Thanks to the wonders of the webcam, I did not have to go without seeing my wife and son for the two months I spent working in the UK this summer. While part of me bemoaned the fact that “it’s not the same thing,” another side of me couldn’t help but feel a growing sense of dread at my terrible two-and-a-third-year-old on the computer screen before me. Never still, always noisy, often naughty, each week my son seemed to become more monstrous. He lacked a firm fatherly hand, his mother warned me. Or, I wondered, was he always like this? Perhaps I had just fallen out of the daddying rhythm.
During my stint in London, I promise I missed my family desperately. But I worked like a dog by day and, freed from parental responsibilities, lived the good life by night. In consolation for working unsociable hours, I set myself up in a “studio” (i.e. box) in Hampstead, home to some of the most expensive real estate this side of, well, just about anywhere. The pubs aren’t half bad either. Investigating oak-beamed stalwart offering ales with names that must have been invented after copious testing of the stock, not to mention feasting on those Great British staples – meat pie and curry – became almost hobbies. What fun it was interloping on a quiet row of affluent terrace houses with their complement of German-made sports cars parked outside, bumper to bumper. I confess: I started to appreciate the Hampstead lifestyle.
Upon returning to Beijing a fortnight ago, I was hit by how distant our spacious slice of north Beijing is from all that. It’s an apartment in Tiantongyuan where my tribe, parents-in-law included moved in my absence. The apartment is in good shape, but Tiantongyuan itself is a work in progress. For anyone missing all that raw pre-Olympic construction activity – the constant clang of building beams, rumble of heavy machinery and sheen of dust – I recommend a trip north of the Fifth Ring. When we bought our place, we had a mountain view from our main terrace. Now, we enjoy a prospect of unfinished grey hulks that will house thousands. Construction seems to start at 6am. It is a far cry from Hampstead.
As disconcerting as I found my new surroundings, the sight of my son was a subtler shock. Daniel, thankfully, turned out not to be too much naughtier than before. But, as children tend to do, he had grown bigger, more fluent in his native tongue (Mandarin), and his face had changed subtly. Yet I am pleased to say I have bonded more quickly with him than with my new corner of Beijing. When we were reunited, I was relieved that my worst fears had not come true; he wasn’t standoffish towards me, nor did he ask where Baba had been all of his life. Far from it. After a moment or two of bemused reflection, Dan stepped forward and spontaneously hugged me with a strength much greater than I remembered him possessing. He didn’t want to let go of me for a long time, nor I him.