Resonances (or the lack thereof)

…when I leave India, it is, each time, a great wrench, because I’m essentially casting myself aside — it’s a little death. I struggle against it, but, in the country of arrival, I begin to let go, to form new alliances, to learn and see. Echoes and chance concordances direct me: in a street in Geneva or Brussels, I’ll see a floor or wall or balcony that I’ve seen in Kolkata…It’s like the resonances you discover, after years of travel, in a foreign city; when, unexpectedly, the correct comparison comes to you, bringing back to the world a memory you thought was dead.

Amit Chaudhuri on the appeal of global travel in the Guardian.

The view from my room at the Foreign Students’ Dorm of Beijing University of Technology.

On my first visit to Beijing in 2001 I was drawn to the city because of how much it reminded me of India. I had never been to another developing country and the messy and lively feeling of the streets was familiar and comforting. The word for this kind of atmosphere in Chinese is 热闹 (renao), the two characters literally translate as “hot” and “noisy” respectively (the character 闹can be understood thus: as noisy as having a marketplace, 市 , in front of your door, 门).

In 2012 Beijing was certainly hot and at times quite noisy, but very rarely lively in the way I remembered. Not much resonated for me with this city that I had fond memories of. It had been taken over by wide avenues and tall buildings, giving it a very impersonal atmosphere. Journalist Basharat Peer upon completing the Hajj described modern Mecca as a city that was “built by a people without history or tradition — a sprawling imitation of modernist architecture.” These words could apply just as well to Beijing.

Monolithic concrete structures populate the city. Some are glitzy, but most are not. And the historical structures that haven’t been torn down are devoid of ambience because of a lack of respect for the space. For example, one afternoon I dipped into the Confucius Temple for respite from the heat and traffic. It’s a very pleasant complex with many trees, a great place to reflect, if given the chance. But any thoughts you might begin to form are rudely interrupted by tour guides leading people through the temple with loud microphones. Their shrill voices poison the atmosphere and leave no chance of enjoying the space. Not my kind of 热闹.

But Beijing hasn’t succumbed entirely to a boring concrete sprawl. It is still possible to find some pockets of the old Beijing charm where elderly men gather to play chess and people line up to buy mantou for dinner. If it seems like I’m romanticizing these spaces, it’s because I am. Sitting outside on a stool in front of a street vendor’s stall, eating yangrou chuanr and watching people go by is definitely romantic, especially if there is a slight breeze in the air, the hum of crickets in the background and the promise of an ice cream on the walk home.

Originally published at