I am now a veteran of two birthdays in Beijing. What is different, what is the same?

The first time around, we were newly arrived. A birthday was a reason to go into town, seek out new places, do things together within our little unit. To plant a temporal flag, as it were, in what was also physically new — another way to enter into an alien cartography and make it recognisably our own.

We went, I remember clearly, to Beihai lake, spent time tootling about on an electric boat — they let my eight-year-old son drive! — had a few drinks and a crap pizza at an overpriced restaurant on the water. At night, a much better Japanese dinner close to us. It was simple, exhausting, just right.

This year, we have friends to fill our house with, raucous souls who like wearing my turbans and making my dog sing. Our children are welcome in each other’s spaces, our pets have learnt to tolerate each other. We borrow essentials from one other. We are part of a community.

This year, my son and his friends take turns playing the piano, a few glasses are broken, there is cake with my name on it. Rather a lot of wine disappears.

Will I remember this evening in particular? Or will it meld into many others like it, into that convivial haze that lets us know a house has become a home?

What a difference a year makes.

Now, as winter approaches, with my experience of two Septembers spent in China, I notice other things.

I can see why our helper says that I’ll have to prune back my rose bushes in a month’s time. We live in a northern city now. The botanical timetable is different, one that would be familiar only to those desis who travel abroad in the summer, or have homes in the hills. No matter how scorchingly hot this past summer got, the roses soldiered on. It isn’t the heat the blooms fear here.

But there are things to look forward to, events and tastes that I already have stored away under “Beijing”. Lamb kebabs in the winter, skating on the ice, cycling, walking and running into a breeze that blows straight down from Siberia. It doesn’t sound like fun, but it can be. It is a memory that defines a time and place, as eating a mango does when it is baking outside in north India.

My family now has a fund of these, little pins we’ve dropped on the map of this city we live in. I have a memory of my son and his friends on a sled, the three of them being swept back on the sunlit ice by the wind and them laughing hysterically, their happiness like crystals in the air. This is also in Beihai. Just, at a different time of year, this time with friends instead of only with his parents, the water under his vessel still the same, presumably, but in a different physical state. I am there both times, but now he has other people to focus on, and even as he is blown away from me, out of range of my camera as I slither along the ice to try and keep up, I know that he is making this place his own.

It is tempting to think, when you move somewhere else, that you’ll find your feet immediately. Reason tells you otherwise, but you still think that it will come easier. You’ve done it before. So what if you have a child and dog along this time? How hard could it be?

It is very hard.

Every place has its rhythm. Sometimes it’s merely a matter of being out of sync with it. We can’t put our finger on it, but we can’t work out the beat, and we think ourselves unmoored, like a bad dancer who knows he is abject but isn’t allowed off the floor.

One way to find a rhythm is to tap into other people’s experiences of it. A decade ago in north India, as I began to read the Guru Granth Sahib in a yearly cycle, I discovered anew the ‘ Barah Maha ’ compositions of both Guru Nanak and Guru Arjan Dev. They invoke the months of the lunar year as a farmer knows them, starting in spring and a warm harvest and then heat that is as if God has deserted you; then bird calls and water falling on the waiting earth; cool autumns where one feels close to one’s love; in time, freezing cold. They illustrate the yearning of the bride separated from her beloved, and are imbued with a sensual experience of the physical world.

We can’t all be farmers, naturally. Not anymore. But I can listen as the noisy diurnal cicadas of late summer give way to the quieter nocturnal crickets and I’m already waiting for the jays to colonise the ever more gaunt willows. In time the trees will be bare and then there’ll be ice. But the sakura waits around winter’s corner and there will also be magnolias, the catkins will fall like snow and finally the roses will bloom again.

I’ve seen it before, you see. It helps me make sense of what is still a very new place.

What a difference a year makes.

Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing