Not all those who wander in Beijing are lost. From Boingboing.net
“Not all those who wander are lost.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
In this city of officially 20 something million and unofficially 30+ million people it is easy to get lost, but not in the way I would have expected. The street plan in Beijing is actually quite straightforward. The six (and counting) ring roads encircle the city, and at the end of small streets there is usually a major street crossing east –west or north- south, direction indicated on the street signs. Even in the narrowest hutongs it is easy to return to a main artery. And yet, on the way to appointments in unfamiliar places I often feel lost rather than am really lost.
It’s the distance that does it. Countless times I’ve wandered the streets of this city looking for a restaurant or landmark where to meet a new found friend. Armed with the exit information of the metro, the Beijing taxi app or a map I set out for the meeting place. After ten minutes of brisk walking I start wondering whether I’ve missed it. Surely it wasn’t that far? I stop to consult directions, which are inconclusive. I suppress the urge to call the friend. I continue walking for another few hundred meters and arrive at my destination. No, in the end I was not lost. Not really anyway.
Feeling lost doesn’t have to do with directions. I’ve felt lost in places that I’ve been to often, felt lost at a friend’s party and felt lost for words when a Beijing friend shared her grief about her mother dying back in her homeland. Sometimes I feel I will drown in a sea of Chinese people, sometimes that sea makes me feel safe, sticking out with my white face and blonde hair. Initially I felt it had to do with a lack of control as in I like to be in control of the situation. But its more, it’s another c word, connecting. Connecting to people more than places. When I’m happy in China, I feel connected to all the black haired Zhongguo ren around me. But when I need a break, I’m a little vessel drifting without anchor in the Gulf of Bohai.
Every two months or so a warning sign goes off in my head, when I find myself thinking or muttering “bad expat speak.” In my book “bad expat speak” only focuses on the negative sides of China, the air pollution and the spitting, the staring and the food scandals. The clichés in other words. In that mood I have the urge to tell people to get lost, shout at waiters, or break down in tears of frustration when lost in translation with a worker.
There’s so much more to living here, blue sky days and autumn leaves, having a holiday feeling on a walk in a hutong and the discovery of tasty Chinese dishes. When I find myself in a BES mood, I know its time to get away from Beijing for a bit. Sometimes a walk near the Great Wall is enough to restart my China appreciation, sometimes a weekend getaway does the trick. And once or twice a year, in the heart of cold smoggy winter or the height of hot smoggy summer, only a few weeks away help to get back on track. Getting lost is part of life, and the detours can make you discover treasures. Just stop and check the map or ask the way, do not continue racing down Negativity Express Way.