Not Farewell, but Another “See You Later,” 北京

Every morning, twenty-one million people wake up to tackle the third largest city in the world. Three millenia of history reflected in its tea houses and imperial gardens, bundled together by glass steel shopping malls and 15-lane freeways. A city housing 7,000 hutong alleys and 3,000 McDonald’s with 24-hour delivery service. Four kuai beer and five kuai jianbing. Miles of zhajianmiangallons of suanmeitang, a ton of spiced lamb skewered into yangrouchua’r


I could eat jianbing for days. Straight.

…and yet I decided to spend the better part of the summer tethered to my Mac, bitching about Beijing’s smog to my friends back stateside.

Don’t get me wrong – they’re incredible support during a time of bewildering change, but there is such a thing as relying too much on Skype relationships. I can recount my cramped subway ride into a speaker and show off my new purchases over a screen, but no app can truly allow me to share Beijing with them viscerally. The result was a rather lonely, unfulfilling June and July.

After my refresher trip to Japan, I genuinely made an effort to reach out more to people I knew in Beijing. Man how I wish I did so earlier. With the company of friends, old and new, Beijing quickly transformed from a grey concrete expanse into a dazzling 热闹 metropolis. I found my grounding, and it turns out not to be the perfect cafe or park bench, but to be in people.

This got me thinking – how do we evaluate a city? Most people would tick off concrete fixtures. For Beijing, that sounds like “the subway system is so extensive” or “it’s such a bicycle-friendly city” or the ever popular “dude, clubbing is ridiculously cheap.” Convenient transport and affordable nightlife may set the scene, but my experience of any city is intensely colored by the people with whom I share the scene. After all, it’s our friend groups that decide how we spend the night out (seedy sports bar or upscale dance club?), and how we utilize top-notch metro transportation (oh you live just two stations away? Let’s get coffee more often)!


Nightlife in Beijing is super….neon. Not here (Gulou) though! (PC: Michael Chen)

So thank you, to everyone I met in Beijing and who colored my experience with lively conversation and laughter. Without you guys, Beijing really would have been just the pollution and humidity. I didn’t expect to, but I am going to miss it here. Funny how that always happens.

Of course, there’s still a few things left on my Beijing checklist that I didn’t get around to this time, most notably climbing the Great Wall of China (lol). It’s like how Chicago natives never go up the Sears Tower (yes, Sears) or the Ferris Wheel. We always think that we’ll get around to it, if it’s even worth visiting.


I have a feeling that the Great Wall is worth a visit, of course. (PC: Michael Chen)

Live update: I leave in four hours on a flight bound for Cairo, Egypt. Another city, another life (it seems).


Beijing Transience

It’s been almost two months but I never feel quite rooted in Beijing – like I’m only half there. (Err here).

Maybe because every past visit was a half-return, knowing that I will always be back in a few years for more family reunions in smoky restaurant dining rooms. And this visit, I saw it as a stopover between my college graduation in Chicago and my adventure year in Cairo. In my mind, Beijing was not an anticipated destination with a culture shock to boggle my mind, but the faded city of my birth. Beijing is a transfer stop. I had left it for good 18 years ago.

Recently, I’ve realized that this is a terrible, if not detrimental, perspective and attitude. It’s never a good idea to be only half-present in a place, environment, community, what-have-you. It leaves a lot of room to detach from reality and float into depressing introspection. So we’re just going to skip over that chapter of my summer.

These days my brain’s been simmering on the chasm of differences between living in a Western country versus an Eastern country. Pre-arrival Wendy was like: I lived alone for seven months in France, no problem. Not an ounce of homesickness, not even during the Fourth or Thanksgiving. I’m set for a life in international diplomacy! I can fly anywhere like a free bird! 

Ha. Ha. How ridiculously naive it was of me to assume that that meant I was invincible and beyond ties. If France is the sleek tabby cat that brushes up against your leg as you sit out on a terrace cafe, Beijing is the running of the bulls, a wild gazelle stampede. Which is to say, all the briskness, alertness, avoiding, sweating, and people are beginning to wear down my body and mind. I really have to fight for myself here – a spot on the subway, my way up the stairs, the right to cross the street. At least this is good for my character which has always erred towards the side of passive. As much as the smog of a million cars and roars of a million screeches silence everything, the monstrous din also pushes me to strengthen my voice and shout louder for myself. If I don’t, I really am only half here.

In the midst of transience, I have fondly discovered three places in Beijing where I do feel grounded, solidly planted into the cement.

1.) The Bookworm


Coffee, books, friends. Nothing feels more familiar than that.

2.) Xiwai Cultural Leisure Plaza Footbridge


The view looking east.

3.) Yonghegong Lama Temple


My photos don’t do this place justice. Also, you can’t smell the greatness that is incense from a photo.

Just writing this post makes me feel better. It’s a relief. The mind is a muscle one can exercise and mold. No matter where you go, there are tangible steps you can take to mitigate homesickness. It could be grabbing your subway card and hightailing it to one of your grounded places. It could also be listening to that one album while walking, or sketching a landscape that strikes you, or drinking crazy amounts of bubble tea (like dangerously unhealthy amounts of bubble tea). Conceptualize those steps – whatever they may be for you –  as a fertilizer that nurtures deeper, more penetrating roots.