Be Back Beijing …

After thirty days of posting on my blog articles about places, days, adventures in Beijing, I thought that it was time to reveal a more personal story from my time in Beijing. After all, among the feedback I get from experienced blogging friends is that it should be more ‘personal’. So if there’s anything that I wish to dedicate to my friends and experiences, it’s this. Please comment with honest feedback, as I hope to upload an edited version of this on my blog to finish my daily post series.

A city this big reminds you of two things: how small you are, and the importance of human connection.
A city this big reminds you of two things: how small you are, and the importance of human connection.

1:45 a.m. Shuangjing, Chaoyang District. 28 degrees.

Staring at the ceiling restlessly. Charging, 40%.

I had just moved in to a new apartment, and as per the listing details on Airbnb, I was allocated the sofa. It was a long day; I was supposed to be up at 7 a.m. the next day as my office was a two-hour commute away; this place much further than my previous home. I was exhausted and engaged in the bad habit of plugging in to try and sleep, but my usual pals Chopin and alt-J couldn’t help me tonight. The line from the protagonist of my favourite anime series immediately pops up in my head.

Another unknown ceiling. It’s natural … all places in this city are unknown to me. My host seems nice … why am I here?

Like him, an institution has brought me here. They chose me. They chose me for a reason. But inasmuch as I am clear as to what I want to achieve when I’m here, I’m still finding out why the institution chose me too. Where does this fit in my life calling? It was two weeks into my internship in Beijing, and I yet had little clear idea of where I was going.

OK, I knew my way around, and I loved every single bit of Beijing, embracing every difference and imperfection of the chaotic, bustling city. At risk of sounding arrogant, I don’t really go through ‘culture shock’ much: when you learn to accept differences, problems and barriers as an inevitable part of travel, you go with the flow. And I have vowed that I will never, ever take a pure leisure holiday in my life: I will seek opportunities to travel abroad because of some project, initiative, or opportunity – be it career or personal (and that includes reuniting with friends and relationships).

That and the fact that I finally have the opportunity to communicate in the language I had dedicated myself to learning for two years kept my moral afloat here. It gave me the reassurance that my learning went somewhere, and that, after all this time, I had not lost it in idleness.

Things were not going well people-wise. Most of the interactions I had with Westerners were on the receiving end of flippancy or sarcasm. Perhaps it’s that, due to my background as an Asian who has been bullied for my race, I’m particularly sensitive to the insensitive – when Westerners display patronising behaviour in Asian countries. Mingling with familiar people may be a refuge in a foreign land. But I make up my mind pretty efficiently when deciding who I want to be my friend and who I don’t – and with my background, such behaviour is instant blacklist material. Perhaps I come across as arrogant by refusing to go with the flow of anything I see as an injustice.

Of course I needed to push on and make things better. I didn’t need out – I needed ‘outlet’. I had a few friends in Beijing to talk to at the time; but, through a series of interactions that I realised later on were a complete embarrassment of myself, it was just so much panic and stress trying to make contact past VPNs and the lack of connectivity. By this time, the social environment was starting to drive me over the edge, and I began to feel that without an outlet, I would seriously need out. But what followed in that week would turn my experience – and my understandings of both China and myself – upside down.

***

I’ve always been a wanderer, never being accepted into any particular social group growing up, but always with a curiosity about the world. Thus I had always dreamed of having a ‘global village’ of friends, where we would keep in touch, travel to see each other, and look after each other to support each other’s endeavours. Even before social media, I had romanticised the ideas pen pals, the pining for long-lost friends from lands at the ends of the world and the journeys of thousands of miles to reunite with them, the memories that last a lifetime, and the faith of running into each other again. And as this network slowly began to materialise over the past few years, I had some of the most memorable times of my life, and naturally developed similar bonds with the people I shared it with.

But I have to face the inevitable truth: I am in my final year, the future post-graduation was uncertain, and this would be one of the last opportunities to grow my global village. If I could not rely on my existing network, this was my chance, and it wasn’t going down well. I had two weeks to turn things around. Two weeks.

***

Usually, it takes me a full day of time alone to reflect, regroup, recharge and refocus. But a big, 24/7 city environment like Beijing affects the way you behave. With a blog that I was already struggling to update daily due to connectivity issues, I had to make something happen every single day, even if only to retain whatever tiny but crucial readership I had. In a big city, going out means meeting people, and when travelling, every day is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, never knowing when, or even if, you would ever have that chance again. FOMO meeting carpe diem, in short.

But Beijing has surprises in every corner. They are bound to be crowded, especially with young couples (which can make you very FOMO, indeed), which makes it a challenge to block out outside noises, but the beauty of Beijing’s expanses of parkland possesses you. I’ve always dreamed of being able to enter that state of mind you see in films and TV whereby the protagonist can freeze time or space and wander, float, or even fly through this landscape. Those times where I felt that way were, for a naturally anxious person like me, among the only times I walked away feeling truly at peace about life.

There I realised I treasured my global village because it was the antidote to the grievances which I am most anxious about. The colonial mentality seen in ‘ugly Western’ attitudes, the yearning to cut through perceptions and prejudices, and the desire to travel. And I was anxious at work because it was, so far, a lost opportunity to do so. But my global village starts with me. I must be free-spirited, always open to learning, able to cut through the prejudices and frames and empathise with things to their essence, and openly appreciative to others. Among the times that I was happiest in Beijing were when I met complete strangers and started conversation, originally to practice my Chinese, but very gradually learning about their lives, their stories, the things that make them human. That inevitably must start with those in my immediate vicinity – and in Beijing, with my friend of four years now gone and my friend of four months all but out of reach, that immediate vicinity meant my colleagues.

***

Life has been ironic to me. It seems that the less I try to pursue something, the more I receive it. I may be a go-getter, but what I’ve found to be just as important as determination is the ability to respond graciously to testing circumstances, setbacks, and most importantly, other people. That doesn’t mean ‘compromise’ in the modern sense of the term, it means learning to embrace the way others think.

It was also time to acknowledge the people who were worth caring about, and those who were not. Time to re-evaluate my current global village as I stand on the brink of growing mine even more with my present and future opportunities. My goal in life is not to be ‘happy’ as much as to be ‘important’ or ‘relevant’. It may sound egotistic, but think about it for a minute: the meaning of ‘important’ being ‘of value or meaning to others’. To be meaningful to other people. The first step is not to force yourself to be relevant to others, it’s to find out who you are relevant and meaningful to, and treasure them.

When I learned more about others, I learned more about myself. When I stopped trying to plan out every meeting, circumstance brought me closer to new friends in the everyday, in after-lunch tea runs, after-work bites and the impromptu opportunity to witness something incredible in the city.

***

Often, we don’t know what we want to be except ‘happy’, or ‘making a difference’. When we reach a certain amount of knowledge, every path towards your life’s calling looks so glamorous, but once you take your first step, you see that it is a façade for a tumultuous journey across desolate, treacherous terrain – often without a path. What it takes to keep your morale up is the balance of both the determination to find or seek something and the grace to understand that you won’t always make the right paths, but you have to put it into perspective for what you learn from it.

The final step to this was, of course, the solo, two-night journey to the middle of nowhere, in Inner Mongolia, where the silence is deafening, and the warm sun bakes the vast grasslands, rolling endlessly into oblivion. Just me and my thoughts … and the nicest locals you can think of meeting. When I thought about my tumultuous experience in Beijing, the invitation to delay my flight back and spend my last night in China with Inner Mongolian locals was tempting. But I’m glad I returned: what better ending, and reaffirmation, could you get of a dream of a global village then several new friends telling you how they’ll miss you and asking you to promise them? I guess the substance of those remarks will emerge in time … but, as I learned, good things will only come if your mind and heart are open to them. If things turn out well, then my trip is a success; I have found people I am relevant to, people whom I truly care about and who care about me.

I took off from Beijing Capital International Airport just past the stroke of midnight. As I farewell the city pulse and watch the lights slowly fade away, it’s 1 a.m. again, and I can’t sleep. I can’t help but think about the people I met, how I miss them, and what I should have said that I didn’t in the moment. One of my friends reminded me of the harsh possibilities in our final conversation: you know, I can’t believe we might never meet each other again.

Well, to my new global village, what can I say? That because we are all ‘global citizens’, I believe that we will see each other soon, anytime, anywhere? Hopefully.

As for this blog, the Beijing Backpacking Blog will continue, I have so many photos, places and memories from my time here to keep it going for a very long time.

(And keep in touch, because I will write again very soon about a new city…)

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