A fortnight before returning to Mississippi, she said that her life in China was “fake”. What she meant was that every experience she’d had in China – the people she’d met, the feelings she’d had – although significant and meaningful for her, would, when she returned home, mean not very much, if anything, to her family and friends. She would tell them about her two years in China but because they hadn’t been there to share the experience, they would never fully understand its significance.
It was strange, she thought, living in China. Like, she wanted to connect and forge relationships, put down some kind of roots, even if tenuous and temporary, but, because she knew she was not going to live in China forever, that she was soon going to return to the USA, she sometimes wondered what was the point at all in trying to cultivate relationships? What was the point in leaving her apartment and experiencing something that in a few years would seem unreal, dreamlike?
Consistently voted by fans as one of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is an episode called The Inner Light. Here’s a summary of the plot, which, I apologise, and perhaps due to brevity, does not get to the emotional core of the story:
The Enterprise encounters a probe, which directs an energy beam at Captain Picard, knocking him unconscious. He wakes up on the surface of the planet, Kataan, where he meets a woman, Eline, who says she’s his wife, and that he is Kamin, an iron-weaver, who has been suffering from a feverish illness. Losing memory of his life aboard the Enterprise, Picard begins to live his life as Kamin in the vllage of Ressik. He starts a family with Eline and learns to play the flute. He spends a lot of time outdoors, studying nature, and discovers that the planet is suffering from a drought, caused by increasing radiation from the sun.
Years pass. Kamin grows old. His wife dies. One day, he is summoned by his adult children to watch the launch of a missile. He sees his wife, as young as when he first saw her. He is told that he has already seen the missile, just before he came to the planet. Knowing that the planet was doomed because of the sun’s increasing radiation, the leaders placed the memories of their culture into a probe and launched it into space, hoping that it would find someone who could tell others about their species. Picard then realizes what has happened. ‘Oh, it’s me isn’t it?’ he says, ‘I’m the someone.’
Picard wakes up on the bridge of the Enterprise. Only twenty-five minutes have passed since he was knocked unconscious. The probe is brought onboard. Within the probe is a small box. Opening the box, Picard finds Kamin’s flute. He picks up the flute and puts it to his lips. Standing before a window looking out onto the cosmos, Picard plays a melody he learned during his life as Kamin.
The crux of all this is about wanting to not feel alone. Not being able to fully express something to another person is lonely and sad, and happens in everyday life anyway, even between the closest friends, but such inability to express yourself is deepened and widened by having two lives, one in one country, another life in another; two lives which, except for you, and the stories you tell, and the photos you show, and the flute you can play, have little overlap. You carry this entire other life around inside your head with you and, because you can’t 100% express it and know your friends will inevitably grow bored of the stories and photos, you either little by little forget the past or perhaps, once again, up sticks and leave your native land, and you end up a lonely wanderer, full of stories, to be sure – the traveller has tales to tell, to be sure – but increasingly wary and afraid of making deep longlasting connections with people, perhaps.
Her final weeks in China were vague. Homesickness was daily now. Unlike before, she wasn’t motivated to leave her apartment, meet people, and live. Now she spent most of her time sitting on her sofa, Macbook on her lap.