I remember the day I first arrived in Beijing like the back of my hand. Just 24 hours earlier, as I was boarding a train from Hong Kong, I received an ominous message from my uncle saying “I am sorry about your grandma”. Minutes later I was without service and entering the massive country of China, not even sure which one of my grandparents had passed away. When I arrived in Beijing, I was quite obviously shaken and not entirely ready to conquer this unknown mega-city knowing that 6,000 miles away, my family was in mourning.
My arrival brought with it immediate culture shock. At the train station, I became transfixed by an old homeless lady hacking up a lung and spitting into a napkin, I listened to the incomprehensible and strange accent of the Beijing Chinese (complete with lots of ‘errrr’ sounds), all the while I was being pushed and shoved by more people than I had ever seen in my life. Emerging from the hell of the train station, I entered Beijing proper and was immediately shocked by just how vast everything was, designed for tanks and not for tiny human beings. After hours and hours of walking and searching, I finally settled on a guest house in the iconic Hutongs (alleys) of Beijing and collapsed in utter exhaustion, grief, and homesickness. Where the fuck was I and why did I come here?
I decided to stay put in Beijing and not fly back for my Grandma’s funeral. I honestly am not sure whether she would have wanted that or not, but missing that occasion makes her feel just as alive as ever in my mind, as though I can just walk into her house on a Sunday evening and be greeted by the aroma of Italian cooking and her warm hug. Sometimes closure just isn’t necessary.
You will always be in my heart, Grandma
It took a while, but I settled in. I got a big boy apartment, I started studying Mandarin, I made a few friends here and there, and I even started dating. But never in my life had I felt so far from the people I loved. Beijing was just so different, so massive, and the warmth and comfort of family was too far for me to go about my days with happiness. I faked the fun I had going out to clubs with my French and German roommates. I was unraveling pretty fast and wanted out. My demeanor was dark grey like the smog that all to often blanketed the city.
Then like a breath of fresh air, Lingli entered my life. She yelled down to me from the DJ stand at a gay bar saying I was handsome and assumed I was straight. I was immediately drawn to her bubbly nature and was so happy to meet someone local for once. I tipsily stumbled up to her and put her number into my $10 phone I purchased off the street weeks earlier. We texted each other back and forth, planning to meet up when I was back from my travels.
I began my travels to Xinjiang Province, and Day 1 clumsily left my phone in a cab on the way to the airport. All I could think about during the trip was that I wouldn’t be able to get in touch with Lingli. She would be messaging me and our friendship would vanish into thin air. For whatever reason, I knew she was going to be a good friend and I was devastated that I wouldn’t be able to get in touch with her again. Miraculously, back in Beijing, I recovered my number, and once I got a new phone, a message immediately popped up from an unknown number. I opened it. “Is everything okay? I haven’t heard from you”. It was Lingli. For some reason fate, or as the Chinese say, Yuanfen, had our backs and I thank my lucky stars, because I had no idea what was to come.
We reunited over Korean barbecue. She was incredible, a petite 30-something year old with a contagious zest as well as a melodic voice with a slight touch of a British accent from having lived in London a few years back. She was bursting with optimism, smiles, and positivity, but at the same time was so real, bursting into complaints when something didn’t please her. At the end of the meal, she insisted on treating, as this was the Chinese way, and I assured her that I was getting the next dinner.
The next day, I received a phone call with an odd invite that I didn’t fully understand. Lingli had an older friend who was making dinner and she wanted to invite me to come around to experience something traditional. Jumping at the opportunity to practice my Chinese, I met Lingli at a subway stop somewhere between the 5th and 6th ring road and we walked to the home.
We squeezed into the quaint apartment, and I was welcomed by an older woman of around 60. She muttered lots of slow “Ni haos” (hellos) and took me into the kitchen where there was a glorious smell of dumplings. Throughout the night, as I was fed inhuman amounts of local dishes, I learned about her tragic story from Lingli. Just a year earlier, her only son had jumped off of a building, taking his life and sending her into a pretty dark period. Additionally, she was divorced and dating an older man, “Yang Dada” who she thought was incredibly boring. Lingli had been friends with his son and befriended the mother at his funeral. As I learned all of this, I couldn’t imagine the pain she was feeling, but my Chinese wasn’t good enough to console in any way, so I would often sit their in an awkward state of paralysis (sitting through a dinner where you are completely lost in the language can top all things awkward).
At the end of the dinner, we sat in the TV room and I was force-fed fruits and nuts, the Chinese version of dessert or a ‘nightcap’ and we learned about one another. I remember feeling awkward and uncomfortable, like I was moments away from saying something stupid in their language or pulling some kind of cultural fopaux that would end the night badly. But at the same time, I felt the first sense of belonging since I arrived in the country. I had found my tribe in the form of an older Chinese woman and Lingli.
About a month later, I packed up my belongings, moved out of the hectic university area, and hailed a cab to Longze, between the 5th and 6th ring road. In just a short while, our friendship had grown so great that ’Mama’ as I now called her, Lingli, and myself moved into a flat together: a cheaper and much, much more local alternative to my international lifestyle up until that point.
The three of us after we moved in.
Lingli and I looking stylish
Our bonds continued to grow during the subsequent months we lived together. They saw the best of me and they saw the worst of me; just as I saw the best and the worst of them. At nights, Mama and I would sit in front of the TV and watch soap operas for hours or just talk about our vastly different worlds. Our conversations over the months grew deeper; I felt like an adult progressing from childhood to adolescence in a short span of time.
We also shared food. I fell in love with Mama’s Chinese cooking and she “enjoyed” mine; well…at least I think she liked my guacamole. Lingli and I would go out and “rebel” at times, just as if we were in an actual family and we were the teenagers.
One of my fondest memories was Christmas Eve, my first Christmas away from home. I was feeling especially down, but when I walked into my room after work, there sitting on my bed were wrapped gifts from Mama and Lingli. That night we cooked together, and ended up in a chocolate war, smearing chocolate on one another’s faces and laughing like there was no tomorrow.
Times weren’t always easy, but we didn’t hide it. I fell back into a depressive and anxious state at one point during the winter, and my somber moods were pretty apparent to Lingli and Mama; them doing whatever they could to make me feel happy. Meanwhile, Mama would break down at times, remembering her son, and I did what I could to console her. I don’t know how much good I did, but I liked being there for both of them as much as I could.
We were a family, so drastically different from my actual family, but it was camraderie at its finest. One of the best moments was when my actual Mama came to visit and I got to show her my Beijing way of life. She herself got to feel the burning awkwardness of not being able to converse and feel like an incapacitated child, but the sense of belonging was overpowering. My two Mamas from two different worlds were together in one, and despite their cultural differences and inability of speaking with words, the love and empathy that bonds us as humans was ever-present.
My time in Beijing drew to a close in June the following year. I remember the night before I left, we went to a restaurant nearby where each group would roast a massive lamb leg over a grill. As we drank beer and cut slices off of the leg, we reminisced about the past several months. I knew that Beijing didn’t have my heart, but Mama and Lingli did and I was going to miss them terribly.
The next day, both of them drove me to the airport, and for the first time, I bawled as I walked away from them. I didn’t know if we would meet again, but I was so grateful for that we had together in Beijing. I surely wouldn’t have made it that long without them.
Three years back, I got my one and only tattoo to commemorate my time with Mama and Lingli in Beijing. Three Chinese style mailboxes each representing one of us. One had a label with the classical characters with Yuanfen or fate and another had our address miles outside of Beijing between the fifth and sixth ring road.
Fast forward five years, and Lingli and I are living again in the same country (Germany); just a five hour train-ride apart. While we haven’t seen each other yet here, I am a strong believer that fate keeps bringing us back together. Sadly, we both lost touch with Mama, but word has it that she met someone special and now lives between Canada and China.
That time and those people will never be able to replicate itself, but I am beyond fortunate that it happened and forever reminds me that traveling and learning about others is the most important thing we can do in this world.