After nearly 4 weeks away I am back in Beijing and so glad to be home. I got back a day later than planned because I misread my ticket (sigh), missed my flight and had to take the next day’s flight instead. I hate making such stupid mistakes but this one turned out to be a good thing – it created space for some really good and important time with my best friend that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
It was a strange goodbye, when she dropped me off at the airport yesterday. A few times in our 8+ years of friendship we’ve said goodbye not knowing when we would next see each other (rather common in expat life), but before now we were both in Asia, and both planning to be around long term. This time, though, it’s different. In a year’s time (assuming things go to “plan”) Christina will be in the US and I will be in Australia, both studying in our respective passport countries for a few years. So while I feel a peaceful certainty that we will see each other again, somewhere, sometime, I have no idea when or where that might be. I don’t even know what continent it might be. It’s been such a blessing to do ministry together (in two countries) and I’ve learned so much from her. I know this is an enduring friendship, even if we don’t know what the next season will look like.
Especially given that strangeness in leaving Cambodia, it was so nice to come back to Beijing. Flying into Beijing is comforting for me – it really is a homecoming. This is the place I am most settled, the place I chose to settle in.
The flights had ordinary annoyances – the girl in front who lowered her seat halfway to my lap for almost the whole flight and then got grumpy if I shifted at all, as my knees, buried in the back of her chair, nudged her; the person behind me who insisted in putting all their weight on my chair whenever they got up or sat down (which seemed to be fairly frequently) thereby rocking me back and forward quite violently; the guy next to me spitting all over my arm whenever he talked to the flight attendant… But there were fun little moments, too. That same guy, and his friend next to him, were enthralled by the movie playing – Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters. They oohed and aahed over most of the mythical creatures and a lot of the supernatural action. It was like being next to 7 year olds in 47 year old bodies, which was kinda sweet. (Supernatural creatures and powers are fairly common themes in Asian movies made for adults so it shouldn’t be surprising, but this being a teen movie made it more endearing to me).
I also loved that the flight attendants didn’t even blink when I spoke Mandarin. It was lovely to slip back into speaking Mandarin without a second thought, knowing that this language is now enough a part of me that there is no mental “gear change” required, even when I haven’t spoken it for a few weeks. Actually, dealing with an airline rep in Cambodia I spoke entirely in Mandarin, too. I’m not sure why she asked if I could speak Mandarin (maybe I pronounced “Beijing” with a Mandarin accent? Several times during this trip people laughed at my doing that in English) but once she asked and I said I could I don’t think she spoke another word of English to me!
An interesting surprise upon leaving the airport in was that I could SMELL the air! It didn’t last long but in those first few minutes it was distinctive – almost welcoming, sad as that is. I know that the Beijing air has a not entirely pleasant odor to it, but since I live in it I don’t notice it most of the time. On my second trip to Australia after moving to Beijing, having been here 3 years at that point, my Mum pointed out that all my clothes smelled like smoke. I couldn’t smell it. She brought other people to smell my wet laundry and everyone but me could smell it. Anyway, this time I could smell the air as I arrived. As I wrote on facebook, “It smells like carcinogens and home.” That pretty much sums it up – a distinctive smoggy scent that is instantly familiar.
It was my first “return” to this apartment after such a long time away, and I honestly took a second to remember what FLOOR I’m on here! (It’s the 5th, in case you were wondering.) I put on my Christmas tree lights because, well, I might as well enjoy them a little before packing them all up for the last time – the tree and decorations won’t come with me when I leave China. Some of my potplants are looking a little worse for wear. I’d had a conversation with my ayi (house helper) about how to look after them, but one in particular looks mostly dead.
My first night back was full of small enjoyments. The scent of eucalyptus from the dried arrangement in my bedroom was wonderful – it’s light enough I don’t notice it often, just when I’ve been away for a while. I filed away familiar sounds – dropped and moved items in the apartment above, somehow both muted and amplified through a layer of concrete; occasional bursts of fireworks; the rumbling of trucks on late night runs. I luxuriated in my own bed, in cool air, piled with fluffy doonas. Ohhh there’s nothing like the first night back in one’s own bed after an extended time away! And after a long night in my own bed, I am ready to face the world. Which is good, because it’s going to be a VERY busy week. But rest assured I will find time for a little writing sometime soon, to share stories from the past month of travels…