Seeing Double

Part of the process of moving to a new place is packing up your belongings for your new life.  How do you decide what to take?  Will I need this skirt?  How many books are enough?  Can you ever have too many shoes?  (the answer to that is no by the way – never enough, and you can never take too many with you anywhere!) Do I need ALL of my wine glasses with me?  What would I need in this new life in a new place?  What would I want to have with me to remind me of home and what do I leave to make room for new belongings?

For me however, this process was a little more complicated, not only was I trying to decide what I’d need for China, I was also trying to figure out what I’d need for the first time I lived with someone.  My boyfriend was moving with me, I was going to live with a boy(!).  I didn’t know how to live with a boy, let alone how to pack to live with one in China!  Who’s kitchenware do we take?  Who’s books, CDs, DVDs, etc?  At that stage I still saw our belongings in two categories: mine and his.  I hadn’t fully subscribed to the doctrine of ‘ours’.  The packing process changed all of that.  His book collections tripled with the addition of my pages, and my kitchen has almost quadrupled with the addition of his culinary equipment.  We now had belongings that amounted to 78 boxes to be shipped out here.

A couple of days ago those same 78 boxes arrived to be unpacked in our new home.  Those of you that know me will know that there are few tasks I loathe more than unpacking!  Thankfully these would be unpacked by the moving company, all we had to do was arrange our possessions into their new homes.  As we placed books on shelves and clothes on their hangers we realised that as prepared as we’d tried to be, we’d been slightly amiss in how we’d imagined ourselves living out here.  Some of our London life belongings had no natural place in our Beijing life.  Sixteen wine glasses and as many champagne flutes made sense in a home where having guests happened often.  In our apartment here where our friend circle is still growing and our families are far away seems a little ridiculous.

Two days later and as I survey our worldly goods mingling with each other, becoming friends and getting acquainted with their new surroundings, I realise that’s the phase I’m still in here in Beijing.  I’m still getting acquainted with this new life where my heels live next to his trainers and my champagne flutes are jostling for space next to his martini glasses.  I still see myself with two lives and two selves: the London Me in my London Life and the Beijing Me in my Beijing Life.  I’m searching for that point where it’s just me and just life, regardless of what city I’m in.  Something tells me that’ll happen when Beijing feels like home.  And whilst it hasn’t yet, with everything now here, it’s certainly starting to.

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BubBye London, NiHau Beijing!

Summer 2013 saw me apply for, be given and accept a posting in Beijing for two years.  Until that point, for me China was a faraway almost mystical place of which I shamefully knew very little.  The opportunity to see and know more and explore was part of my motivation to accept the job.  I can never say no to a new adventure, and what could be better than two years in a country I’d never been to in a region I’ve been dying to explore?!? And so I began the preparations for what felt like a life changing move.

As the months flew by and arrangements fell into place I began to realise that I wasn’t only preparing to say hi to a new city and new experiences.  I would also be saying farewell to an amazing city and some incredible people I’m fortunate to have as my family and friends…  Was I sad? Sure, who isn’t when saying farewell… Would I miss my little world in London? Without a doubt. & will I make it in a new city with new people? Only one way to find out..!

So here I am and here are a few of my first impressions of Beijing:

  • I’ll start with the weather.  Whilst most days it’s fantastic there have been a couple of days when I’ve woken up to a hazy orange smog.  Although it’s barely perceptible when walking down the street the air is laden with microscopic sized particles which pass through the lungs into the bloodstream.  The Americans monitor the air quality whilst the Germans tests the lung function of all their staff before and after postings in Beijing, we’ve ordered gas masks from Amazon(!)

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  • Architecturally, it’s not particularly inspiring.  Many of the buildings looks like 60s tower blocks and those that don’t are identikit shining steel and glass atrocities.  It seems that much of the old Chinese architecture was swept aside in the name of progress.  That said, there are some stunning buildings – the buildings built by Chairman Mao in Tiannamen square are awe-inspiringly huge and stand as a proud and majestic reminder of China’s communist cultural revolution.  It’s interesting to contrast these with some of the more recent buildings designed by award-winning architects which are temples to consumerism and full to the brim with brands that would put Selfridges to shame.
  • Beijing is huge.  Katie Melua can’t have been too far wrong when she said there were 9 million bicycles in Beijing.  As a city of 20 million, there are people everywhere but many seem to have given up their bikes in favour of scooters and cars.  The traffic is a killer (literally – crossing the road sometimes takes nerves of steel and a good dose of sheer luck).
  • The middle class is big, and it’s rich.  I don’t know what I was expecting but there’s no hiding the fact that China is the world’s second largest economy.  It seems that everywhere you go within our district (home to 8 million) there are hoards of young Chinese decked out to the nines dropping big money on meals, designer clothes and stretched versions of premium cars – many built that way especially for the Chinese market.
  • There’s significant disparity between rich and poor.  It’s safe to say that those families higher up the party leadership chain are the wealthiest – the rich are powerful and the powerful are rich but the average salary is still just over £500 a month.
  • Beijing isn’t even slightly multi-ethnic.  The Han Chinese are the ethnic majority in both Beijing and China as a whole and their superiority is somewhat of an accepted ‘fact’ in certain circles.  As well as the Han being officially encouraged to settle in the outer Chinese regions to more widely distribute their genes there is some positive discrimination in favour of minority Chinese from outer provinces so that they may ‘better’ themselves.  Like India, the supermarket shelves are stuffed with face whitening products (think bleach in face moisturiser) and whilst most people are overwhelmingly friendly and go out of their way to help, there’s no disputing the number of stares you get just walking down the street.
  • Having said that I can’t help but people watch.  The style and fashion you see at every turn is as exciting as it is inspiring.  Fashion really is a form of self expression here in a way I’ve not encountered in many other cities.  There’s no specific trend per se, and whilst each look is peppered with pieces from the new season the way it’s put together is unique.  And it’s not just the women I’m talking about.  There are some seriously stylish men in this town that could have walked off the runway at London Fashion Week.
  • The food is incredible! I don’t think I could muster enough adjectives for what my senses have encountered so far.  The colours, the choice, the fragrance,the flavour; simply mind-blowing! Whether you crave Michelin starred couture cuisine or simple fast street food, Beijing has it all. And at a price that renders many kitchens in this city derelict.  However as I’m a believer of kitchen therapy mine shall not be one of them.  Whilst I’d like to say I’ve eaten out and cooked in equal measure, the truth is with so much to try and my kitchenware still in transit to Beijing, so far my kitchen time has been minimal.  But the markets and food stalls have inspired me and I can’t wait to get cooking!

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  • English isn’t widely spoken and Mandarin is hard.  I’m really anxious to get begin Mandarin classes started so that I can say more than the very basics.  Currently I can say hello, thank you and order a drink (barely!).  This city will never make me it’s own if I can’t speak its language.  For now I feel reduced to watching it from the sidelines and not quite belonging.  My priority is to get some language skills and get involved – ASAP!