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Looking Back

Bye-bye Beijing


It’s not easy parting ways with a city, changing and change-inducing, where one finds more questions than answers…

These were people who had eaten bitterness and survived through dint of sheer will and endurance.

Photo: AP

The glitter of the new: High-rises at the Central Business District....

Inside the house a clutter of boxes and bubble wrap, material portents of the impending move, stare up at me accusingly. I look outside the window to escape their relentless, reminding, gaze. Willows are weeping their welcome of spring to Beijing. Little bursts of colour adorn trees that only a few weeks ago were starved of life. The long months of cold finally over, I walk around the city. Beijing! A city drenched in history, magnificent in imagination, imperfect in reality but over and above all else a city that has become home.

Parallel stories

Beijing and I, we grew up together. When I first moved here seven years ago, a (relatively) fresh-faced university graduate, to take up a post teaching English at a local university, the city had only just won the bid to host the Olympic Games in 2008. A year earlier China had joined the WTO, binding it closer than ever before to the international trading system. I found myself in an old-new city. A city with ancient, seeing eyes but with a youthful soul; a city imbued with energy and beginnings. Aged streets were spitting up new buildings at a vertiginous pace as Beijing went shopping for new clothes to dress up in for the Olympics. And not since the Tang dynasty had a Chinese capital exerted such a magnetic pull for foreigners of every hue. Columbian doctors, Bulgarian singers, Indian yoga teachers were only some of those who had begun to wash up in Beijing, desirous of hitching their wagon to the city’s rising star.

Old world charm

I walk through the hutongs, the narrow winding alleyways of Old Peking where I had lived for years. A gaggle of old men with gnarled faces and wide, gummy, smiles sit in a corner, smoking in companionable silence. Next to them, caged songbirds trill springtime tunes. An itinerant gold-fish seller comes cycling past on a tricycle, her gold-fish displayed in little glass jars.

I keep walking, finding myself in the pulsating, glass and chrome jungle of the Central Business District (CBD). This is a frighteningly modern creature inhabited by yuppies glued to blackberries and a tsunami of haute couture stores. When I had first moved to Beijing, the CBD had been but a drawing on a city planner’s draft board. Beijing had changed. But then so had I. This was the city where I married my long-term boyfriend; where our bonny boy, Ishaan, was born and where I built up a career as a foreign correspondent.

I had arrived in China at a point in its history when a series of dualities, tradition and modernity, control and chaos, were in particularly sharp relief. I spent the next several years in an attempt to map this country in transition, travelling from booming Zhejiang to troubled Tibet, interviewing monks and medics, scholars and government officials. Through the pages of The Hindu I tried to bring alive to an Indian audience a sense of the awesome changes and churnings of modern China. It was a formidable task and one with profound consequences for me as an individual.

Instead of answers I only found more questions. What is the real nature of freedom? Can a society free to become rich but not to criticise be called free? From what source do governments gain their legitimacy? Can stability and social justice legitimately be prioritised over free speech?

Ultimately, I found myself increasingly eschewing black and white, while my fascination for the shades of grey that permeated China, grew. This was a country of oxymorons; an officially atheist country in the midst of a religious revival; a country of dynamic bottom-up resistance in a top-down system. It was a country, moreover, where every street and every contradiction was shot through with the irrepressible spirit of Chinese-ness.

This intangible, yet concrete sense of Chinese-ness lived in the language and the food and the faces of the people. These were people who had eaten bitterness and survived through dint of sheer will and endurance. These were good people who had experienced bad times but whose optimism somehow remained intact. These were a people at once proud and practical, clannish, yet welcoming.

I continue my walk, past the imposing vastness of Tiananmen Square and the improbable oval-ness of the new National Theatre next door. I feel a dull ache. Children flying dragon kites high into the bright white sky; a migrant worker taking a quick nap on a mound of piled up bricks; the crimson of the lacquered doors of a courtyard house. I want to hold on to these images in my heart.

I return home. My son is waiting. He’s seven months old and only responds when spoken to in Chinese. But he’ll forget soon enough. His first real memories will be of Brussels’s stately streets to where we are headed, rather than the curving confusion of Beijing’s hutongs. It is I who, when sitting down to a bowl of moule frites, will suddenly find my mouth filled with longing for the perfection of a Sichuan peppercorn.

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