18th-29th June: The Last Post
Once again, I’m sitting in an airport, in a Starbucks, with too much time before my flight and too many things to write about. This time, I’ve been virtuous in my choice of snack — unlike my flight to Australia, when I ordered the biggest, chocolatiest, caffeinatedest beverage I could find, I’ve gone for a simple bottle of water and a tuna-egg sandwich, packed with slow release carbs and protein to help my legs recover from all the cycling/ running/ lugging bags around that I’ve done today. Wow, it’s almost like I’ve grown up.
I’m racking my brains and trying to think how on earth to round up 62,000+ words of blogging. There’s probably no good way, but I do think that I should maybe do a special summing-up post distinct from this one. I know I’m chickening out and pushing the FINAL FINAL post further and further away, but even so. I’d like to focus on the last couple of things that happened to me in Beijing separately from concluding everything.
To be honest, it was really nice to get back from Yangshuo. Even though I knew that I was leaving a few days later, Beijing feels like my home turf, and I was happy to have a week or so to say goodbye to the city and its inhabitants properly. Sunday was a full day of socialising, with back-to-back engagements pretty much all day. I’m getting kind of sick of goodbyes, now, or ‘I’m not quite sure if this’ll be the last time I see you’ meet-ups. I’ve been alternating between being frenziedly extroverted and just kind of hunching over my laptop or pacing my room, shoving things into suitcases and muttering to myself.
I had my final dinner with my surrogate Chinese family the other day, which was the only time that I’ve actually choked up during this whole leaving process, when I got presented with a succession of gifts by grandmother, aunt and cousin in quick succession. ‘I’ve caused you so much trouble — and I’m really going to miss you — ’ I blurted, scrubbing my eyes and hoping that the menfolk at the other end of the room weren’t paying attention.
So then the hugging started, and really it was all downhill from there. I have a wonderful selection of selfies and photos with varying family members which I will treasure always. I’m planning to make a scrapbook of this year abroad, and believe me, it is going to be a judgement of Solomon deciding which photos to print out and stick in and which ones to leave floating around in cyberspace. I’m not sure that I’m emotionally ready for the challenge, to be honest.
Along with some last-minute meet-ups with old acquaintances, I was also introduced to a new arrival, an Australian who’d just come to Beijing for a summer-long Chinese course. It was really strange to see my familiar stomping grounds through the eyes of someone who had arrived only a few days previously — especially when I knew that, in a few days, I myself would be gone. What would change in Beijing, I wondered, before my next visit? And what would stay the same?
It was a friend’s birthday on Monday, so we had a quiet evening of card games and Beijing food. (We played Werewolf, actually, which is a delicious exercise in mind games, strategy and backstabbing which I’d recommend to anyone who doesn’t mind being betrayed by their closest friends.) That was really my last social occasion in China; Tuesday and Wednesday were almost entirely taken up with packing, weighing suitcases, giving things to goodwill/clothing banks, re-packing, re-weighing suitcases… You get the picture. I made time to go to the gym and to say a few final farewells to people in passing, but by Wednesday, I had spiritually left Beijing, if you get what I mean. (Although I was jolted back down to earth by one last ridiculously spicy bowl of Chongqing noodles on Tuesday night!)
One element of my life where I didn’t get a break from socialising ’til the bitter end was when I met my new flatmates. ‘New flatmates? What are you on about, Izzy?’
Well, let me explain. My ethically/legally/generally ambiguous landlady had let me stay on for a few extra days past the end of my lease on the apartment — on the condition that I was alright with a succession of her ‘relatives’ coming to stay in the already-empty rooms which had previously housed my flatmates. ‘Okay,’ I agreed, blithely, thinking that they’d be happy to get on with their own business and pretend that I didn’t exist. Oh, how wrong I was.
There are times, in China, when I think that if I just stared at people dumbly and acted like I didn’t speak Chinese my life would actually be simpler. My first set of new housemates was a woman with her young teenage daughter, and once she’d determined that I was a) from the UK, b) spoke English and c) wasn’t watching TV on my laptop, just, you know, checking my emails, which is ok to interrupt when watching TV isn’t, for some reason — I digress… She marched her poor teenage child out into the living room in her nightie to ‘practise English’ with me — which mostly consisted of me saying something and the kid sitting there like a rabbit in the headlights until I translated into Chinese, at which point her mother would reply for her, also in Chinese. In the end, I mumbled an excuse about having to go and meet someone and fled the apartment until I was sure that they would have given up and gone to bed.
The second set of housemates seemed, at first, to be more restrained. It was a couple, the husband of which sat in their room on his phone saying nothing, and the wife of which loitered in the doorway chatting with me about Chinese art and the internet until we both decided that we had better things to be doing and went our separate ways. Thus the first evening of their stay passed without incident… but then. The second evening -
Well, everything was alright until the small hours of the morning. About half five, I’d estimate. Then I heard a knocking on my door, rousing me from my fitful slumber — I never sleep my best the night before a long journey — by the previously-silent husband of the pair.
‘What the heck are you doing?’ I said, wavering somewhere between ‘asleep’ and ‘incandescently indignant’.
‘I needed to ask you about something,’ he said, showing no remorse whatever for waking me up in the small hours.
‘What’s wrong?’ I said, assuming that the fridge had exploded, or one of the bathrooms was flooding, or some other real emergency. It took me awhile to wake up enough to understand what his problem was, but it transpired that he thought that he had left 2 bottles of water on the beside table in his room before he went to sleep, and on waking up and discovering them to have vanished, his first assumption was that I might know where they were.
‘Well, I don’t,’ I said, unsure whether I was more relieved that there was no larger problem or irritated that he was bothering me over what seemed to me to be a trifle. ‘Might your wife know?’
‘Oh no, she left yesterday.’
And how would she feel about you barging into my room unannounced, I wonder? I thought, but did not say.
‘What have you been drinking?’ He asked, as if I might have the bottles stashed under my bed, and this would shame me into sheepishly producing them.
I motioned to my own bottle next to my bed. ‘I boil water in the kettle and then put it in here. The kettle’s in the kitchen,’ I added, politely, because so help me I am British and we do not forget our manners in the face of hardship or unexpected 5-am visitors.
I ended up showing him where the kettle was, too, mostly as a way to get him out of my room. ‘So,’ he said, as I attempted to take my leave and skulk back to my room, ‘And then, ‘so ’where are you from again? Where do you study? How long are you living here?’
Oh god, the small talk had started. Still, I answered him as politely as I could.
‘My wife said that she couldn’t believe that a young lady was living in your room, it’s so chaotic.’
And that was it, he’d gone too far. ‘I’m leaving the country tomorrow,’ I said, in something approaching a snarl. ‘I’m in the middle of packing, I’m very tired, and I don’t know where you water is!’
‘OK. I’ll call the landlady and see if she knows anything about it,’ he said, looking a bit cowed.
‘It’s not like a thief broke in. Nothing else is missing,’ I said, trying not to sound too scathing. ‘Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to bed.’
And I did.
Later that day, after the guy had left, I found 2 water bottles in the freezer — he must have stashed them in there at some point, and then forgotten about them. That was my charitable explanation — a tiny, paranoid part of me wondered whether he’d just fabricated the whole thing to mess with me. I texted the landlady to let her know that the case had been cracked. Never one of many words, she sent me back: ‘Haha’. Not much, but a mark of solidarity in the aftermath possibly one of the weirdest encounters of my entire year in China.
And now I’m back in the UK, sitting in the caffe Nero of Heathrow Airport and waiting for my long suffering mother to come and pick me up. My journey home really went remarkably smoothly, and actually has done a great deal to restore my faith in humanity, even in the face of dehumanising long-haul connections, security checks, makeup remover confiscations and seats decidedly not designed for the comfort of a taller-than-average human form.
My friend KY not only drove me to the airport, bless him, but also parked up and actually saw me to the check-in area. I left him a box of tea and a postcard as a thank you, and thought about the contrast of my return journey, chatting with a friend in his pride-and-joy shiny black car, to the impersonal shared minicab I’d taken from the airport at the start of the year. When I checked in my baggage I miraculously managed to get away without paying any extra fees, even though I’d been sure that my hefty second bag was going to well over the carry-on bag weight. As I waited to get on the plane I had a chat with a couple who were heading to Europe on vacation, and after my traumatic flat experience their presence reassured me that not all Chinese couples are a) devoid of social grace and b) slightly mad.
More humanity-faith-reaffirming episodes followed. During my stopover in Belgium — a four hour connection that pushed my travel time from ‘long’ into ‘marathon’ — when when I was trying to buy a coffee and a pain au chocolat in Belgium and realised that my paltry 4 euros and 5 cents didn’t quite cover the cost of both, and stammered that I was sorry but I’d just take the coffee, then, thank you, when a middle-aged lady from Montreal stepped up and handed me the extra fifty cents I needed to cover the cost, telling me in a very kindly, very North American way just to ‘pay it forward to the next person’. Then once I was on my final plane from Brussels to Heathrow , the Belgian woman next to me on had a bit (a lot) of a panic about the fact that a) the plane was running late and she might miss her connection to Singapore, b) she hated flying and c) these things were made exponentially worse by the fact that she was travelling with her teenage daughter for the first time without her husband, who had recently died. All things I found out during a tearful episode between finding my seat the delayed take-off, during which I passed her tissues and helped her (very nice and sensible) teenage daughter comfort her through the trauma of becoming airborne. She was unreasonably grateful and insisted on pressing a little box of fancy Belgian chocolate on me before we parted ways in London, confirming the stereotype that all Belgian people are in fact chocolate fairies who carry delicious treats on them at all times. (NB: the airline rebooked their connection to they got to Singapore with no trouble.)
During my short stint in Brussels airport, I tried speaking French a few times, but, of course, ended up blurting Chinese instead. I realise that somewhere over the course of this year, Chinese has well and truly triumphed over every other language in my head to become to ‘foreign’ that I reach for when I know that I’m not speaking my mother tongue. I’m sure things would change if I spent a year in Mexico, or France (or Japan, for that matter, if I follow through on my plans to take a Japanese elective next year). But it’s kind of amazing to think that an East Asian language, rather than a European one, is number two in my brain, now.
And then there are so many expressions, proverbs, concepts, words, that just work better in Chinese — and I’m going to miss using them, I really am. Although I’m ecstatic to be back — I welled up a bit on the plane as we descended gently over England’s Green and Pleasant Land, and not just because the lady next to me was clutching my hand hard enough to hurt — I will miss China. A lot. There was a moment when I was going through Belgian security, and I wasn’t sure where my gate was, and I was thirsty, and confused, and hadn’t slept enough on the long flight from Beijing, when I thought, ‘I want to go home’. And then ‘home’ I was thinking of wasn’t a small town outside London — it was a big bed in a little flat in Wudaokou, Beijing.
I miss it already. I miss my friends, with our weird jokes and our Chinglish and our constant, good-natured grumbling. I miss being able to cycle everywhere. I miss being able to get the metro or a good lunch for less than 50p. I miss being able to tune in and out of the language around me at will, rather than being forced to understand every stray remark or slogan that passes in front of my eyes. I miss being in easy proximity to everything I could possibly need — cafés, karaoke, museums, parks — adjusting to life in a village after spending a year in a capital is going to be hard.
I’m going to miss the big, blue skies and the dry, hot weather. I’m not going to miss the pollution days, but I am going to miss the way that China feels like it’s young, and booming, and growing. Maybe people don’t mind their own business, and maybe they elbow you on the Metro and don’t say sorry, but they’re nearly always going somewhere. I’ll miss the magnitude of Beijing, and the energy, even if it does seem, sometimes, to border on desperation. And most of all, I’ll miss the feeling of limitless possibilities stretching out in front of me — the feeling that this is my year, and anything at all can happen. So much has happened — everything I could have hoped for — but even so, the feeling that it’s in the past now — it makes me sad, makes my homecoming bittersweet. So, like the end of a rollercoaster ride, my relief and exhilaration are tinged with disappointment.
But more than all that, the end of a roller coaster ride like this makes another feeling well up. A feeling that this can’t be the end, it won’t be — a feeling of, ‘oh, let’s do that AGAIN!’ Which makes the ending bearable, I suppose. Because the end of one adventure is always the beginning of another, isn’t it?
But my mum’s just got here —I can see her smiling and rushing through the caffe Nero towards me — and so I’d better wrap this up. Before I go on any more adventures, I’m even more excited to go home.