It really did feel like we'd done the same just yesterday.
In fact, I'd felt that each time I reunited with a friend or family member. I'd click into this older version of myself. Snap! I'd revert back to the goofball I was with such 'n' such at 16, or the gossiping roommate such 'n' such knew in college. Out came the old inside jokes or lines from our favorite movies. We'd step-dance in public, take the same absurd selfies, or order great piles of food that still left waitresses staring back in shock.
It was just like old times. Like I'd never left at all.
And then, while counting out coins at the register, I'd revert to Chinese. Hand motions at all for each number.
Or we'd be at the bar, and my first inclination was to call over the fuwuyuan (waitress) and ask for "Liang bei pijiu" (two beers). I'd call out a hearty, "Ni hao"(Hello!) when I walked in a store, or answer, "Ke yi,"(OK) when I answered the store clerk.
Clearly I wasn't shaking this whole language thing.
Less flattering than a slip of the tongue, I'd noticed my pushiness hadn't translated into English either. When stepping off a subway, you hold your ground with a firm shove or shoulder push. Here, you do that and you're deemed the asshole of the airport terminal.
But the biggest change came, in the most cliche of ways, from within. My confidence, my peace of mind, my ability to take everything in stride with a smile — it was all part of a "New Me" that didn't fret about the future the way she used to.
"I'm just happy to be here," I'd assure my friends as they fretted about a missed turn or a traffic jam. I'd listen to their personal dramas and offer my advice or comfort, but inside I'd feel separate — now their struggles with mortgages or relationships seemed foreign. I cared deeply, of course, but didn't have much to share in solidarity. My personal dramas were at an all-time low, as were my insights into "real adult" issues. I had no mortgage, no relationship, no worries outside of weekly lesson plans and reading up on my next travel destination.
My dad was right. After a year abroad, I was different. My reality was in Beijing, and I was changing to accommodate it — the language, the expat lifestyle, the city and its challenges.
Before my sister flew back home, I showed my family a slideshow of photos from the last year. At the end of it, my mom shook her head.
"I just can't believe you live there ... that those aren't photos from some extended vacation," she said.
A year ago, I'd have said the same.
Now, all those photos — of strange alleyways and dumpling restaurants and busy streets — they look like home, as temporary as it may be. Comfortable, familiar and full of memories.
And oddly enough, I'll bet you this: When I land back in Beijing, it'll be like I never left.