When I was 10 and my family was moving to Hong Kong, my mom told my brothers and I that we could all fill two shelves in our bedrooms with whatever we wanted to bring with us from Brooklyn. We each made our own selections: I gathered up my dolls and then guiltily picked who among them would get to come with me. My 5-year-old brother Teddy packed a cast-iron piggy bank shaped like a puppy and a bust of Abraham Lincoln I hadn’t even known he owned; 9-year-old Chris made his own difficult decisions – I think he included a dartboard. Really, we all choose blindly: how could we know what we would miss about home when we’d never left it before?
This is my last month as editor of tbjkids and in a little while I’ll be leaving China. After two years in Beijing, I’m packing up my life here to move back to the US – my fast-growing 6-month-old niece and the clean skies of San Francisco are harmonizing on a siren song that I can’t resist. This will be the second time I’ve left China, and the umpteenth time I’ve left a place I’ve called home since that first move to Hong Kong; this time I know exactly what I’d squeeze into my suitcase and bring with me if I could.
I’d start with a jianbing cart so I’d never have to do without my favorite salty snack, and then I’d fold up the baozi vendor from across the street, complete with its giant steamers of sweet red bean buns and its hot soy milk in crinkly plastic cups. The piles of pomelos, neat rows of peaches and deep crates of garlic at my fruit and vegetable stand would also need a place, along with the sweet-natured shopkeeper with the perfect white teeth who teaches me the names of mysterious fruits, carves off sweet pieces of pineapple to tempt me into purchase, and lets me load my bike basket with grapes even when I’ve forgotten my wallet, scrawling the price on the wall beside him and telling me to bring the money next time.
I’d shrink the fan dancers, the old men walking backwards and the old ladies who exercise on the street corner every evening to help me remember that growing old doesn’t have to mean sinking into your couch, and I’d find a comfortable spot for a couple of babies with their soft baby butts peeking out of their split pants. I’d shove in a taxi, my favorite tailor, the lotus pond in Ritan Park, the best shoe market in Xidan, a lifetime supply of cheap DVDs, plus the masseuse who wears number 126 at Bodhi.
In my real-life suitcase I’m leaving space for every issue of this magazine so I can flip through them when I’m far away and remember all the pieces of Beijing and all the varied lives I got to see while serving as editor, like the American kid who weaves through his hutong on a skateboard, the family of five that speaks four languages, and all the ayis and teachers and children and parents that call different versions of this city home. Thank you all for sharing your stories with me, and for reading – if only I could pack you up and bring you with me, too.