It’s been five years. The last time I was here, I was eighteen. The last time I was here, my a gong was still alive. Nai nai was also alive – barely, but she was there in some way. If I put my finger into her palm, her bones would curl around it and grip with a strength too strong for someone who couldn’t move anymore. The last time I was here, my nephew didn’t know words.
When I was young, I used to come to Beijing every other year to the point where I was a bit sick of it. There’s not much to do in Beijing in the dead of winter, especially when your parents want to spend as much time with their family and you are a 14-year-old girl who can’t take public transport by herself. I used to sit in my Grandparents apartment with my sister, watching pirated DVDs purchased on Day 1 and eating Chinese snacks. We would make broken conversation with our relatives and the people who were somehow related to us in a distant, vague kind of way. We would go buy knock-off clothes from outlet stores with the Red Envelope money these distant-vague family members gave us in exchange for visiting them. This was China to me – not a holiday destination or a home, but something in between.
Somewhere between two of my grandparents passing away and growing into an adult, I felt a tug in my heart that whispered: “It’s time to go back to Beijing”. Without realising it, Beijing had weaved its way into my concepts of home and belonging – and without realising it, I had let five years pass without going back. I missed it all – I missed my Grandma’s coffee table that had pictures of us as children and pictures of my parents as children slid underneath the glass tabletop. I missed the shopping centre beneath my Grandparents’ apartment and the levels upon levels of Chinese products to look through. I missed the train stations and the roads and the people on the street selling skewered snacks and sweet roasted chestnuts. I missed feeling Chinese and being Chinese in China.
The first day in Beijing was spent outside of Beijing. My cousin Zeng Zeng, who we called Cindy when she lived with us in Melbourne because at that time it was a nuisance to speak Chinese, had invited my sister and me to Gu Bei Shui Zhen – a Soverign-Hill-esque old town preserved. On the drive up, we talked about things we never could when she lived with us in 2007 – because we were too young and too disinterested in learning Chinese. In broken Chinese and broken English and a lot of hand gestures, we talked about the refugee crisis, the housing prices of China, the stress of finding your first job and everything we had missed in one another’s lives during those 5 years.
Gu Bei Shui Zhen was beautiful. While walking through the town, I pictured a life of growing up in China. Of never having to feel anything other than belonging. Of being close with Zeng Zeng. Of being friends with the Chinese men and women around me. I wondered what I would have been like if I had been born in China and spoke the same language as my parents. I thought about how wonderful that would have been and also how different I would have been.
I was only in Beijing for 5 days. The following days after Gu Bei Shui Zhen I spent being a tourist in a city I had never considered other. I went to the Summer Palace, I went to the old Summer Palace, I went to BeiHai Park. I went to these places I have been to multiple times in my youth but that I had never seen before. Maybe it was because there was no snow on the ground and I had never been to Beijing in the spring – but nothing was familiar and everything was familiar.
There was so much that had changed in 5 years – new train lines had been put in, there were no more people selling skewers on the street and everyone paid for things through WeChat. The shops I remembered had all closed down, the clothes in the shops were not so dissimilar from what I saw in Melbourne, and all around me people rode rented bikes that had only become an option six months prior. My Aunt told me that Beijing is moving at a pace so fast, if you left town for a year you might not be able to find your street when you got home. I had left town for 5 years and when I got back, the things that I had missed – the very things that made me feel at home in Beijing – they weren’t there anymore either.
It wasn’t until I couldn’t go to the shops beneath my Grandparent’s apartment, until I couldn’t call it my Grandparent’s apartment anymore because it had halved in size and occupants, until I was sitting in the Uber-equivalent instead of the red and yellow taxis of my youth that I realised I came to Beijing this time looking for a feeling of home. I had desperately hoped that coming here meant finding something that I was losing in Melbourne – a feeling of belonging to a culture, a group of people you could call yourself one of. I thought that maybe if I went back to Beijing, to that somewhere place I had spent most winters breathing in, I could maybe feel like I belonged. But Beijing had moved on without me and I never belonged there either. I realised in that moment that this was a condition of my diaspora – that my sense of home would not come to me in my homeland nor in my citizenship – and it broke my heart.
I snapped at my sister in the airport for something stupid. I couldn’t stop crying and my family probably thought I was being ridiculous but I was crying for a lot more than luggage. I was crying for my sense of identity and the journey I have ahead of me. I was crying because I let myself believe maybe going back to Beijing would fix everything. While waiting for the plane, my dad stroked my back and my mum started a conversation about something silly. My sister said something to me and I said something back. Then we were talking and I had stopped crying.
I do have a home. I have a home with my family – with this teeny tiny group of 3 other people who also know what it feels like to be away from home, to be unsure of where home is, to be confused about where they belong anymore. I’m still trying to navigate a sense of identity and I still have a long way to go – but until then I have my life in Melbourne, my memories in Beijing and my family wherever I go. Maybe from this, I can build a home of my own.