ne of the things I miss most about Beijing is the changing of the four seasons. In the mountains of Dali where I live now, the days are all temperate pleasant, but they also blur together, with only the grass growing between the spaces on my tile roof marking passage of time. The days don’t get longer or shorter, and the temperature barely changes.
In Beijing, the howling winds sends a chill through your bones, leaving no doubt that winter has arrived. In summer, the sweltering heat that keeps all sane people indoors at midday is offset by warm summer nights that wrap up with the taste of cumin, lamb and watery beer, or leaving a karaoke room to find the sun has been up for hours.
If you live in Beijing long enough, the passing of time becomes marked by the fast-evolving landscape. Where some people see a luxury mall, you remember an old bus in an abandoned lot where people listened to reggae and drank dollar mixed drinks, or a little shop where homesick expats bought DVDs of movies that would never make it to China.
These days people are more likely to have a vinyl turntable in their homes than a DVD player, another mark of time passing.
Once, people went out to see live music, and had strong opinions about the various bands in Beijing. Many people will remember when you could see rock musician Cui Jian in dingy little bars of the type that don’t exist anymore. Then, he aged into being a “godfather” and plays at major festivals. Now, even festivals are a thing of the past, especially since health concerns started keeping people inside.
Another way to mark the passage of time in Beijing is the coming and going of loved ones. One of the most difficult parts about living in a foreign country is that most people, ultimately, are just passing through.
People leave Beijing for many reasons, often changing over time. They finish their Chinese studies, they can’t bear the pollution, they become homesick, parents become ill, the cost of living gets too high. What once seemed liked a Bohemian adventure becomes a high-pressure rat race with high rent and a high cost of living, much like the places they came from but without the comforts of home.
For every new friend you meet, you will attend the farewell party of two, who will in time fade into another feed on your social media stream.
For many foreigners, the time they spent in China will just be a fondly remembered chapter in their lives. They will conveniently forget the daily grumbling and complaining about China that is an unavoidable symptom of culture shock, and remember the wonder of reading their first Chinese sentence, or their outrageous conversations with Beijing’s friendly taxi drivers.
Milestones will include the first time you learn that biting your tongue and swallowing your pride can be the best way to solve problems. Or when you understood that when a Chinese friend tells you that you have become fat, it is a sign of warm familiarity.
I now have a daughter who is half-Chinese, and I am marking time by watching the thick shock of hair that stands straight up on her head rise taller and taller without any sign of wilting.
Her first two months of life seemed to take five years. Some sleepless nights seeming like an eternity, and not in heaven.
At first my daughter only had two means of expression, peaceful silence or an apocalyptic scream. Now, she can grumble, express surprise, squeal with delight and even make sounds mimicking conversation. People warned me that time would fly once I became a father, and I can already sense they are correct. Our daughter can no longer fit in her old clothes and old diapers. She is starting to learn how to use hands – sometimes she just watches her own fist open and close for 10 minutes at a time.
When she gets fussy, I can soothe her by dancing with her, and she has already attended her first concerts, where she is extremely popular – especially due to her remarkable punk-like hair.
I waited until later in life to have my first child, and while I am sure I am treasuring the experience much more than I would have as a young man, this comes with a bittersweet cost.
Watching my daughter grow into a young woman will be for me the final marker of time passing. In her I see the continuity of life and family, but also a sure sign of my own mortality.
When she grows up and has a family of her own, she will be entering the high bloom of spring for her life, but this will surely mark the final season of my own.