I remember the day I left. It was February time in 1990 and the schoolyard was still covered in whitish patches where the snow hadn’t thawed.
That morning I went to school and emptied out my cubby desk. I don’t know what the teacher, my favorite Teacher Wu, told my classmates about me. I myself didn’t exactly know what was happening, having only vague notions of this “overseas” place where dad had gone off to work and where mom and I were now heading to join him.
In my third-grade universe, the outside world was so remote that I never even wondered about it. Apart from my father, I didn’t know anyone who had left China. In fact, very few people had left in those days (the borders weren’t open for average citizens), save for the refugee exodus following the democracy debacle in the summer of 1989.
After I collected my things I walked out of the low building and stared into the bright eastern sun shining over the small yard. It was strange standing there alone under such bright sunlight. I had never left school to go home so early in the day and I had never been outside of the classroom while all of my friends were still in it. A voice called out behind me,
“Zhai Qi, where are you going?”
It was a girl from my class. She had run after me into the yard.
“I’m going overseas,” I answered, pretending to know what this meant.
She looked puzzled for a minute and then asked, “But why? Why leave now when you’re class monitor? Next year you’ll be grade monitor.” At the time it seemed like a good question.
“I’m going to go live with my dad.”
She was satisfied with this answer and turned around to go back to the classroom. We didn’t say goodbye — no one in our small world had ever left for anywhere so we simply didn’t know we should’ve bid farewell.
I walked towards the school gates and turned around to take another look at the school. It was here that I had read my lessons from paperback texts, books which my father meticulously wrapped in old glossy calendar paper (to prevent damage to the covers) at the start of every school term. Here, I had admired the neat type-print handwriting of my classmate Yan and practiced to write like her. Here, too, I had had a small crush on a boy named Jing who played soccer at recess. Twice a day, everyday, my friends and I had walked into the gates in the morning, adjusting our “class monitor” badges if we were privileged to have them, and left at noon to race home for lunch. Along the way we often stopped to pluck little red flowers out of a neighbor’s garden to suck on the candy-like syrup inside. This tiny piece of Beijing was my entire world.
After leaving Beijing that year I often went back. All the way through university I went back at least once, most times twice, a year to see the city I grew up in. But as I got older and responsibilities piled up, especially after starting work, vacations were harder to plan and I began to see less of Beijing. The city began to feel less and less like home.
Meeting my boyfriend (now husband) in the US made Beijing even more foreign to me. I started seeing the city through Geoff’s American eyes. Little inconveniences that never bothered me became pronounced — whenever we visited I had to translate all the menus for him; we could only eat in proper restaurants (no roadside stalls for the unaccustomed foreign stomach); the lack of Western toilets irked me; I lost my patience for pushy people who refuse to queue up. Little by little, Beijing became a place I “visited” instead of “went back” to.
But now I’m about to go on my Beijing homecoming. I’m going with Geoff, as a continuation of our long honeymoon, our recession travels, our “finding ourselves” journey, or whatever you want to call it. We are both gainfully unemployed and staying with my mom in a rent-free apartment seemed like a good way to pass time and figure out the future.
This time we have time on our hands. I hope that without the rush to “get things done” I’ll get to know the city and fall in love with it again. I hope to find that feeling of coming home to Beijing once more. And I hope for Geoff this strange, foreign place, which holds so many happy memories for me, will start to feel like home.