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Expat's Eye
Print Edition> Expat's Eye
UPDATED: May 20, 2013 NO. 21 MAY 23, 2013
Returning to Beijing
By Adam Sarac


I had been home for Christmas and was just back in Beijing, where I had spent all of the previous year. That year had been one of the best in my life, and though I had been here before and always had a soft spot for Beijing, the city had now taken up a strong place in my heart. Going back home had been a strange experience of being home and away from home simultaneously. It had also been a deeply lazy experience, eating piles of Christmas food, speaking a language that required no headache-inducing effort, and breathing air that I didn't even notice being there. I had started missing Beijing less than a week after getting back home.

The things I reminisced over were all the things I had loved when I was living in Beijing: the friends, the food and the constant elements of surprise in living in a city as complex and chaotic as Beijing. But there were even less tangible things I missed than feelings and tastes. There was some sort of energy that was just not there back in Scandinavia. I kept feeling sleepy, and sleeping in during the morning didn't give me that feeling of missing something strange and beautiful, that I would have almost everyday in China. Walking around my hometown had been a strange experience of being a visitor in your own home, somehow it wasn't really where I belonged anymore.

But when I returned to Beijing, the things I thought I had missed suddenly didn't seem to matter that much. Already when the plane touched down at the smog-shrouded Capital Airport, I felt less than impressed. Even the air pollution, which used to have its charm, now merely seemed like a slight annoyance. After the first 24 hours, my mood had not changed. The food was good but nothing special. People were kind but seemed distant and occupied with their own lives, and nothing really seemed to surprise me all that much. The things I had found endearing before now left no trace on me while those I had found amusingly bizarre now felt slightly annoying.

But there were small things I was glad to see again that I didn't even know I had missed. Walking in the Gulou hutongs and being overrun by hoards of tiny dogs in Christmas sweaters, I did feel a bit of optimism. The same feeling came over me as I happened to pass by a young man trying to comfort his girlfriend, mad about something he had done, and when I had a brief conversation about the northeast with a woman selling me plastic slippers over by Jishuitan. Don't ask me what it was about these everyday scenes that I enjoyed, but together they reminded me of Beijing as a real place with millions of people (and dogs) living out their lives. It was not something I had thought I would miss, because it seemed so obvious. Somehow it comforted me to be part of the whole thing.

Then winter started giving in to spring and all my love for Beijing came flooding back. Walking down a Dongcheng District street, a store blasted that one Teresa Teng song I used to sing in KTV, and the memories of walking down Andingmen Bridge after a whole night of drunken singing returned to me. I tried the liangpi of a new street vendor in my area and the level of spicy and shuang was just right. I remembered how it took a while when I first came to Beijing to get my bearings, to adjust my senses to all the impressions one is bombarded with just walking down the street. Waking up from a long sleepy winter, this can take a while.

The author is a Swede living in Beijing

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