In the end, it was kitchen towels that hit home to me that we were really leaving Beijing. I’d parked the pram in front of the shampoos, given baby a packet of tofu to play with, tottered over to the back corner of the shop and reached for our usual jumbo pack of four rolls – then stopped. Hang on, I thought, could it be that now, with less than a month to go, we don’t need four rolls? Could it be that, between now and our flight to Australia, baby won’t spill enough water, leak enough poo or spit out enough food to warrant a jumbo pack?
It was an epic moment. We were really leaving, I realised, and so soon. In about two kitchen rolls’ time in fact. Suddenly I felt sad, moved, excited. I walked out of the shop in a daze and the sky seemed bluer. I took a deep breath, smiled and sighed to myself like a weirdo.
More than anything, this shows just how glamorous my life is that I have epiphanies in the cleaning products aisle, but it’s also an indication of how unreal a diplomat’s life can seem. We’re moving to the other side of the world and starting an entirely new life, and yet so much of the process is taken out of our hands that it’s hard to feel it’s really happening. The packing will be done by a removals company assigned by the embassy, who one morning will come in with a small army and sweep away all our stuff. At the other end, we don’t get a say on which house we’ll be living in, nor which temporary accommodation we’ll be staying in when we first arrive. There’s little faff and few opportunities to control or decide anything, which makes me feel really privileged on the one hand, and on the other a little put out and restless.
Maybe it’s also because this move has been a hell of a long time in the making. We first heard of the post in Australia about seven months ago, after which we had the application process, job interview and the waiting, with large doses of anxiety in between. Then, after hearing the good news, nothing for ages during which time our family and friends asked politely, ‘so, are you excited about Australia?’ while no doubt thinking, ‘bloody move there already.’
The person who surely must have thought this most often – though she’s way too nice to say it – is my closest friend here in Beijing. She and I see each other almost every day with our little ones in tow, discussing our shared experiences and spending so much time together in a way that tops even my university years. Not quite as intense or nearly as neurotic, thank god, but still a sense of having something in common that people who haven’t gone through it won’t quite understand. Living as expats in Beijing has certainly felt like an unreal sort of bubble: together we’ve been grateful that we could be stay-at-home mums, kept each other sane on countless days of bad pollution and batted away strangers who try to take photos of our babies. I will miss her very much; and I’m a little scared that, as such strange and heightened experiences tend to do, she and our entire Beijing adventure will soon seem like a dream.
It’s a good time for feeling a bit emotional. Spring is in the air; the park has been completely dug up and replanted with new grass and flowers, all drowning in pools of water sprayed by industrial-sized hoses on trucks. The air has been beautifully clear for almost ten days straight – no one knows why, though my money is on factories being shut down for the annual joint opening of parliament. In Japan, spring marks the start of a new academic and financial year, with the whole nation feeling poignant and excited, and songs about cherry blossom hitting the charts. It’s not quite like that in China or the UK, but I always get a bit reflective around this time and try to contrive some sort of ‘new start’ in my life. As it turns out, this year I’ve actually got one. I just needed some kitchen towels to remind me.