How Beijing Gave Me An Iron Heart
I may have left my heart in San Francisco, but Beijing equipped me with a brand new one – made of iron.
When I returned from my year-turned 6-month relocation to Beijing, people often asked me to choose and describe my favorite part of the experience. It’s such a completely expected and usual question, but I still found myself fumbling with how to answer. Filing through memories and experiences, and then bundling months of perspective into a single statement felt overwhelming. Faced with the question, it seemed I could do nothing more than shake my head, mouth gaping — I was speechless, and I was stumped.
Initially, I considered the usual suspects: food, culture and activity. Memory after memory, I shuffled, trying to pinpoint the winner. But it wasn’t the steaming bamboo trays of jiaozi, though they were truly amazing. Once I spent nine hours in a moon-themed KTV room singing karaoke– that, too, was incredible but still not my favorite. Even waking up early to dance in the park with elderly locals in prime physical condition — one of my favorite activities – wasn’t the one. All were things I loved and missed about the city, yet when asked to pick, it became obvious that my most treasured experience in the journey couldn’t be narrowed to a single moment. And with that realization also came the real understanding that my experiences in Beijing as a whole had given me something extremely unexpected to take home. It came down to something else, something more transformative. So prompted with the question now, I finally found my answer.
The best thing I took from my time in Beijing was the calcification of my heart.
I know. It sounds dramatic. But what’s become more important to me is that I say it with complete sincerity. Before my move, I was sorely in need of some character strengthening. I had already managed to develop from a push-over to a passive-aggressor, but I still hankered for that kind of authentic personal hardiness I seemed to miss—the kind that was based on self-confidence, a sense of direction and voice. The kind, I would bet, most fortunate travelers in their early 20’s are trying to tap into. My time in China offered the necessary catalyst.
Beijing, as an imagined whole, made me cry at least once every two days for the first three months.
Not just a single tear or two, but the fall on the bed kind of sobbing. Ugly, pity-inducing emotion. Even as I woke with the greatest of intentions, a day in the city often found a way to defeat my optimism. It was moving on an unfamiliar current, and I found it nearly impossible to find my footing on the ever shifting bedrock. Most days involved elbowing, or line-cutting or yelling. I was called fat. I was called stupid. I was called oh so many things, with straight-faced earnestness. At the time, it felt crushing, but after months in the city, I finally began to realize that, for the most part, the things I mistook as aggression weren’t constructed on meanness. When I felt affronted, it was caused by my own inflexibility as a traveler, or visitor. Even if I wanted to slip quietly into the life of a local, I came to realize that to accustom myself to Beijing, I was going to have to push back.
I tried to sum Beijing up into a simile once. “Beijing is like a dive-bar”, I wrote to my family in an e-mail. “It’s dirty. It’s polluted, and smokey. There will be leers in your direction, and potentially spit. And to get served, prepare to be challenged by the locals. That being said, once you’re in…you’re in.”
All in all, it wasn’t a bad way to describe some of the feelings I had during my stay there. I see the point I was trying to make. But what eventually became more evident to me by the end of my stay was the fact that there was no real way to “sum up” my experience so simply.
The city was full of contradictions, just as anywhere else in this world, familiar or otherwise.
Finding a balance between them, in accordance with my own set of history and values was something that took time, struggle and an exorbitant amount of patience on both sides. People loved me for no apparent reason, and hated me for no apparent reason. When it was a blue sky day, it was the most astonishing and beautiful city, and equally as astonishing in its polluted ugliness. Public expulsion of saliva and mucus was commonplace, yet there was a definite disgust for the presumed unsanitariness of a Western-Style toilet. For every single thing I struggled to understand about the culture I was newly introduced to, there was an equal feeling of confidence in the construction and people.
Many foreigners living in Beijing I met talked about their initial distaste for the city citing horrible pollution or the overcrowded roads and subways. But when asked how long they had lived there, they would give answers anywhere from five to ten years on. Beijing is a captivating, unique place, and despite the challenge, I already feel that sweetly painful pit of nostalgia in my stomach after three months back home. As a relatively short-term resident, I would never presume to say I even come close to truly understanding what it means to be a Beijinger. But it remains true– regardless of the unique pulse I found beating within Beijing, what I managed to uncover continues to resonate outside the city. What I mistook at first for unkindness in a city that ‘made’ me cry, I appreciate now as a fast-paced introduction to an awe-inspiring and complicated locale. It was difficult, and painful, but it was also, entirely necessary.
Once, caught walking in a rainfall of either epic proportions or merely Beijing standards, depending on who you asked, I walked over, already soaked, to a bus platform. The woman who flags down the public buses wore an orange rain jacket. She had a whistle in her mouth and an umbrella. When after thirty minutes, no buses came, I decided to brave the twenty minute walk home in the rain. Just as I turned to walk away, I felt a sharp prod on my back, not altogether painless. Irritated, I looked around ready to sling off yet another glare. But then, I realized the offender was the bus warden. Arm lifted, she was holding her umbrella, pushing it at me with force. When I understood what she was offering, I communicated with my hands and a couple of broken words that I was fine, already wet, I couldn’t take it from her. She became more aggressive in her offer, and finally, seeing I wouldn’t convince her any other way, I accepted her generosity. Still unsmiling, she said something in Mandarin. I opened the umbrella and put it over my head, as she nodded and waved me away. It was the nicest thing a stranger has ever done for me before, and I still remember the look on her face as she presented me with cover from the rainfall. It was unabashedly tender in its stoniness – her expression held no pretense and also no expectation of a return. She was simply being kind, in a way I hadn’t encountered before.
Beijing acted in much the same way. I came to recognize its compassion, but only after realize that its callousness was nothing more than my own perception.
My experience there gave me a stronger appreciation for the value of difficulty. The moments where I felt utterly, and entirely broken were more than a few, but I would and should be faulted if I didn’t find it to be the most valuable, genuine kind of welcome I could have received. Beijing may have knocked me down, but time and time again, it guided me up again to a sturdier erectness. It did as any good teacher would –it instilled confidence, self-assuredness, and importantly, a bit of that hardened heart that is essential in recognizing the value of tough love.