Last October I was sleeping on a couch, confused about what to eat for breakfast, searching for housing, taking Beijing’s busiest subway to work everyday (something I vowed never to do again), and unsure of how I fit into this new world. I’ve come a long way since then. I found an apartment, started taking Chinese lessons, switched to a better job, but I somehow ended up on that damn subway again. A two-hour roundtrip commute is doable when you have to do it, but it is on my list of things that are deal breakers between Beijing and me, like:
-sanctioned smoking in the stairwell and bathroom at my office
-coughing and sneezing without covering one’s mouth
-snorking, hacking, and spitting (indoors and outdoors)
-the neighbor child who cries at 5:30a and 11:30a and various times in the day
When I think back to the decisions that brought me here I was zoomed much farther out. I thought it would be interesting to live in another country for a year. It has been. I also wanted to learn another language, which I’ve been working on although I’m nowhere near fluent as I naively predicted in my cover letter to OPEN. I think I told them nine months…I guess I mistook working at architecture firm for an intensive language immersion program of fulltime study. But the last ingredient in all of this was that I had no office experience at an architecture firm. Finding work in China was easy compared to the States when the health of each economy is on opposite ends of the spectrum. The first place I applied to in Beijing hired me, and so the story the goes.
People call what I’m doing a ‘great experience’, which is rhetoric I bought into as well, but now I hold it at a distance with some suspicion. Perhaps this is particular to me, but what has been the encompassing experience of living here is a form of resistance. The first couple of months were like being thrown out to orbit where everything was foreign and all of my routines were uprooted. Vacations are like that to some extent where you put yourself outside your daily routine, but it’s usually pleasurable because you don’t have to work, you spend at least three to four times the amount of money you would on a normal day, and you’re probably somewhere of visual interest. In short, vacations are like being rich for a week or two in a nice place. Here in Beijing I feel like I’m rich, even though I probably only square up on the middle-class rung of the ladder, but the place is not that nice. Interesting is a better word for it. And what I’ve found myself doing since I got my feet on the ground was trying to reestablish my routines in some form or another…this has been my form of resistance.
It starts with the basic things like figuring out what food you like and where to get it, then shelter –my apartment was a huge victory on the resistance front. Finally comes the creature comforts –the internet, the ikea bedding, the wireless router, the microwave, the space heaters, the water dispenser (and the men who laboriously carry the bottles up five flights of stairs) and so on. While I was sitting in my apartment the other day something dawned on me, which was that I was completely insulated from Beijing. If I didn’t look out my window I would have no clue that I was in China…I have everything I need and it is all very familiar –internet, good food, comfortable space, etc. For me, the ‘experience’ of Beijing is not augmented by living in some beat down apartment and having to eat dumplings on the street corner. While that may call up a more authentic experience westerners imagine it is not my reality. However if I want to walk around some dilapidated hutongs and eat street food I can do it, but on my own terms and it has an off switch.
When I started thinking about this notion of resistance and how it’s really a form of control it seemed neurotic. But I actually think it is the process of ‘experience’…. getting thrown into something (deliberately or accidentally) and getting out of it or getting back into your comfort zone. Figuring out a routine in a foreign place is the experience and the irony is it’s precisely the antithesis of the place. Just looking at my progression in grocery shopping is telling of this transformation:
-Early Days at Carrfore: I show up with big ikea shopping bags on foot, and wield a full size cart around the crowded aisles. I’m nervous about giving the old peasant ladies my receipts when I leave. What would they want with them? Identity fraud?
-Junior Days at Carrfore: I show up with a granny cart on foot, and thread a small shopping cart around the aisles with the granny cart ingeniously placed on the cart as though the two were married. I start giving my receipts to the peasant ladies. They just need bonus points.
-Senior Days at Carrefore: I show up with the granny cart in tow on the back of my bicycle, I’m in and out within 30 minutes for a week’s worth of food and I tow it home with my bicycle. I only give my receipts to one peasant lady in particular, whom I have adopted in my mind as my Chinese grandmother, and have even started stashing pocket change inside the folded receipts.
While I’ve successfully figured out the basics of living here and continue to find comforting ways to do so, what I’ve failed at is really living here. This has always been a temporary project that had an end date off in the distance. Living in anticipation of the next thing is something I’ve been doing for almost as long as I can remember…I guess it’s inevitable when you’re trying to get into school, then going to school, and starting new jobs etc. But this leaves you with blank apartment walls, no possession too big to put in a suitcase or too expensive to abandon altogether, and a general level of disconnect that prevents full engagement in a place. I can see why Buddhism is all about living in the present…it’s a much healthier way to be in the world than counting days on a calendar and combing through job postings, although I might still be possession-less with blank walls if I become a monk.
Zooming out again, I have accomplished the things I set out to do by moving to Beijing; the year in another place, the work experience, and some new language skills, but not all was gained without losses. The one thing that I cannot reengineer into my routine is proximity to friends and family. Being far away from those you love is probably the most difficult thing. I find myself thinking about all the people I want to see when I get back home, all the visits I’ll make, old friends I want to look up and familiar places I want to revisit. Nostalgia.
Many people have asked me if I’ll miss Beijing when I leave and I’m quick to answer no. Not because I’m miserable here, but I’m really not in love with this place either. The one thing I do think I will end up longing for is the routine I’ve established because it’s simple and authored in isolation. It’s the kind of routine that leaves evenings open for anything, yet my energy levels have waned to the point that the internet often overpowers my motivation to read books or do anything of creative worth. I’m sure I’ll look back and wish I’d done more outside of work because the only positive thing about being away from friends and family is that there are no distractions. This is as close as I’ll get to being on a writer’s retreat, but I’m ready to go home now.
I’ve crossed the threshold I made up in my head: just get into December and it will be down hill from there. I have four weeks of work left starting now. Four weeks I can wrap my head around in the same way a little kid understands Christmas Eve to be just one night to get through before Santa comes. Waiting for the Camino to arrive last summer was felt with the same anticipation…and it came…and it went. While part of me doesn’t want to fully develop the skill of comprehending large chunks of time the way old people can throw around years like days, it would be nice to have right now. But I’m also happy to accept my position closer to the squirmy, writhing kid that can’t wait for his birthday to come around or only understands sleep as closing his eyes all of a sudden it’s morning…which is much closer to living in the present where pain is great and joy is greater, because those are the moments in life you really remember.