Continued from last time
Before I knew it, a year in Beijing had flown past and I found myself faced with a dilemma. In the words of The Clash: “Should I stay or should I go [...] now? If I go there will be trouble, An if I stay it will be double.”
A big part of me felt compelled to stay put for I had, unexpectedly, fallen head over heels in love with the city since arriving at Capital Airport back in June 2010. Jianbing (a sweet, salty and crunchy ‘Chinese crepe) for breakfast, followed by a stroll through Jinshan Park, shopping at Xiù shuǐjiē (aka the Silk market) and dinner at Donghuamen night market, Da Dong duck restaurant or any one of Beijing’s 60,000 restaurants where you can eat like a king for humble prices: yes there was an awful lot to love about living in Beijing.
Sure, from time to time I would moan about the traffic (Beijing’s roads resemble a video game), pollution and corruption and conjure up other cities where life is cleaner. But in essence I had become a Beijinger. And if visiting friends, family or Shanghainese (the rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai is similar to that of New York and LA) ever had the audacity to breathe a bad word about Beijing, I would bristle and tersely tell them that if they didn’t like my adopted city trains and planes left every few minutes.
Nonetheless I spent July 2011 debating whether I should sign on for another year. I’m not great at goodbyes and had been knocked for six at being forced- such is the transient nature of expat life - to bid adieu to four of my closest friends in Beijing: take a bow Geraldine, Katharina, Lisa and Fernando. Yes Em, Donald, Devin, Amanda et al were still there and I knew I could make new friends but questioned: did I have the desire, nay energy, to attend meet and greet events, all over again? Plus as fascinatingas life in Beijing was, it could infuriate in equal measure.
Part of my problems can be attributed to the colour of my hair. I’ve been a blonde ever since my mother frog-marched me to the nearest hairdresser, after a teenaged disaster with Sun In – the spray hair lightener that turned my hair a spectacularly unflattering shade of yellow and gave it the texture of straw.
The Italian hairdresser in my home town succeeded where Sun In failed: transforming me from a mousey brown into a blonde bombshell. It wasn’t a pain free process but the results – a head of shiny, golden locks – were worth every minute in bleach.Back home, I felt fearless following a peroxide fix. In Britain, blondes definitely have more fun.
Not so in Beijing where I soon learnt that lighter locks come with a price… my highlights easily identified me as laowai (foreigner) and meant I faced more trials and tribulations that brunettes in Beijing. From the local police station who kept sending me away when I tried to register, only to then fine me for failing to do so within 48 hours of touching down in Beijing, to the vendor on the street corner who insisted on selling me a sweet potato for 5RMB but would shave 2RMB off his asking price for the Beijinger in the queue behind me. Want more? There’s the taxi driver who wouldn’t turn the metre on because clearly he saw my hair colour and thought “Ah ha! There goes a dumb blonde I can make some money off.” No matter how hard I tried to master Mandarin, the experience (as a blonde) was always the same. For the first time in my adult life I was no longer dye-ing (pardon the pun) to be blonde - which also, in Beijing, presented something of a practical problem. Local salons simply weren’t happy when it came to highlights (I tried five and, without fail, always emerged with hair the colour of custard).
Being an artificial blonde in Beijing wasn’t the only thing I was getting browned off about it. While I wasn’t upset about Facebook being banned in China (turns out I can quite easily cope without knowing what my cousin in Ely ate for dinner that day, or checking out pictures of peoples’ holidays or new houses), press censorship proved a big bete noir. Case in point? I once wrote a piece on how China’s capital welcomes professionals and families yet isn’t, it seems, quite so keen on courting anyone with a disability. (Tourist sites, shops and restaurants all lack wheelchair friendly ramps while the disabled find themselves being photographed by curious strangers, suggesting that disabled people have long been hidden from society.) Needless to say, said article never saw the light of day.
On a separate note I found that while it was possible to survive as a vegetarian in Beijing, it was difficult to thrive. I lost count of the occasions I ordered so called ‘vegetarian dishes’ only to find, as I poked my chopsticks around, asparagus swimming in a duck based sauce or some meat in the middle of my mi fan (rice). Beijing does have a few designated veggie eateries but, while they serve up some of the most delicious dishes (sans meat) imaginable, they are - or were - pretty pricey if, like me, you were earning a local wage.
Cuisine issues aside, the biting winters were also testing. Even though I was born and raised in London, a city known for its cold Christmases, I never got used to them. But London winters seemed positively balmy when compared to Beijing’s big freeze and qiuku (aka long johns) quickly became a necessary, if unwelcome, addition to my winter wardrobe.
But my biggest gripe was reserved for the widespread pollution - caused by the 1,000 new cars that take to the capital’s roads on a daily basis. Subsequently despite sporting a pollution mask that made me look like the late Michael Jackson, I still managed to succumb to the Beijing cough – a hacking, lung ripping cough that left me gasping for breath. On occasions, the thick brown stuff was so severe that Beijing International airport was forced to close. Make no mistake, the severity of the smog can’t be denied: lung cancer rate in the capital has risen by 60 percent (despite a decrease in the number of smokers) over the last decade.
Bottom line? While Beijing - with its intoxicating combination of cutting edge architecture (the CCTV headquarters and Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium), historical sights (The Temple of Heaven and Forbidden City), exciting art scene and scores of wonderful restaurants catering to every palette and pocket - was a dynamic place to call home, it wasn’t a healthy one. Long term, I couldn’t live somewhere where I had trouble breathing. And, in the 21st century, I didn’t see why I should have to.
All this coupled with turning 30, the arrival of a cornucopia of invitations to attend the weddings of friends and family back in Blighty and the buzz building around the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and 2012 Olympic Games, led me back to London once more.
This time around the decision was mine but regardless, returning proved to be the hardest posting of them all...
To read part seven of Kaye’s expat tales, don’t forget to log on next month!