Friday, February 24, 2012

My Own Private Beijing

I want to try to describe what it’s like here. Right now I’m sitting in the study (with Smudge curled up on the couch nearby) typing up notes from my second interview with the 92-year-old poet Zheng Min, a woman who was one of the true founders of modern Chinese poetry. Because she studied at Brown in the 1940s, she speaks perfect English and has a fascination with life that would make many retired people look like slugs. I’ve already spent two afternoons with her in her apartment and we’ve talked about T.S. Elliott, Rilke, postmodernism, life in Mao’s China, and so many other things. It’s been like a graduate seminar in the Chinese literary world. In fact, I think I could say that my conversations with Zheng Min have been the highlights of my first four months in China.

And yet. It’s still a challenge to prevent the homesickness to slip in from time to time. I would like to walk down the street and have a conversation IN ENGLISH with a neighbor. I would like to listen to NPR when I wake up in the morning and watch “The Daily Show” as I fall asleep at night. I’d like to be able to jump in a cab and tell him exactly where I want to go.

That’s a good example of both the oddness of my life and the successes. The other day I had a destination that was listed both in my handy Beijing Taxi Guide and on the map on my iPad. So I flagged down a cab (which is a small triumph in its own right, although less of a challenge in the middle of the day). I showed the cabbie the destination in my little book and he nodded somewhat begrudgingly and with a slightly confused look on his face. So I decided to back it up with a look at the map on my iPad, which had both our origin and destination, connected by a solid blue line and a pulsing blue dot showing us exactly where we were.

He was not impressed.
“iPad!” I said.
He nodded ever so slightly.

After about ten minutes of driving, he started to pull over. That’s when I realized he had seen the words “Lufthanza Center” in my book. The problem is that the Lufthanza Center was only the general location and my destination was another good half-mile down the road. So I showed him the blue dot again. “I-gi-zou,” I said, remembering that’s what my friend Karla said to her driver. Go straight.

He very begrudgingly pulled back out into the street. I kept showing him the pulsing blue dot and he kept not looking at it. I’m sure he thought he had a crazy laowai (foreigner) in his cab who had no idea where she wanted to go.

We ended up exactly where I needed to go. I handed the guy his money, thanked him profusely, and got another very slight nod in response. Joanna may be able to charm the cabbies but I think I mainly make them nervous.

Here’s another example: I’ve discovered these TED talks, which are fascinating lectures that I can watch on my iPad while I run on the treadmill. It takes me hours and hours to download them, but they're worth it. Tasmanian devils, the study of brains, the way children learn: all fascinating. But picture this: I've got the iPad propped up on the monitor for the treadmill. It's so dry in the gym that, even with two humidifiers running, I still get little shocks in my ears from the headphones. Run, run, ow, run, run, ow.

Would I rather be racing from Westmoreland Circle down Mass Ave in the cold dawn? Yes. But you go to war with the army you have, and my army right now is a little depleted. I keep wondering why I feel so tired, but I think it’s often just the way everything (with the exception, maybe, of cheap and excellent manicures and great Chinese food) is just a little bit harder, a little bit stranger, and a little bit Not Home.


  1. Deb, thanks for your candor. Sometimes those of us firmly grounded in our U.S. lives can romanticize the expat life. You have captured how it can be both energizing and exhausting at almost exactly the same time.


  2. Debbie --- Rest assured, those of us in the US are ready and waiting for your return.

  3. I know it can get tough, Debbie--but you are doing some amazing things while there at least. I didn't have Internet when I was in Tianjin so your handy iPad is a huge improvement (however shocking your time on the treadmill)!