Ten years ago, armed with a generous free baggage allowance, I packed everything I thought I would need over the next 12 months into two large suitcases. I was on my way to China.
It was two weeks before Christmas, but temperatures were still mild in North Carolina for the late fall. I had just celebrated my mom’s 56th birthday, said goodbye to friends, and was spending one final night with my boyfriend. We broke up. It wasn’t that sad. By the time I had made it across the country to see my sister on a layover, I was already looking forward.
People in developed countries like to take gap years between high school and college; I, always the late bloomer, was taking one between college and getting a real job. I had spent the summer falling in love with expat life in Beijing, high from adventures in folly with my fellow American interns and newfound Chinese friends. (The latter, also wide-eyed fresh graduates, would go on to become my pillars as I navigated my twenties in this new world.) I was thrilled by people’s ready openness and obsessed with the contrasts to home. Home, to me, was a small city in the South. Despite being born there, I was the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Home meant being a native foreigner.
Beijing, on the other hand, had just made its grand debut to the world stage a year earlier at the 2008 Summer Olympics. It was the bustling North Capital. It was 22 million inhabitants pulsing with energy and potential. When I arrived, on a dark, late Monday evening, it was settling into what would be the coldest winter in 60 years. And yet, through all the contrasts to home, I felt viscerally connected to the people, the culture, the way of life.
I was a foreign native.
People always ask me what I like about Beijing, but I never know how to respond. Aside from Chinese food, the areas where Beijing excels are kind of terrible. The sheer size of the population means you are not only battling the usual city chaos, but a compounded version of it. The architecture is a hideous mixture of Soviet-style utilitarianism and futuristic modernism. On top of that, there is extreme smog (2012-2013 really was the worst), unruly traffic, and hardly any grass that can be sat on. It’s an astonishingly gray and dusty place.
Oh, but Beijing is where I came into being. Growing up, I always felt either too Chinese (around white Americans) or not Chinese enough (around Chinese Americans). I never expected to feel in Beijing the sense of belonging I so craved as a child, but looking back, it makes a lot of sense that it did. Beijing gave me the courage and space to be Chinese, as well as an easy way to channel any feelings of being an outsider, since I always will be one here.
I didn’t mean to give Beijing 10 years of my life, but I made friends. I found a good job. I traveled. I pursued old and new passions. I learned to speak up for myself. I met a boy (we also broke up; it was much sadder this time). In other words, I somehow—through all the bureaucracy, language barriers, and my own naïveté—built a life that was all mine, something I never even knew I could have. And it was a really good one.
Ten years may pass in the blink of an eye, but my things no longer fit in two large suitcases. I will miss my friends here dearly, as I miss the ones who have already left. I will remember the lessons I’ve learned and hold close all the memories I made. And I will look forward to the next time I can come back, as I do to my next trip home.