Our plane touched down in Beijing for the first time two years ago, and we laughed out loud at the absurdity of it all. You know how it is: You research and you read and you search the Internet, but nothing prepares you for that moment when you step off the plane and realize that technically, you’re home, even if nothing is familiar, nothing as you imagined it would be.
We landed, and I listened as a colleague argued with the customs officials about our dog. It seems our paperwork was wrong. I understood nothing, but the conversation seemed quite heated. At one point, the colleague leaned toward me and whispered, “I threatened to abandon the dog in the airport if they don’t stamp his papers right now.” I looked at the dog. The dog looked at me. The customs official looked at both of us and stamped the papers. We exited the airport, directly into a Beijing summertime downpour – not the most auspicious welcome.
Our new house was big. The refrigerator was empty. Those first few days were a blur of exhaustion, depression and exhilaration. You know the newcomers by the 30-yard stare they wear, and I’m sure I wore the same dazed expression back then as I wandered the aisles of the grocery store searching for parmesan cheese, or tried to make change with all of those baffling little coins and paper jiao. I had no phone, no car, no Internet hook-up. I had a Mandarin phrasebook, but I couldn’t find it in my suitcase. All that time spent doing research seemed wasted now: Nothing was as I expected.
Do you remember those first dizzying days, when you used to point and laugh at the three-wheeled blue trucks? They were everywhere. (They still are, but likely you don’t pay attention to them anymore.) Do you remember when it seemed odd to see a toddler clinging to his mama’s back as she pedaled down the road? How about the first time you made your way through the gauntlet of vendors and up onto the Great Wall? Remember the first time you bought food from a peddler who cooked it on a makeshift griddle on the back of his bike? I remember watching, fascinated, as the CCTV building went up, two piles of steel slowly growing toward one another until finally, they met in the middle. Now I mostly drive right by, too intent on the road to glance out the side window.
It’s a good feeling when you know where you’re going each day. I know who makes the best pizza and the best Szechuan green beans. I’ve mastered the art of gasping “Tai gui le!” at Yashow. I have a favorite pearl lady and a favorite route to the hospital. I have friends I can meet for lunch. I’ve learned just enough Chinese to find my way into and out of trouble.
But here’s the thing: My own personal countdown clock has begun ticking, and I have less than one year to go in Beijing. Eleven months seems like a lot of time, but it isn’t, not really. Just 48 weekends left to explore all of China. And there’s so much still left to do. I haven’t been to Fragrant Hills. I haven’t held a panda. I haven’t seen the place where the Wall meets the sea.
Our weekends are stacked with soccer games and birthday parties and all the other markers of family life. It feels good, this rhythm of a family moving forward week by week. It feels good to be back in my comfort zone, to know I’ve succeeded in creating a home here.
And yet: Sometimes I have to remind myself that the point of being here is to escape that zone, to see and experience things that aren’t just like home, rather than clinging to what’s comfortable.
Just 48 weeks to go. It’s time to hop out of the zone and start looking around again. Donna Scaramastra Gorman