“The last time we’ll ever eat here,” you’ll say. The last time you’ll meet these particular people. Run this particular course, walk down this particular corridor, drink this coffee.
“The last time” is a phrase every expatriate is familiar with. You know you’ll be using it one day, just as others in your position already have. But knowing that doesn’t soften the blow when the time finally comes.
It is time to leave Beijing.
Expat life is a paradox, you might think, like the answer to the riddle posed to Yudhishthira. We all know that we will leave that foreign place one day. Yet few (if any) of us have the mindfulness or the awareness to fully inhabit our meagre time there. The quotidian overtakes our daily lives to the exclusion of celebrating what lies outside our walls.
Indeed, finding a daily rhythm is essential when you first arrive, otherwise you’d drown from being unmoored. So the newcomer finds a man who supplies atta and basmati rice. He watches old movies from his place of origin; he seeks out familiar accents; he forages for bits of “home” with which to line his hearth in a different land.
In time he is finally at home and the world he now lives in is not “new” anymore and he treats it with the hard-won indifference that is the real mark of arrival. Which “local” looks around herself with wonder, after all. She knows it because she lives there. It is hers, and that is enough.
Then it is time for the visitor to go, and the land outside is still unclaimed.
“How’s your packing coming?”
This is the query you’ll hear the most as you count down to departure. Remember to leave your junk behind, you’re cautioned. As if anyone ever really has a handle on that vicious process of letting go. Yet even this ruthless stock-taking is comforting, for it gives you time to process the real weight of everything you’re now looking at. Forget the pictures and the new curios. Of course you’re taking those. Everything you own is a catalogue of your memories when you actually have to decide whether you keep it, or leave it behind.
The shoes your child has outgrown — sporting or casual to begin with, then the first hesitant steps into “formal”. You’ve never thrown them out, but now you have to make room. The shirts that mark his triumphant procession — music ensembles, various teams, class names: all of them freighted with places visited, aims achieved, friends made: Surely they must come with you? The bed that you bought online for your ageing dog — is the mattress too tatty now for the new place that awaits you ?
This is another city your old friend didn’t die in, you think as you scratch behind his ear. Where will he finally have his grave?
It isn’t all morbidity and memento mori . “Make a bucket list,” you’re told, as soon as friends know you’re leaving. There will always be things you really wanted to do, but never got around to. That is the nature of living somewhere. You take it for granted. A one-way plane ticket out will serve to jolt you out of that complacency.
This is the fun part of your exit strategy. Places you wanted to visit, things you wanted to eat, people you wanted to share those events with: These are the signposts that you’ll mark your sojourn by, in your own head and on social media, which is of course just as important.
Yet even this is flawed, for it assumes that this place you’ve made your home can be “done” in these few steps. So many visits to the Great Wall; so many roast ducks consumed and operas enjoyed; so many cocktails and craft beers downed in hip hutong bars. As if a life in Beijing (indeed anywhere) is reducible to a cataloguing of its built history and restaurants and entertainment venues.
It is handy and fun, and if it serves to make sense of what will otherwise continue to bewilder you, why not? But it won’t capture the entirety of your experience there.
Have a bucket list, by all means. Make those “grammable” memories that you’ll be dining out on in years to come. But treat the list as entertainment.
Because the real issue with departure isn’t what you’re taking with you. It is coming to terms with what you’re leaving behind.
I’ll miss where I’ve lived and the friends we’ve made. Their children’s handprints are on my house too. I’ll miss our ayi, who has done more than anyone else to make us feel at home.
I’ll miss our fruit lady and the grocers, the baristas and drivers and bartenders; indeed, all the men and women who’ve illumined my days and nights in Beijing. I wish I knew all their names, but the truth is the eco-system that sustains me is larger than my friends’ list.
In this connected age, we can reasonably hope to keep in touch with all our friends. But the ones who won’t come visit in the next place; the ones whose names I don’t know and who I will probably be seeing for the last time — Thank you. For everything.
Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lived in Beijing for three years; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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