Stranger in a Familiar Land


The things I remember about Beijing are innumerable, and their collective usefulness is roughly nil; things that wouldn’t even be worth putting in a guidebook, or sharing with someone about to travel here and looking for tips and recommendations.

I remember, for example, the smells.  On the street, that particular acrid smell that I’ve never been able to figure out the source of–either pollution or cement dust.  But also on the street, the sweet, strong smell of fruit at night as the vendors all come out on their bright carts–the people with their fried noodles and stinky tofu and liang pi and mangoes, apples, cherries, pears, watermelon…  There’s also a particular, indescribable smell that grocery stores have here.  I couldn’t even begin to say what it is, other than, “Chinese grocery store” smell, but it’s immediately recognizable even before the store itself comes into view.

I remember also the particular dexterity required to cross a street, because your opportunity to do so and the green walk signal have a low chance of occurring at the same time.

I remember that a Magnum ice cream bar is 8 yuan and anyone who sells it for more than that is kidding themselves.

And I remember particular moments that are barely worth recounting–while walking down the street yesterday somewhere between Jingshan Park and the Drum Bell Tower, I passed a convenience store where I once bought an aforementioned Magnum and ate it in the dusty alley below Andingmen Dajie.  In the park earlier, I heard a saxophone and accordion playing one of those old patriotic American songs–not the national anthem, but one of those–and I remembered a time almost three years ago to the day that I passed that exact spot and heard a saxophone player playing that exact song.

I remember reading Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, by Mo Yan, while riding the same bus I rode today through the same neighborhood.  This time I was reading The Woman in the Dunes, and both times I chose that particular book because a particular girl recommended it.

And this, too, I remember: that in the spring here roses bloom everywhere; effusive sproutings of color in places where you hadn’t even noticed plants growing before.

IMG_4962The night I left, I was talking to someone about how we so often tie identity to work–we find worth and self-definition in our jobs.  Which has always raised the issue, for me, that if we take away our jobs then who are we?  If we don’t have a set number of tasks to do everyday for some bigger goal; if we were to isolate ourselves from everyday rituals and habits, who would we be?

Similarly, I wonder if there are versions of us that exist that are place-specific.  This is the me in Chicago, this is the me in Tokyo, in Beijing.  I want to say there’s an objective version of ourselves that exists no matter how many times we change jobs or addresses, but I have no evidence of that.


Because the past day and a half, I’ve had a strange feeling being in Beijing.  At first I thought it was a lack of sleep, but it’s not (only) that.

There are so many things about Beijing that I remember.  It remains familiar enough that, with a quick glance at a map in the morning, I’ve been wandering freely jumping on and off of busses and subways just like I used to.

Beijing hasn’t become strange to me.  I’ve become the stranger.

I’ve been moving around for the past 6 or so years, but I haven’t had the opportunity to go back to the same place twice.  Certainly not after changing so radically that if I bumped into my past self on the street I wouldn’t recognize myself.

I thought about that today, in fact.  Sitting on top of Jingshan Park, where I always used to sit, if I could bridge time like I’ve bridged distance and sit next to myself looking out over the city, what would I say?

IMG_4960I wouldn’t even know where to start.  To say even one word would require so much backstory, I’d give away all the future without even realizing it.

Some part of me is still the same as I was then, or so I think to myself intellectually, but emotionally speaking I don’t believe that at all.  The me who used to live here might as well be someone I saw in a movie.  I don’t believe these feet carried me up the escalators of the Wangfujing Bookstore three years ago, and I don’t believe that this hand ever paid for vegetables beneath the subway line leading into Wudaokou station.


What does it mean to go to a place you are familiar with and love and feel like you’re going for the first time?

It’s like one of those dreams where you’re back in your childhood home but it’s the you of the present, the semi-adult you, who’s there.  I’ve never had those kinds of dreams, but I imagine this is what it feels like.

In my mind, I’m casting around for something familiar to anchor myself here, to remind me of who I am.  I retrace my steps to how I got here to ensure that it’s not a dream–first I was in the office, my Japanese office, where I have my desk with its little plant and all the strange little papers amassed over a year from my old desk neighbor.  (I saw a photo of cherry blossoms today and tried to remember what it sounded like when someone called my name in Japanese, what the sunlight looked like in that moment.)  I was in my apartment, which is filled with art and photography pinned to the walls, and books and massive stacks of film negatives.  All of my clothes.  Then I was at dinner, and I had that out of breath feeling like catching a dodgeball unexpectedly, feeling the impact in your chest.


But trying to remember myself through my job and my relationships in Tokyo brings me back to the same problem.  Do I only exist when I have someone to call my name in the morning before I go to class and tell me my sweater is on inside-out?

I worked so hard to reinvent myself that now I’m afraid I’ve erased everything that came before.  And as a result, to go back to the place where that past self existed, it’s deja vu and it’s cognitive dissonance.

And this whole time I ask myself–why can’t I come on vacation and enjoy the Temple of Heaven like every other goddamn person?



One thought on “Stranger in a Familiar Land

  1. jay says:

    lmao – brilliant ending. Sorry to say, the curse has been passed on. But I have never been able to articulate what the curse is. You can. No . . . I think we are what we are. Maybe subtle shades show in different locales. You’re just finding who you are. Enjoy the Temple. And enjoy becoming “you”.


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