When my husband and I left Beijing in 2006, I didn’t realize that it would be 13 years before I went back again. I discovered that I was pregnant after we arrived in Canada, and I decided I would rather have my baby in Canada. Still we had intended to go back again, at least to visit, when my daughter was older. We kept putting off our return—although my husband still continued to go back and forth—and then when my father showed signs of dementia, I slipped into the role of his primary caregiver. Life is funny that way: it puts curves in the road that you thought was a straight line.
My father passed away two years ago. Now our concern has become my father-in-law, in his 80s, who lives in Beijing. We decided a return trip to see him was necessary.
I approached this trip with a certain amount of trepidation. I had heard stories about how Beijing had changed so much that I would no longer recognize it. I lived in China for 3.5 years, most of it in Beijing, some of it in Wuhan. In that period of time I formed many memories, not all of them good, and I wondered how I would handle the bad ones.
The first few days were a little bit rocky. The 12 hour flight was as long (and as uncomfortable) as I had remembered, and we were overtired from the jet lag. But then suddenly I fell back into a familiar routine. I remembered more Chinese than I thought I would, and I began to utter the ritual phrases that are common to the culture, delighting my relatives. My street sense—that which is needed to safely cross the road while people and vehicles come at you from all directions—came back too. And I seized every opportunity to enjoy Chinese cuisine. If you have ever eaten Chinese food in the country itself, you’ll appreciate how much more fresh and flavourful it is compared to anything outside of the country.
My father-in-law didn’t want to accompany us to go anywhere, so we ate many of our meals with him, and then we enjoyed introducing our daughter to not only the tourist sites, but also to our local haunts.
The people who had warned me that I would find Beijing unrecognizable were right. When we went to the area where we last lived before we left, it took me a long time to get my bearings again. A dirt road no longer leads to the area. But one of our favourite restaurants still exists, and once I saw it, I was able to patch together my former life with the present. We went to one of the local parks that had just opened when we lived there. The trees were now 13 years older and larger, but the grounds were still familiar.
When we left, there were only two subway lines. But the Olympics in 2008 had increased the number of lines dramatically. There are now 23 lines with others being built. Fantastic! It has become so much more convenient to get anywhere in the city. All these subway lines are very much needed. When I was first in Beijing in 1996, the bicycles outnumbered the cars, but now it seems almost everyone has a car, and the roads too often turn into parking lots.
The people who had warned me that I would find Beijing unrecognizable were also wrong. Some places I visited appear not to have changed in the least. Tourist sites such as the Summer Palace and Beihai Park seem to be frozen in time. We visited the Sacred Way to the Ming Tombs, one of my favourite places to be because of the stone statues, and although I had not been there for 23 years, I felt like it was yesterday.
When I lived in China, I once wrote a magazine article about how China was a country of contrasts, the old juxtaposed against the new. I found that this continues to be true. This is why I got the feeling that Beijing was unrecognizable yet it wasn’t.
True confession: If it hadn’t been for the fact that I wanted to see my father-in-law again, I don’t think I would have ever returned to Beijing. But when I was there, I realized that I had left a part of my heart in the city. On the way to the airport I realized that Beijing is one of the cities I consider to be home.
Shoe’s Sunday Stories
@Copyright 2019 Linda Schueler