Two and a half years after I first arrived in Beijing, I set off with the sun, heading far from the city that has become home. Its vastness stretches out farther than I can see, a dirty window I can hardly see out of fails to diminish the lights that can make your heart skip the slightest beat: The big city. The big smog. The Jing. Whatever you want to call it; the biggest and best cities go by many names.
How strange and how foreign, I first thought when I entered the capital with its strangely shaped skyscrapers and pushy people. That sense that you could be anyone you wanted. You wanted to know everyone but no one knew you; the perfect equation for the empowered anonymity that a city brings. You could change your name and no one would ask twice. Years later some people I see all the time still don’t know my first name. Introduce yourself by a nickname and no one has reason to ask more.
I fell in love with Beijing’s chaos immediately. Its noise was overwhelming, its impatience exciting, its stubbornness rousing, and demanding of a reaction. Beijing makes you angrier than you knew you could be, louder than you thought you knew how. It had a way of knocking you off your feet and just when you were ready to surrender, one of its quirks would cajole you enough to suggest that surely, Beijing was just teasing, and of course you should stay. You feel a bit silly for getting all upset – you were meant to be here.
Quite soon you’re adding as many Beijingren bragging rights as you can, boasting of how you don’t care if the toilet has doors or not, and just look how unfazed you are by the mess and mayhem that constantly surrounds you. You’re part of the city now. It has changed you, it has consumed you, and you are part of the chaos that makes it so wonderful.
It’s only when you leave that you realise Beijing, still shining away from your increasing distance, will continue to exist, to breathe, to charm and to infuriate just fine without you.
All you can really hope for is that of all the stories the changing streets and its people remember, retell, and have already started to forget – perhaps one of them might be yours.