Homesick Heart

I’d like to tell you that I broke my foot. Because “injured” or “stubbed” or “a bruised big toe” does not really convey the depth of the situation, and if I were to use those few words, while also disclosing the fact that I’ve been bed ridden since the incident on Saturday, completely unable to care for my kids, you would think me a proper and total baby without any credibility in the pain department.


But, before we being this story, let me lay down my pain credentials: two unmedicated childbirths, one of which was pitocin induced and lasted 23 hours. So. But, that’s not the point. What I’m really saying is, I smashed my foot this weekend and in so doing, all my complicated ambivalent feelings about living in China came bubbling to the surface. 


I was puttering around in the kitchen, trying to bring some order to the pantry closet, when I dropped a heavy glass storage jar from the top shelf of the pantry directly onto my right big toe. I registered what happened, but the pain didn’t hit me until a few beats later. I screamed and swore, and cried like a child, uncountable, sobbing, and snot-streamed, for a good half hour.

I initially thought it was broken, as I’ve broken that toe before. And knowing how there’s very little to be done for a broken toe, I decided to just ice it and keep it elevated. But the pain got worse, and I thought I should check it out. So, the next day, I hobbled out to find a taxi to get to the nearest Western hospital. 

The taxi driver was gruff, and chastised me for not being quick enough getting in, and didn’t want to take me directly to the hospital entrance. The receptionists at the hospital saw me struggling with the door and sat passive at their desk. 

As I was making my way up the stairs to the hospital entrance, I started tearing up and thinking about Indonesia. It’s not that medical care in Indonesia is better; in fact, it’s demonstratively worse. I’d much rather be sick in China than in Indonesia. But heart care, spirit care, soul care, human care is better in Indonesia. Far better.


I thought about how, in Indonesia, people are so free and willing in their giving of care. A taxi driver will pull over, get out of his car, and help you load your groceries. He’ll hold your kids so you can get organised. A random stranger will stop and, seeing you struggle, offer assistance. A security guard will rush out in the rain, unprompted, to hail a taxi. People will notice you limping, and ask if you’re okay. No one rushes you. No one is gruff. Smiles are freely given and accepted with gratitude.

Contrast that to China, where people shove past you, point at and ogle your kids, even push you out of the way as you’re struggling to get a stroller and two children down the subway stairs. A simple disagreement will turn to a shouting match in seconds. And regular, every day conversation can often sound like a quarrel. 

I limped up the steps to the hospital, crying from the pain, and from homesickness, and probably from a touch of culture shock. I saw a doctor, who didn’t do much to treat me, and then wouldn’t even prescribe Tylenol. 


I’m worried that this sounds a bit Western-centric, a bit neocolonial, a bit winey, a bit “expat wife-y”. And probably it is. It’s hard to say, “I miss Indonesia because the people were really nice to me there” without it sounding like I miss being fawned over and being taken care of. It’s not the physical acts of care that I miss; not the deference, not the deeply engrained class structure that informs the culture of servitude. Because frankly, that bothered me. 

What I really miss is the genuine human kindness that was just part of the daily rhythm. I miss people seeing me, seeing that I’m a human with a needy heart just like theirs. I miss seeing that in others, too. Indonesia is soft. Indonesia is heart. And sprit. And soul. 

China is hard. But there is a kindness here, sometimes. It’s just expressed differently.

The other day on the subway, a woman grabbed at my elbow, insistent and brusque. I wondered what she wanted, and why she was so cross. And then I noticed that she was directing me to an empty seat. She had noticed that I was carrying Hugo, and I could use a place to sit down. 

So there. There is softness. There is kindness and care for strangers. But it’s not not the surface, and it’s not expressed in a way with which I’m familiar. 


Now, five days later, at least my foot is starting to feel a bit better. If you'd like to know the gory details (and this is a blog, I mean, isn't that why you're here??) I went to a different hospital, a different doctor, who confirmed my diagnosis of ineffective treatment from the first doctor, and actually agreed to offer treatment. Which turned out to be seriously medieval, requiring that he burn a hole through my toenail with a red-hot poker. And no pain medication. 

It hurt like a mother. But it worked. And I can actually put a little pressure on my foot without feeling like I'm going to barf from pain. So! Progress. 

Now, to work on that culture shock.