(These photos are of my collection of face masks for polluted days)
Farewell, Beijing – the Exit of an Expat
The time had come. I woke up on an only somewhat smoggy day (good by China standards), looked around at my bare walled apartment, unplugged the air purifiers, took multiple videos of our home for my memory and future nostalgia, but mostly, for Greyson’s (my 20 month old) memory so he’ll always know where it all began…
I moved to Beijing, China on a two-year contract five years ago. I hopped on the plane in the beginning of September 2011 to start my contract teaching primary music at an international school. Upon arrival, I went to my fairly large 2-bedroom apartment. I had no introductions to anyone and was told to take the #75 bus to work the next morning. Needless to say, the English prompt on the bus was turned off and I got lost. Lost in a city with no one around me who spoke any English. I found the school… eventually. Was this experience to be the foreshadowing of my life here in China? Still, no fear. Lots of smog, mostly no English except for the other expats, and a place called Sanlitun where Westerners frequented.
Fast forwarding, I started to realize and feel the effects of the Beijing skies. Pollution was terrible and the world was starting to hear about it. The international community at large was now beginning to slightly understand what living “Under the Dome” might be like, look like, smell like. How could I raise Greyson in a place where I can’t open the windows? When the AQI (air quality index) was the only phone app I checked every day. Expats cruised around the city wearing masks. They were an almost daily part of our attire, of our existence here. I was constantly checking the apartment’s air quality with my special in-home air monitor. Debating whether or not I should tape the windows so that the lung infiltrating pieces of PM 2.5 (fine particulate matter) would have a slimmer chance of secretly seeping indoors. A world where there were, at times, 7-12 days where Greyson never saw the other side of the door.
Was it sometimes crazy being in a place where taxis had no seatbelts- how was I to get Greyson around? To my utter horror and disbelief, expat friends suggested I simply put him on my lap. These were normal, first world friends suggesting such insanity. This was not the time or an instance in which to adopt the “when in Rome” philosophy. I was not immersing in this way. No, ma’am. The roads were crazy, tuk-tuk fumes gave me headaches, albeit a far quicker ride than a taxi on most occasions, no one spoke my language, and the fact that day-to-day logic felt absent in this world, as it wasn’t my own. So, yes. Often times, it was crazy and frustrating. Many other expat friends I knew in Beijing felt the same and have since left. Though, there are friends I have that I believe may be Beijing ‘lifers.’ I admire this. I know not of what they are made. I find this to be a very impressive feat, and in a way, I envy them for this.
If it seems as though I did not enjoy Beijing, I truly did – just in other ways. I loved the experience of being in a completely different environment than I had previously known. Everything from epic travel adventures to a greater cultural understanding and appreciation has been gained. Greyson has been raised bilingually and is now, here in the US, in a Chinese immersion daycare and his life will be forever changed. I made so many wonderful friends from all over the world, and came back to the states with an appreciation for my country that I otherwise never would have had. I see and feel everything so differently right now. I am sure this will wane with time, however, I will do my best to remind myself of the basic freedoms I have here – clean potable water, healthy and breathable air, safe roads, law enforcement: efficiency and effectiveness. I now possess an internal sense of calm and happiness being home. I feel so lucky, so grateful, and so at peace. “I never would have found it if it weren’t for you.” Thank you, Beijing. “I think I’ll miss you most of all.”
-Your most grateful expat