ecause of the nature of expat life in Beijing, if you have heard one story about the transience that wrests away bosom buddies that left too soon, you have heard then all. But few people talk about the transience within the Chinese community.
No one speaks much, or at least, not in my hearing, of the Chinese men and women who disappear after months or years of acquaintance, except when they are talking about migrant workers. But the jian bing (pancake) vendor who lived in one of the apartments in my compound with his wife does not fit the image that usually comes to mind when you hear the term. This man was self-employed, and he made some of the best jian bing I have ever tasted every morning – until one day he didn’t.
The next to disappear was my Chinese barber. I was heading home for a trip, and I wanted to get a haircut to look presentable when my mom came to pick me up. But that attempt was stymied. When I turned up, I was told that he had returned to his hometown “to get married,” which I immediately took as he quit to put up his own shingle elsewhere.
I was pretty attached to my barber. For one, he was the only person in that entire barbershop of more than six barbers who knew how to cut my hair. He had rescued me two years before when my first barber there “went to get married,” and I was left with another man who was ruining my hair on the day before my birthday. You cannot imagine my glee when he stepped in, explained that he had watched my other barber cut my hair for the better part of a year, and then deftly cut my hair exactly the way I wanted it. I was beaming when I left that day. Anxious about not being caught in the lurch like that again, I made sure to get his WeChat and reminded him every couple of months or so not to disappear on me like the first barber. He cut my hair for two years, but then just like that, he was gone.
I confess that I was a little hurt, nothing stings more when someone you have grown attached to departs without saying goodbye.
So, when I returned from home earlier this year and discovered that my taxi driver friend had extended his trip to his home village and was, in fact, never coming back, I felt a sense of loss. Not just because I now had to rely on ride hailing app Didi but also because he truly was my friend.
Throughout the three years, after he shyly told me that he lived in the compound and shared his contact information for his pickup service, we have become real friends. Yes, there was the transactional part of it – he took me places, and I paid him for that – but there was also the conversations about life and family. He would ask questions about my parents and life back home, and I would ask equally pointed questions about his life as well.
I met his wife, and daughter, and he met my boyfriend. He knew me so well that he could look at me and know almost immediately that I was in a bad mood, had not slept well, was ill, or all of the above.
But what I miss most of all is his spirit. I had seen him go through some tough times, but unlike me, who would want to scream in frustration, he always put on a brave face and smiled through his despair. Perhaps that is why I miss him so.