This past month, I was involved in the Bookworm Literary Festival. The Bookworm is Beijing’s oldest English language bookshop. Originally set up as a lending library, it grew into a pillar of the local expatriate scene (and increasingly, English-speaking locals), selling books, beverages, food and, most importantly, a sense of community. It has events set up practically every day, from stand-up comedy to poetry in translation, and hosts the occasional lost tourist just as graciously as it does groups who already know where they’d like to sit.
It also has the literary festival. Last year I was a volunteer. This year, I got to sit facing the audience. At one of my sessions, the audience was full of people I knew, friends I’ve made here who’d found the time to come and watch me vapour on in the manner of a man who has been given a microphone and not been set a time limit.
More than my being a participant, what mattered is that my community turned out to mark the occasion.
The idea of community is an interesting one when you’re abroad. (I speak only of voluntary migrants, it should be noted.) A certain sort of expatriate can’t do without it. Depending on your provenance — “Irish” bars, rugby leagues, Kishore Kumar nights in friends’ basements. Community here is another word for what is familiar. In certain places — Singapore, for example — so perfectly is this “familiarity” embedded that it is a selling point. “You’ll feel so at home,” say the recruiters, “it is as if you weren’t away.”
Other migrants are more adaptable. Indeed, they seek out what is different. Beijing is perfectly suited for this sort of wanderer, for it makes such little effort to bend towards your comfort level. Of course, English is more widely spoken now, and various apps provide services — ride hailing, food delivery, utility payments — that would have tested marriages even five years ago.
On the street, the city’s native friendliness ensures that a smile and a measure of patience will be all you need to get by.
But Beijing is still a very Chinese city, designed around its local inhabitants who already know its ways. Complaints about this will be met mostly with surprise. Why, they could say, is that an issue? This is the way it should be. Why should an expatriate, drunk on his entitlement, feel that a foreign city lay out the red carpet for him? The boilerplate whining of a certain sort of foreigner would do your head in, if you let them actually speak to you before you edged down the bar. Why should I laugh at a local’s English, for example, when I know my Chinese is many times worse? And why should housing be less expensive here? Go back to the UK, if you want value. Brexit is taking care of that.
China is transitioning at dizzying speed, to a place that doesn’t really need foreign talent outside of certain sectors. There is already an exodus of a certain sort of “foreign expert”, the type on hardship allowance, complaining bitterly about the conditions while banking the entirety of her paycheque because every last expense is paid.
It won’t be long, you feel, before the only sort of expat you meet will be the kind of person who wants to be here for China itself; warts and all, loud and proud.
I belong to a cricket club in Beijing. I’ve listened to people singing old Hindi songs and I’ve been in the sangat when the local Sikhs gather. These are things I knew from before, and will carry to the next place my family alights.
What I didn’t know, and will seek out in the future — I’ve listened to people read their fiction and share their thoughts in writing circles. I belong to numerous social media groups that are characterised by energy; whose sense of community, in fact, is no less vital even if it is digital. (In-app translation actually helps you build bridges to people you otherwise would only be smiling at.) I’ve joined pub quiz teams!
To search for community needn’t be limiting, a quest for people who are exactly like oneself. Even when you seek out a space where you can complain without being judged, perhaps all you need is a booster shot before you go again into that new world outside.
Communities help us make sense of the new place. Perhaps, in a way I only dimly understand, even now, they give us the hope that our footsteps will be registered there, even if it is only in constantly shifting sand.
If nobody remembers my passage, asks the traveller, was I ever really there?
One of the Beijing Bookworm’s thoughtful gestures is to hang pictures of visiting authors on its walls. Some of them are known to me. My portrait isn’t up yet, though I’m considering lobbying for it.
I’d like to think this literary sarai will endure as a staging post for people like myself — writers, readers, seekers of fellowship over good coffee and wine. The thought that travellers to come will see my grinning face, long after I too am gone, makes me smile.
Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing
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