Heading back from dinner on Valentine’s Day, there was a spring in our steps that had nothing to do with love or romance, nothing to do with the celebration of our relationship or the beauty of our future ahead. We’d taken the death-machine that is the rickshaw the wrong way up multi-lane roads, the bitter-tasting smog was being made worse by the fireworks marking the last day of Chinese New Year, and we were dodging pools of spit every few steps on the way to one of the many soulless bars in one of the many bland tower complexes. And yet, we were feeling pleased with ourselves because we realised – for the first time since we arrived in Beijing – that we didn’t mind it all so much.
It’s not that we don’t notice. I’ll never get used to the gurgly sound of passers-by bringing up phlegm, or forget the fact that I’m wearing a mask for the third day in a row. I still feel awkward when I can’t get across a simple word in Mandarin over the shop counter, and feel shocked when I read the turbulent news stories that affect the local people around me. I’ve also not stopped being caught off-guard by moments of sudden overwhelming homesickness for something, for someone, for a scenario, a place, an ambiance, a feeling, and I realise that I’d made myself not need them without being able to replace them – like having a long-distance relationship with my memories.
And yet, one day I woke up, did my thing, went to bed and reflected under the duvet that I’d just had a really regular day: “Dinner was fun, the laundry needs doing, I must send that email.” And crucially I noticed that I’d gone a whole day without feeling put out by Beijing. My mind was back to being preoccupied by life’s run-of-the-mill things, and my body was moving automatically around streets that had become familiar. Our apartment felt precious, the place where I can walk around in my underwear, burn myself on the oven, have mid-shower inspirations and pour glasses of wine for friends. And the city around me felt real and relevant, rather than a virtually imposed scenery I float through while my mind and soul are somewhere else.
It’s a big relief to shed the burden of feeling sorry for myself. Now I can start fretting again about the everyday stuff, which I do equally well but with less existential angst. Humans are able to adapt to all kinds of circumstances, most of which are immeasurably tougher than mine, and five months since arriving in Beijing I seem to have finally started hobbling down that path. For now, home is here, it seems, despite everything.
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