The last time I was in Beijing, it was December, wickedly cold, and busy busy busy as I helped a student prepare for an English speech competition. (By the way, he placed in the top three, not that I’m bragging *cough*beimpressed*cough*). It goes without saying that a lot of things have changed since then.
For one, Beijing.
No, the city didn’t suddenly get swallowed up by a sinkhole and transform. It’s still the cosmopolitan/traditional mishmash that it’s been for years. But now, it’s summer, which means that evenings have full streets of people slurping ice cream, buying snacks, and speaking in the very distinctive Northern accent I’m completely unaccustomed to. Not this concrete sprawl intercepted by cultural relics that I thought it was back in December.
Damn, Beijing’s huge.
“I mean, seriously huge,” I told my former classmate Ruonan, who’s from Beijing. “I thought Hangzhou was a big city, but well…yeah. Beijing’s huge.”
We walked along a gussied-up hutong area that was full of restaurants and bars, clothing designs, and lots of bikes and cars wending their ways through the people. Ruonan’s been in Decorah, Iowa, studying for a long time, and after a year of hanging out with students learning English in China, it was a jolt for me to remember that I didn’t have to explain everything I said, or shy away from Midwestern-isms.
“You can tell your students about Decorah,” she said. “It’s too small.”
“By Chinese standards, I guess.”
And we kept walking along the street. Already, Decorah feels like a faraway dream, this distant land of Make Believe where I used to run around with my friends and explore in the middle of the night when the ink-black sky felt particularly delicious. A hunk of rock, a patch of trees, a folk dance on the side streets.
In other words, nothing like Beijing.
“Oh, look! Dancing!” I said. Three women were in front of the subway entrance park dancing what Ruonan told me was a Tibetan-style dance. A woman bent and reached her arms out as if offering every last piece of her soul in a move I later learned meant “I love you.” They swirled in their skirts as harmonicas, drums, and stomping feet accompanied them.
“You should join them. I mean, why not?” Ruonan said.
Why not, indeed.
After moments twiddling away on the sidelines, I gave Ruonan my purse and started swaying in my respective corner. Immediately, the clapping got louder and the surrounding people urged me with “Yeah! Yeah!” until I was in the center with the women dancing. We wove in circles, flicked our wrists, and arched our arms in fluid (well, not for me, I guess), movements. When it was all done, we bowed, and even though I was being the dancing white monkey, we came away smiling. Ruonan grinned from behind her phone, in which I know are videos and pictures.
The last time I came to Beijing, I was worried about the kind of person I was trying to be, the kind of person I wasn’t, and the kind of person I ought to have been. I was a child lost in grey cold streets as the world told me to keep up. And I was always three steps behind. But as I said, Beijing is huge. And this time around, I’m seeing the other people. The other, fascinating, joyful, kooky, claptrap people turning up wherever there’s space.
Some places need a second glance.