I arrived in Beijing in July of 2012 with the newfound optimism of an exuberant college student still reeling after her first year of independence. The Connecticut winter had been a shock to me—in Hong Kong, we had monsoons; in Middletown, Connecticut, we watched the snow pile into three-foot-high walls. Even more perplexing were all the people on campus who’d insisted on dissecting my identity upon introduction. Some remarked innocently on how good my English was for a person who grew up in Hong Kong; some felt the need to try and tell me who I was—one even demanded, point-blank, “Why are you here?”
I wearied of trying to fit in with the other liberal-arts hipsters, who seemed attracted to multiculturalism and globalism mainly as commodities, and felt frustrated with myself for even trying to conform. But the oncoming heat of spring was encouraging, as I romped from the library to a balcony party to the hill where the snow had finally been reduced to a melting clump. This summer, I thought, I’ll return to myself.
Nowhere seemed more optimal for this than my birthplace of Beijing. My dad had just been transferred back to Beijing after five years in Virginia and ten in Hong Kong. I was to spend a month with him before flying to New York City, where my mom was subletting an apartment to fulfill her green card residency requirement.
I arrived at my dad’s office in Beijing straight from the airport. He gave me the keys to our new apartment and told me to take a taxi to the Diplomatic Compound, the one next to the Silk Street Mall. “See you at home,” he said.
For all the commotion about Beijing’s smoggy, gray days, there’s little mention of the beauty the sunny skies reveal. It was on one of these days that I decided to go for a run and get my bearings in our new neighborhood of Jianguomen.
Our apartment compound, bordered by tall, drooping willow trees, was quiet apart from the honks and sounds of buses in the four-lane road nearby. I couldn’t miss the Silk Street Mall, a shiny, glass behemoth of a building known for the haggling battles that took place within its stalls. The Beijing Foreign Correspondents’ Club—dilapidated, a few of its letters chipped—was a few doors down.
As I ran deeper into the willows, a street stacked with restaurant signs caught my eye: Makye Ame Tibetan Restaurant, Istanbul Restaurant, Grandma’s Kitchen. Eventually I came to long, low walls gating off huge houses with plaques hanging on their gates: Embassy of Czech Republic, Embassy of Mongolia, Embassy of Ethiopia. In front of each embassy stood two young male Chinese guards in dark green uniforms, staring straight ahead. Their eyes flickered when they heard my footsteps, but their faces remained frozen. I rounded the corner near the Embassy of Cuba and headed back to our apartment, feeling somewhat intimidated by our diplomatic neighbors.
The following weekend, Dad proposed we try one of the nearby restaurants. We went to NOLA, an airy two-story restaurant with a white bartender and a Chinese wait staff. It was my first time eating New Orleans-style chicken and waffles; I watched as the mix of Chinese customers and expat families leisurely enjoyed their gumbo, jambalaya, and grits. Through the huge shuttered windows, I could see a line of green-uniformed guards marching down the street. After our meal, my dad suggested a walk through Ritan Park. I was surprised to find I had just missed the entrance of this park on my run—if I had gone another few blocks north, past the Embassy of Poland, with China’s World Trade Center on my right, I would have arrived at a traditional red-walled entrance, the south gate to the park.
Ritan Park isn’t filled with grass lawns for people to recline on; nor is it designed, like many parks in the United States, to contain pockets of seemingly untended nature. A rusty wooden signboard, with Chinese and the English translations, lists all the things you can find there: Free Exercise Park, Spring Garden with Brooked Ponds, Sacred Road, Yuxin Garden, Mural on Ritual Sacrifice to the Sun. The fifty-acre park, which dates to the Ming Dynasty in 1530, is designed around a round altar at which the Emperor made sacrifices to the god of the sun. As my dad and I strolled through the park, we saw little clusters of physical structures strung together by wide sidewalks and red flower bushes: stone seats and tables for chess players, a dilapidated carousel, a children’s rink. Most of our fellow park-goers were locals—elderly Chinese people resting in the shade—but there was also the occasional tourist.
Suddenly I spotted a sliver of water just beyond a tree. As I moved into a full bath of sunlight, the body of water revealed itself to be a large green pond, encircled by willow trees and a stone shore, jagged rocks forming an imperfect circle around the water. I was enraptured by this sudden flood of earnest green, lotus leaves surging up from skinny stems like open hands reaching for the sun, willows flowing down as if to gently touch their creases. A large pavilion and a teahouse, both with curved rooftops, stood serenely at the edges of the lake. I returned my dad’s smile as we walked in silence: Apart from its sublime beauty, it was clear he had brought me to the park as a bit of an inside joke. A favorite snack of mine is the fresh lotus seed, lianzi, and I could see a few young lotus pods peeking out of the lake, not quite ripe enough to eat.
Every summer in Changsha, my mother’s hometown, street corners are inundated with farmers selling lotus pods for a few short weeks. An elusive fruit, the lianzi only stay fresh for so long once plucked from the ground. My aunt once came to Hong Kong with a bag full of the seeds for me, but I was horrified to see them browned and hardened after being refrigerated for a day or two. The lotus pods were one of the few foods in China I couldn’t bring with me or buy and enjoy as an exported good—a unique experience of the place itself. Now, walking with my father in Ritan Park, I remembered those pods I ate in Changsha, and thought of all the summers we spent there.
In Beijing the very act of walking around can be surreal, like walking through a time capsule and watching five thousand years of history materialize, the last thirty sped up to lightning speed. The more I explored our neighborhood, the more I realized what an epicenter it was for the kind of rapid globalization seen throughout China.
A fifteen-minute walk from Ritan Park we had the Friendship Store, a state-run department store that only sold Western goods to foreigners in the 1950s. Nearby, I could get a scoop of ice cream at Baskin-Robbins and then make my way to the Silk Street Mall, which took its name from the cheap silk that foreigners used to buy off the street. The buses of tourists that now arrive daily at eight a.m. come for the knockoff Western brands made in Chinese factories; in the afternoon, they triumphantly return to the bus with their bulging plastic bags and suitcases, filing back underneath a bright banner that reads: “Did you buy a shoddy project? COME FIND ME! I WILL GIVE YOU AN AWARD . . . The Silk Street is the First High End Commodity Market in China.”
Yet alongside these newer tourist destinations and shiny office buildings, you can’t miss the everyday bustle of local life. The tall buildings that face Jianguomen Road tower over the older low-rise apartment complexes and narrow alleyways. At night, carts of watermelon, lychee, and dragon’s eyes appear on the streets. Families, elderly couples, and groups of teens walk and talk and shop, the air smoky and slightly spicy with the scent of skewers of lamb and squid on the hawker’s grills.
On our evening walks, my father and I used to step aside and let motorcycles inch past us into the apartment courtyards. Down an escalator was a medium-sized grocery that I visited weekly, trying my best to pick vegetables quickly so the attendant could weigh and price them before the other shoppers descended. A plant seller and a cell-phone reseller shared the tiny space by the escalator entrance; next door was a row of eateries and cafés selling fruit desserts. To my eyes, the newer buildings and dense crowds only made the clogged city streets brim more fully with life.
How can a place seem familiar upon the first visit? I hadn’t been back to my birthplace for seventeen years, and yet when we met again, it felt like another home. The boldness and brazenness of the place, its disjointed bits of history, invigorated me. When I returned to Connecticut, gearing myself up for another winter in which darkness descended at four p.m., I put up pictures from my Beijing summer on the wall to remind me of a reality that seemed almost fantastical compared to my life on campus.
Whenever I returned to Beijing on subsequent breaks, I would spend a lot of time sitting beside the pond in Ritan Park. My parents would often join me there, and soon the Chinese restaurant in the park became a family favorite, just as watching older Chinese couples practicing their ballroom steps in the exercise pavilion became a pastime. Walking back to our apartment, we would pass the restaurant street, perhaps spot a new tenant, and watch the Silk Street Mall’s neon advertisements and giant digital clock bouncing fluorescent light off the buildings below.
I never stopped discovering new things about our Beijing neighborhood; it always held surprises for me, and the flurry of change was reassuring. Against the backdrop of an eight-hundred-year-old park in a rapidly changing and modernizing neighborhood, I found solace in its many complexities and contradictions. Far away during the school year, I remembered the places in the the pictures adorning my dorm wall: my dad, lounging on a wicker chair at the tea house in Ritan Park, with the most satisfied smile on his face; a landscape shot of twining willow leaves drooping down to meet the shining surface of the pond; and a blurry, treasured close-up of a ripe lotus pod.
All photos courtesy of the author.