The last time I travelled abroad, I fell in love with a country. I hadn’t expected to; I’d only expected to have some fun with my family and explore a new place. But Singapore floored me, and it became the backdrop to my daydreams, a vision of the kind of life I wanted for myself.
This time, I went to China, and the love I felt was for another person, and the dream was for a life that could be lived and shared anywhere, hesitant though I am about such dreams.
Sometime ago, Cris told me that he’d follow me anywhere. Instead of feeling happy about this, I wanted to run away. Someone had made me that promise before, but when I’d finally found a place I actually wanted to go, I learned that “anywhere” really just meant “anywhere around here, because he never, ever wants to leave.” It was just one of several fundamental differences that, when I think about it, led to our breakup. But I don’t want to think about that; that’s in the past.
Today, looking back on the near-week I just spent with Cris in Beijing, I’m starting to entertain the idea of grand declarations and impassioned promises again. Maybe we really can go anywhere now, together.
I had a fantastic time. We saw the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Bird’s Nest, a handful of manmade lakes, the schools Cris attended, the 798 art district, and a load of intimidating architecture and impressive infrastructure. I had dumplings and lamb chuànr almost every day, and the autumn cold was as thrilling as it was, well, chilling.
Yet to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I would have liked it as much if Cris hadn’t been with me. Don’t get me wrong; all the things I’ve mentioned are well worth the RMB. I’d highly recommend Beijing to anyone looking for a great culture and history trip.
It’s just that whatever enjoyment I got out of poking around the palaces and climbing up and down Badaling was heightened by the underlying idea that they were parts of a place that Cris loved, and he was sharing them now with me. Even simple bus rides, brief campus walks, stomping through bustling shopping streets, and ducking into dumpling shops not wide enough to spread your arms felt like secret privileges, little peeks into the life he had as a student there, little chances to try and understand him better. I don’t know if I succeeded, only that the need to feel close(r) to him feels stronger now than ever.
Beijing itself, of course, was a great place for this to happen. All over the city, there are banners and posters for a campaign called “Beijing Spirit”, which the posters say is composed of patriotism, innovation, inclusiveness, and virtue. To one longtime expat, the campaign smells of subtle propaganda. But to this tourist, it underscores the awe one feels from that first ride from the airport through modern Beijing, jaw-dropping even in the dead of night after a budget flight, to the end of an eight-hour walk through Qianmen and the Forbidden City with all its bronze dragons, marble staircases, and tantalizing echoes of the emperors’ lives. Beijing smells both of historical greatness and of the promise of great change, and it can get hard to figure out where wanting your life to be part of that promise ends, and where wanting that promise in your life begins.
It’s been a little jarring, maybe sobering, to be back and to go about life as before, to remember to tell the cashier “Thank you,” and not, “Xièxiè,” to swap my thick RFID-equipped yīkǎtōng for the bendy, magnetic LRT cards, and to look out at a skyline not dotted with hipped palace roofs as well as high-rises. I say sobering because, now that the vacation and the subsequent long weekend are over, I’ve had to think hard about what I’m doing and what I need to do next to stay happy where I am. Then, I think of Cris, and I feel worry fade away, and see promise within my reach.