1. My first Chinese New Year in Beijing is the Year of the Ox. Confession: it’s my first year in Beijing - my first month, really. Confession: I don’t know anything about ox. We buy bags of Mandarin oranges, bottles of cheap liquor, and boxes of Fourth of July strength firecrackers from street vendors and head out into the night, which is skin crawlingly cold. The streets are empty of cars and bikes for once, the shops are shut tight, and old men in Mao suits and fur trapper hats light strings of explosives in the middle of Gulou Dajie. The oranges I’ve jammed into my coat pockets are frozen and I palm them nervously; a man with a dangling cigarette and a bottle of booze kneels down to investigate a possible dud, his face inches away from what could explode at any moment. Another lighter is produced, and then he suddenly runs. Boom. The smell of gunpowder in the cold air. Above us, above the Drum and Bell Towers, above the bus lines, above the all the emptiness below, there is a pop and crackle of light making shapes in the black frozen air.
2. Beijing is a city built for giants. City blocks stretch for miles, and are divided up by huge boulevards and Soviet-style four lane roads. Buildings are low and fat and wide. The Beijing-ness of Beijing is unmissable. Some cities, say Shanghai, or New York, rise up with glimmering peaks toward the clouds. Beijing holds steady, Beijing sits. Beijing does not give a mother fuck for glamour or stature. It is earthy, rooted, sprawling and crawling toward farmland, countryside, Hong Kong.
3. I am baby faced and growing out a buzz cut, I know about Free Tibet but not how to file taxes or finish college. I follow a handsome boy to France, and then Singapore, which I had to find a map first, and then to Beijing, knowing ultimately he’ll be there. Coincidence my good friend is already there; lucky she lets me live with her, sleep in her bed and absorb her circle of friends. I get lucky. One night, emboldened by a solo trip to the Great Wall and a subsequent taxi ride all over town involving what I imagined must be great, unparalleled pluck, I’lll tell this handsome boy I’m in love with him. He’ll say not much in return, he’ll say he’s not sure, he’ll say he doesn’t know. Years from now, I’lll be drinking wine alone in a different Chinese city, remembering the pain of that moment, the pain of what is true and what is right and what flows between.
4. People are impressive in Beijing. The locals, yes: the ruddy cheeks, the sturdy Mongolian frames, the salty tone of daily conversation. And the laowai: they write for the Wall Street Journal, they host their own TV shows, they are on Fullbrights writing about activism in Xinjiang or books about Beijing street food. They are no joke. I live in Shanghai now, a city that cow-tows to stacks of pink men, a city that sees only cash or looks the other way. Beijing asks, why are you here? What do you offer?
5. I come from a family of tall tale tellers. My grandpa Lowe told a lot of stories, most of them true, but with a little extra shine. Each truth came packaged inside a performance. I was a kid who spent days alone, playing imaginary games with imaginary friends, a weird kid who filled notebooks with stories and poems and tall tales. My imagination had no boundaries, and neither did I. Living behind closed doors, my back to the wall, and a stack of old mystery novels to spend the day with.
6. Beijing is closed sometimes. Life can happen in another language no matter where you’re living; here, it’s always one translation away. It will feel like the heart of it, the bloody beating Beijing center, is under a glass dome and I am clamoring up the sides and sliding down. It is city that can turn on you, in the time it takes to put a palm to a car horn or draw open a curtain at dawn, it will say to you you are not one of mine. Confession: I have probably cried more in the back of cabs, lost somewhere outside the fourth ring road and understanding nothing, than I care to admit.
I can love Beijing because I’ll never belong there. I learned from that city how to love something I don’t understand, how to love and hold and lean into the sturdiness of a thing that isn’t mine to shape or change. Beijing does not bend, it does not adapt. I do. I take comfort in that.
7. I’m the little sister of a smart girl, a girl who excelled in school, who took the smart kid bus to trigonometry class in 8th grade. I’m not saying I’m not smart; I know I am, I’m just pointing out some sisters do well in school and others don’t. What I lacked in math skills I made up for in story telling. I knew in first grade I wasn’t impressive, I learned early how to spin a tale.
I’ve always been shy, hiding behind a book or my sister’s shoulder, but in college trained myself to talk loud and often, dressed like a five year old (vintage prom dresses and sweatshirts), and tried to attract as much attention to myself as possible. I don’t know why, it felt sometimes pathological, like I would die if no body was looking at me, if nobody thought I was special. In a small college town its easy to feel unique – everyone is. But I was only acting special; shaving my head and hoping it was enough. I knew deep down I wasn’t really. I lacked most skills, and stories.
I’m tall – nearly six feet, and when my hair grew out, it stuck out like alfalfa, with an indomintable cowlick coming right out of the crown of my head. Not planning on staying long in Asia, I’d only packed a handful of clothes – mostly ill-fitting, tattered costume-esque things I’d gotten at thrift stores. I didn’t have a winter coat, and brought only two pairs of shoes. Beijing is cold in the winter – the kind of cold that turns you inside out, the kind of cold that exposes you. When I see pictures of myself that year, I see a child playing dress up, playing different parts, looking for the right fit.
7. Beijing in mid September, 2014. I’m living in Shanghai now, and I’ve been there almost 5 years. I’m in Beijing for one day and two halves another, to visit the Great Wall with a friend who’s never been. The sky was grey, the buildings were grey, the streets were grey. From Jingshan Park I looked out over the Forbidden City, cloaked in fog, and felt small. I took a Polaroid of the view, for posterity, for fun, and moments later Beijing appeared on the little square – magical, mysterious, blurry, under cover.
8. It’s work to live in Beijing. Every day there are challenges, and every night I feel so exhausted from rising or falling in the face of those challenges that all I can do is let B fold himself around me and fall asleep. But living anywhere is work. And the work is punctuated by joy, pleasure, fulfillment. In a word: love. for B, for my job, for the people stuffed next to me on the subway, for the city itself. There are times in Beijing when I feel utterly lost, like I don’t know my own name, stranded, out of place and out of sorts. In those moments I can’t see why I’m here, what I’m doing, what I could ever do here. But I have to tell myself all cities do that to a person in the beginning; that all cities break your spirit, any city can spit in your eye. When I reach up to rub it out, I have a handful of eyelashes. I make a wish on each one.