Beijing IX: On Standby (Back in Beijing)

You notice how days more often than sometimes just pass you by; you going to work, brushing your teeth, taking a shower and going to sleep, without ever really wondering what it is that you are feeling, what it is that you are actually thinking or what it is that you really want? It is those days that we are on ‘standby’. The red light is burning, somewhere, but we’re not really ‘on’, neither are we really ‘off’. To be honest, I believe it is the majority of people who spend their lives in this standby modus. There is a voice in our head telling us we will lose weight, sometime, we will quit the job we hate to do, sometime, we will start to live the life we want to lead, sometime. In the meantime, we will settle with complaining how tired we are, how much public transport sucks or how hung-over we are.

It is a certainty that it is only a bunch out of the few who manage to stay ‘on’ at all times, and it is this people who become successful in life, and not the ones who will settle with complaining on how fat/unhealthy/poor/unlucky/etc. they are. In fact, it is not that easy to stay ‘on’, and probably so much easier to be ‘standby’. Being ‘standby’ makes time fly, and actually, complaining and daydreaming can make you feel so comfortable at times.

Another certainty: Time flies when you’re having beer. It’s a truth I discover once again in Beijing. The city sucks me in and within no time I feel like I have never been away. I have been amazed with how well the Beijingers remember me. The people at the market stalls, the waitresses at the bar and the staff of the beauty parlour all come up to me, “Hao jiu bu jian! Long time no see!” When I enter my old favourite bar again, the manager comes up to me and is happy to see me. For a moment I feel like I am entering the laowai version of ‘Cheers’ (where everybody knows your name).

As I walk around my old neighbourhood, Wudaokou, I unintentionally look for my pink bike, although I gave it away months ago. Ever since I came back from Beijing, I feel like I lived my life in Amsterdam somewhat as a zombie, doing the things I needed to do, but always having this feeling that I actually left myself behind in China somewhere along the way. Now I unconsciously keep looking for signs that I was here. I walk 45 minutes to my old house on the campus of a remote university. The woman of the bike-stall recognizes me, and runs towards me with her arms wide open. “Look who’s here!” she calls out. She cuddles me while babbling about what has been going on in the neighbourhood in her quite incomprehensible Beijing accent. I sit on the floor of the bike-stall for a while. The 7-year-old granddaughter shows me her drawings, and how she has learnt to skip rope while I was away. I smile. I ask who lives in my house now. “Another laowai, some foreigner. He keeps to himself, most of the time. He does not put his bike here,” the bike-lady says. I walk over to my old front door, and stand in front of it. I am almost compelled to check the mailbox, but manage to walk away. Another laowai? In my house? I cannot bear to think of it.

While the bike-lady fills my pockets with peanuts,  I realise that I really do feel like I have two homes. It is a warm feeling- but at the same time I am always homesick one way or the other. I miss Beijing when I am in Amsterdam, and actually, I even miss Beijing when I am in Beijing, since it is especially my old life that took place here. In this way I am caught in my own nostalgia once again, a spot where I somehow love to be.

I have preferred Beijing over other cities, like Shanghai, for a long time now. I tried to explain what it is that made me like Beijing so much, and I might have figured it out. People here say goodbye with a simple ‘Man zou’ – take it easy, or, more literally, go slowly. Since it is all about kuai kuai kuai, quickly quickly quickly, in Shanghai, this is one of the things that I learnt to appreciate about Beijing. And it is exactly this reason why I came to spend winter in Beijing. To take things easy.

The flames of the warm open fire reflect in my glass of Champaign as I sit at the newly opened Capital M restaurant, sister branch of Shanghai’s renowned M On The Bund. I am in good company and enjoy the luxury around me. My friend notices a young boy who is seated at the other table, a somewhat snobbish and less attractive version of Prince William. When we go out to the lounge to have an after-dinner cigarette, the young lad joins us. “What brings you to Beijing?” he asks, as he puffs away his Marlboro Light. As we tell him what we do here, he sighs. “Ah yes. Well, I actually live here and also live and study at Cambridge. I study Philosophy, International Relations and Economics. Quite interesting indeed, yes. I was at M On the Bund yesterday, in fact. Tomorrow I am heading for Maison Boulud. My father just got a new position at the embassy here. I am quite busy, indeed, yes.” When I ask him his age, I find out he is just 20 years old, although I would have believed it had he told me he was somewhere in his 30s. He boasts some more about NGO’s in Beijing and partnerships and start-up businesses and financial crises before I find myself lost in conversation. I am saved by his mother, who pops her head around the corner: “Darling!” she says somewhat annoyed: “Please come to the table. Your whiskey has arrived.” The young man stands up and straitens his jacket: “Please excuse me,” he says: “Duty calls. Nice to have met you.” As he walks away with firm steps, I realise I have somewhat of an aversion to people who pretend to be very busy and important, while in fact, they are just taking it easy. I take another sip of Champaign as I stare into the open fire and tell my friend of how I live in between Amsterdam and Beijing and am actually also very busy. And important.

Xiaolin, a blushing boy from the Hubei province of China, lights up when he speaks about a film project he has been working on. We meet each other at a Nanluoguxiang bar on a late yet lively Wednesday night. He seems humble, and is eager to talk about his work. He has already applied to several European filmfestivals, he says, without boasting. “Please remember the title,” he urges me: “It is called Under the Forbidden City. I have moved from Wuhan to Beijing to make it.” An old wrinkled man with a thick coat, farmers’ hat and walking stick is seated at a corner of the bar. With Lady Gaga dashing through the speakers, he seems somewhat lost in the environment. As I watch the man curiously, Xiaolin suddenly touches my arm: “He is my father,” he says. The man has come with his son from Wuhan to support him to chase his dreams. It moves me, in a way, since I feel that this boy actually is very busy and important, while, modestly, pretending not to be.

In Beijing I am the girl that is full of energy. I feel awake and active. This is also one reason why people like going abroad, or like travelling. They slip out of zombie-modus and stay wide-awake, since they feel they should pay attention to their surroundings. But actually, travelling is not about places. It is about mindset. It is about letting go of the normal routine in life that can make you blind for beauty around you, the small details of the city, the beggar at the market stall. Letting go of routine gives energy. And thus I dance the night away, going from bar to bar. I end the night when dawn is setting in. A nice lady behind Bar Street still sells pork sandwiches for 5 kuai. She gives me my change, and smiles: “Man zou”.

As I stroll along the road somewhere near to the Drum and Bell Tower the next day, I feel tired and a bit lost. There is something about Beijing that makes the highs always quite high and the lows quite low. Thinking back of the time I lived here, I realise I have probably never felt more full and more empty at the same time than in Beijing. For now, it is also weird being back and not being a real part of the city anymore. I am not enrolled at university here and have no clear goal except for soaking in the sizzling nightlife and walking the frozen streets with a blurry mind.

I once again meet all those people who have spend many years here already. It has been six months down the road, and most of them still teach English to 3-years-olds, still serve crappy coffee in that back-alley, or still try to make it here whilst drinking beer at the same bar night after night. It is a tempting lifestyle. But somehow I feel like they would have amounted to much more if they were back in Paris, London or Madrid. “Beijing is just too comfortable,” a 35-year-old Englishman tells me. He has been living here for over five years. He did a masters degree in London and was planning to discover China. One way or another he landed in Beijing and never left. We talk over his plans to leave for Kunming or Guilin soon, but “let’s face it”, he says: “I probably won’t ever leave.” Is Beijing too comfortable? A lousy job is sufficient to pay the rent and to afford some nice nights out, as well as to buy countless DVDs. The foreigners of Beijing are not like those in other Chinese cities; we prefer to take things as they come and are not specifically in a hurry to make a career and money like most laowai in Shanghai are. Is it because we are just happy as we are, or have we taken the ‘man zou’ somewhat too literally? Are we on ‘standby’, without complaining about it? Or just ‘on’ and loving the Beijing life?

January is over too soon. During my transit in Frankfurt I sip on a German beer, sad to have left my favourite city, with some of my favourite people in it, once again. I am determined to take the travelling mind-set with me as I go back to Amsterdam. Perhaps I should pay more attention to the charm of the tiny lights that reflect in the long channels, the ever-smiling drug addict who always sings Otis Redding, the spark in the air on a Saturday night. It does not matter where you are. There is always the possibility of being awake, being present, as there is always the danger of sinking into a too-comfortable-zombie-modus.

Go slow and take it easy, but try and manage to stay ‘on’. Man zou, Beijing. See you in Summer.

Love Always,

Manya

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