My Dearest,

The goldfish are gone, my suitcase is packed, the apartment is empty, and ironically, all of the four watches I own have chosen this week to give up. Time is indeed standing still for a bit. We’ve both seen it coming for a while now.
It is time for me to go home.

As I am writing you a large brown cockroach is crawling along the old wooden bar I sit at. It’s already passed midnight, and I have been walking your streets all day- a messy attempt to say goodbye to you. I came to this bar hoping to catch a glimpse of the cute barman who’s always here. Instead I only found the big-bellied owner of the bar sitting by my side whispering in the ear of a glassy-eyed girl, seemingly oblivious to the fact he pathetically asked me to sleep with him one week ago.

Tonight it’s just you, me, and the cockroach.

We had some good times, you and I. We laughed, we cried, we danced, we enjoyed our moments. I specifically remember how well you treated me on late afternoons in spring – I would sit outside one of the old buildings of Beijing University after my last class, and the last rays of sun would warm my skin as I’d take in the green air of the campus. I remember how you awed me with your beauty, the first time I visited the Summer Palace and stared across the lake. You swept me off my feet with your crazy nights and peaceful mornings. Although you played hard-to-get in the beginning, I did get you in the end, darling.

I do wonder sometimes though, what it is that made me love you so much. Not even Singapore or Tokyo got me this crazy. I was reading a book this week, called ‘Foreign Babes in Beijing’, by a girl (Rachel DeWoskin) who lived in Beijing from 1994 to 1999. She writes about a Chinese girl who wonders what it is that makes us love you so much:
“She was interested in why Western girls would choose to live in China. It wasn’t a paradise like other Asian countries; Beijing had no Balinese beaches, Tokyo neon nightlife, or Singaporean urban cleanliness. Daily tasks were impossible in Beijing, but it was hard to explain that that was precisely what kept most of its expatriates there: the feeling that Beijing was, in fact, a paradise one could enjoy only by earning that enjoyment. The process by which we learned to love life in Beijing became an in-joke, a success shared by few enough to feel like an elite club.”
And that is what I feel as well. It was not easy loving you. I had to learn to appreciate you, and when I finally did, I walked your streets with an arrogant kind of contentment: I earned to enjoy you. I had to cry in offices for registration, had to fight with cabdrivers, had to search for a plumber on the streets when the toilet was overflowing with shit, had to go to the bank five days a week before my phone bill was paid, had to find ways to get to my website on the Internet, had to haggle over everything, had to go from post-office to post-office to find my package in a backroom, had to find a plumber again when my toilet finally exploded one night, had to come up with a whole plan to get my visa renewed, had to call ten different numbers when my house dangerously fumed of gas, had to learn to push people like they pushed me and to throw myself into the raging traffic like they did, had to swallow my anger many times when Chinese people told me ‘mei banfa’: there’s no way to do it. I studied three long years for it. I worked for it. Now I love you, and I won’t let go.

I went out of town this week, to see the new home of the parents of Tiger, who has been my good friend here all along. Her father bought an apartment down in Beidaihe, a place by the beach. Proudly he showed us the crispy clean apartment. He frantically started to point all over his new place: “See this couch? 2000 kuai! This is the new door,” he said: “500 kuai.” I looked around: “Nice lamp.” He smiled: “Isn’t it? 200 kuai for one!” After an hour I probably knew all the prices of every single thing in the house. He might as well have kept the price-tags on. While chewing on crabs and shrimps during lunch, Tiger’s dad reminded me to keep on eating: “You’re too skinny.”

The whole weight-thing is still confusing to me in China. In the two days I spend with this Chinese family the hot topics of conversation were money and weight. Maybe Tiger got confused too. Her mum told her she was too fat. Her dad told her to keep on eating. I told her she was fine as she is. I have been praised many times by people who told me I was nice and ‘skinny’, at the same time people told me I had to gain some weight, and at some occasions I got the feeling I was too fat when remarks were made on my hips or buttocks. Maybe the Chinese people still have not decided what their new beauty ideal is for themselves. For centuries, it was the plump women who were considered most attractive here. Now that the junk-food culture is gaining more popularity, being skinny takes more of an effort. Traits that are harder to attain are mostly considered most attractive, and so, the beauty-ideal here is also rapidly changing. Skinny is becoming the new plump.

As for colour, being white is still considered posh. It’s almost impossible to find a good facial cream here that has no ‘whitening effect’ in it. Whilst lying on the beach, I was the only one who spread out on my towel trying to catch all the sun: all the people around me hid behind umbrellas and big hats. It’s only the vendors and beggars on the street who have a dark tan, and the ‘white’ people do not want to be associated with that. At the same time, it’s still okay here to let the hair grow. The women are not ashamed to show their hairy armpits, and pubic hair grows freely all around.

Being in a holiday-town like Beidaihe, I sometimes did feel embarrassed by my fellow ‘laowai’ (‘old outsiders’, as they call us foreigners). Blond middle-aged women were walking the streets in hot-pants and bikini, letting their big boobs and sloppy bellies hang all over the place. One man in particular went too far: being overly obese is one thing, but wearing a tight Speedo as your only piece of clothing is even considered ‘not-done’ at Dutch beach spots. Chinese men along the street smoked their cigarettes and disbelievingly looked at them, yelling at each other: “There’s another laowai! Look at this one.”

As I walked around with my two good Chinese friends, I was also looked at by some men along the road. “Here is another laowai,” I heard them say. “Yeah, but she’s bu yiyang, not the same. Ta shi yige zai Zhongguo de laowai, she’s a foreigner from China.” My friends and I quietly giggled as we passed them by. As we got on the bus, I was secretly beaming with pride. I will never be Chinese, and I will always be a laowai. But at least, I can be a Chinese laowai, which is all I could ask for.

In the train, on my way back to you, a Chinese woman stared at me the whole way. She started asking me what I thought about Marxism, communism, and what the ideal society for me would be. She also wanted to know how the education in my country was, and why we, foreign girls, always like to go to bars. Another man interrupted the conversation: “Yeah! What is the thing with you foreigners and bars?” I tried to explain to them that going to a bar is a good way for us to catch up with friends. We don’t have karaoke back home, and to hang around in restaurants all night will cost us much more than the 50 kuai (5 euro) it would cost you in a random Chinese eating place. Therefore, we rather like to meet up in a bar and chat whilst drinking. I also attempted to explain the concept of your own neighbourhood pub, like we have them in Holland. In my simple Chinese: “I can go alone to a pub, and then one of my friends will be there, and then I say: ‘Hey friend, long time no see, let’s have a beer.’” The Chinese people stared at me: “So you meet them because you called them?” I chewed on some grapes: “Well, that could be, but most of the time, there’s just people you know there. You don’t call them, you just meet them randomly.” The Chinese man took out a nail-clipper and started to clip his nails. “Well, I still think karaoke is better,” he said. A piece of his nail landed on my lap. I stared at it. “Ah well,” I said: “It’s just a different culture, I guess.”

Culture, ‘wenhua’, is probably the word I know and use most in Chinese. As I got into the taxi from the station, the driver asked me what I did in China. “I study Chinese. Back home I study Chinese culture,” I said. “Well, you’re probably done real quick then,” he said laughingly: “You can be short about Chinese culture and have talked about all of it in one afternoon.” I laughed as well, and actually knew what he meant. Your own culture seems so simple for yourself in a way. I would not even know what to say about Dutch ‘culture’. The driver went on talking: “You’re the first foreigner I ever speak to in my life!” he said excitingly: “And about the whole culture thing – don’t you think we are all the same in the end? We love our children the same, don’t we?” I was quiet for a second: “I lived in Japan for a while, and often thought I was on a different planet,” I said: “Most things were definitely not the same.” The driver laughed again: “Ah yeah, Japan! But Japan is just a really strange country!” He turned the radio on and we each were quiet for the rest of the ride, entangled in our own world of thoughts.

Beijing, it’s time to wrap it up. The big-bellied boss-guy even left the bar (without the girl, once again), and the cockroach is nowhere to be seen.
I am almost heading out of this bar, but some last words from me to you:

I will never forget you, and I’ll always love you. Don’t worry, I will be back, Beijing, but let’s be a bit realistic about it: we will probably never be the way we were again. Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing you again. I am sure we can work something out.

Lastly: Please be yourself. Don’t get caught up too much with the fancy cars and flashy bars. Don’t be blinded by success and stick to your essence.
I like you just the way you are.

Missing you already,

Always yours,


23 August 2009

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