So how long have you “done”? This question is grammatically problematic and better-suited to discussions about prison sentences, but it’s one we often find ourselves asking and being asked by other long-term expats. Whether it’s reminiscing with a friend about the good old days (when there were only 3.5 million cars in the capital) or swapping war stories about confrontations with taxi drivers, that old question is always sure to rear its ugly head.
My family and I have spent six years in Beijing. If we were to continue making penal comparisons, I would have by now committed manslaughter and been out of prison on good behavior. When we ask someone new, “So how long have you done?” it seems that the bigger the number we hear in response, the louder we gasp and the higher our eyebrows go, the grey matter behind them trying to fathom just what crime this poor soul committed to have been here for so long. Listening to expert expats speak of their time here, I’m reminded of my grandmother competing with her friends at the day center as to who was taking the most pills and paying the most visits to the
doctor that month.
My family and I will be leaving Beijing soon, however, and preparing for our exit has given me a small dose of reality. I now realize that it’s easy to look at things in a different light when the end of the tunnel is in sight. Were we to have stayed in Beijing, my landlord decided we’d be paying an additional 60 percent rent. Our imminent departure has made me stop and think about what Proust meant when he said that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
While we largely speak English at home, living in Beijing has allowed my daughters to be fluent in the world’s most defining language. My eldest reads and writes very well in both languages, while little Elin is already forming characters impressively and will be able to build on her knowledge in Hong Kong, when our next chapter begins.
More importantly, we are privileged to have been part of a vibrant international community, where we have been exposed to all kinds of ideas. I’ve said goodbye to friends whose professions ranged from the charitable to climate change and traditional Chinese medicine. The amount of expertise in this city has made being an expat a wonderful experience.
While I think that Proust was right about taking on a new perspective, I want to end this column by recognizing the impact that China has had on my life. It has helped me get rid of insomnia, opened my eyes to meditation, and given me the inspiration to start a business (www.youarerong.com). Finally, I’ve been able to do so much more and spend more quality time with my children because of Ayi, a privilege that only the most privileged can experience. My time here has enabled me to 再见 (zaijian), or literally, “again see.”
Thank you and goodbye, Beijing.
illustration by Sun Zheng.
This article originally appeared on p42 of the beijingkids July 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com