Beijing: The Missing Piece

For me it is all symphonic, and I am so aroused by living –
In you alone I have found the same swelling enthusiasm,
the same quick rising of the blood, the fullness.

Before, I almost used to think there was something wrong.
Everybody else seemed to have the brakes on.

But when I feel your excitement about life flaring, next to mine,
it makes me dizzy.

– Anais Nin, Henry and June

 

I draw my coat tighter and quicken my pace past the imperial guards. Overhead, Mao Ze Dong’s watchful visage carefully scrutinizes all passerby entering the Forbidden City.

Beijing winters are cruel.

I am wearing fur, cashmere, leather, wool – but the cold penetrates all with sinister ease. It seems to mock me; frigidity taunts exposed skin with icy fingers and sneaks its way past layers of fabric. A small coffee shop provides temporary warmth. I purchase an envelope of tissue paper and a cup of milk tea.

I blow my nose.

Back outside, the audio guide leads me past painted gates, across stone courtyards, up and down hundreds of temple steps. Every sip of milk tea must be negotiated: warmth to the hands? Or warmth to the stomach? My cheeks freeze, then burn, then graciously lose sensation.

“Haven’t I already seen this?” becomes a theme.

Each temple, gate, and courtyard looks just like the last. I reach the final temple disappointed, deadened in fingers and toes. A German tourist beckons. He shows me the paparazzi shots he has taken. In one photo, I am walking up steps. In another, I am fixing my hair. In this one, I am sipping tea.

I turn to walk back through the Forbidden City. Why did I ever come here?

Beijing is a city of lines without harmony. Its colors are tired and bleak, its perpetual smog chokes inspiration, its streets are covered in the stains of hacked phlegm. Ennui seeps from rows of identical housing, gaudy jewelry, ill-fitting clothing, raucous voices in the market.

And yet, Beijing, you are the city that has captured me.

 

 

 

When I was younger, I used to keep two journals.

In one, I recorded life as I lived it. In the other, I rewrote my life as I thought it should be lived. An argument with my sister became a sleepover party with friends, an embarrassing moment during gym evolved into a movie date with a high school crush, confessions of unrealized desires and longings translated into sketches of designer outfits from a dream wardrobe.

My teenage existence became a sprawling work of creative non-fiction – literature inspired by real life events but reworked to cater to the expectations and desires of my audience. I narrated my identity according to the specifications of those around me and imagined a “new Lydia” because the “real Lydia” wasn’t enough – not intelligent enough, not beautiful enough, not cool enough.

But when I grew older, I no longer needed the journals.

Instead of continuing to rewrite my personal narrative, I learned to retreat to a library cartel in 4N or a basement bathroom stall of Crescendo and take ten or fifteen minutes to rejuvenate for the next round of life as “Lydia” — the one I had created.

 

“Doesn’t it exhaust you?” my friend asked.

Three years ago, no one wanted shards. They looked at the fragmented remains without recognition. Familiar eyes asked “Who are you?” and others said, “Maybe she’s just going through a phase.” They searched for the original but too many pieces were missing, too many pieces had crumbled. They waited and waited, but then they also turned and walked away.

Survival necessitated reinvention.

I am finished with myself, with my sacrifices and my pity, with what chains me. I am going to make a new beginning. I want passion and pleasure and noise and drunkenness and all evil. But my past reveals itself inexorably, like a tattoo mark. I must build a new shell, wear new costumes. – Anais Nin


At 16, love was the only compelling reason for which to live.

At 20, love was dead.

“What do you think I should order?” I asked them.

Some suggested their favorite dishes. Others tried to gauge preferences or said they didn’t know. Still others offered to pick two main courses and share family-style.

I adjusted accordingly to differing tastes and personalities. I learned the art of negotiation and devised strategies to assess individual strengths, weaknesses, character, values, preferences. I balanced my own strengths to present a highly-personalized performance. Over time, I attained trust and access to the life stories of ministers, models, musicians, ambassadors, professors, businessmen, actors, engineers. It became a tantalizing game, an elaborate research project in which I tested inputs, observed outputs, recorded results.

I concluded that people are fundamentally the same – everyone desires love and empathy.

But these I was determined to give and resolved never to receive. Even as I acquired intimacy and learned the life philosophies of others, the empathetic persona I performed was not a real reciprocation. At 20, I thought my life’s supply of love had been exhausted. I could not feel – could not love, could not hate, could not cry, could not laugh – I had nothing left to offer but utility.

798 is an exception.

In the art district of Beijing, every corner and sidewalk unveils a surprise that is as disjointed as it is harmonious with its surroundings. A jolly red Buddha dances upon the curb. A bronze warrior raises his spear against an encroaching circle of wolves. A lazy green giant yawns over rolls of fat.

 

The bowl of noodles startles me.

Oyster misua (蚵仔麵線) recalls a moment of savory warmth from my childhood.

Then, there are the Shanghainese meatballs (獅子頭, shi zi tou), pineapple cakes (鳳梨酥, fong li su), Chinese water spinach (空心菜, kong xin cai), steamed buns (小籠包, xiao long bao), beef noodle soup (牛肉麵, niu rou mian) – names and smells and tastes that exude memories of intimacy and familiarity. I recall embroidered slippers, a garden of roses, a bowl of black cherry ice cream, a deck of cards.

But I am still a waiguoren, a foreigner. I try to speak and I stumble over Mandarin words.

You laugh and tell me that I sound like a child. I pout.

A ballerina glides onstage, a shimmering, trembling, gauzy vision. She opens her arms and reaches toward me, toward us. Graceful, violent fingers dance across strings, plucking and strumming a song from the depths; a melody that recalls pain and beauty, grief, elation and despair. The swan’s sorrow rises and Tchaikovsky weaves back the theme, now tenuous and somber, always bittersweet. Heavy mist approaches and envelops her.

You reach for my hand.

I am unprepared for this.

But when I turn to look at you and your eyes meet mine, the brakes squeal too late – and then, in that split-second before vehicles collide, I realize I am not alone.

In Paris, I found Beauty.

In Rome, I found Simplicity.

In Hong Kong, I found Clarity.

In Tokyo, I found Expression.

And, in Beijing, I found the final, missing piece.

 

 

For so long, I desired to conquer myself. I lived to dismantle and prove that I am more than me, I am better than me, I am anything but me.

But you expose the dissonances.

Ignore the signs. Let us find beauty in age and brokenness. Let us wander down the uneven, forbidden path and realize the Great splendor of a crumbling Wall. Let us explore the remains of a torn-down neighborhood and resurrect the buildings of your past.

Let us put aside practicality, memory, warning, inconvenience, control, fear – and let us, for a moment, live intuitively and lose our minds in what Life has given us.

 

The kisses linger a little longer as the days fly. The cold becomes bearable within the grasp of your hand.

Beneath laser lights at Atmosphere, the New Year tears away the mask and sheds the old way of living. Fried street food absorbs Grey Goose as rattling carts pull us to our next destination. At The Door, “Two girls, six cups” proves to be more than one girl can handle.

And then suddenly we are at the cusp.

A black velvet dress from a vintage store in Le Marais accompanies black stilettos from Kigali, sheer black tights from Tokyo, a gray scarf from Hong Kong, pearl earrings from Chicago, a glass necklace from Venice, a wool coat from Galeries Lafayette, a butterfly ring from Jarabacoa.

All the pieces have come together. Rwanda awaits my return.

We try to lengthen the minutes. We exchange songs and take photos, attempting to capture and bridge beyond the moment. And then we are in the car, suitcases in the trunk, passport and flight itinerary in hand. Last week, we joked about this final dinner. But now, neither of us is laughing.

We pull into an empty parking lot and walk hand in hand past empty white panels through a courtyard equally bare. “Green T. House Living,” reads the sign. I wonder if we are at the right place. But the moment we step inside, my uncertainty vanishes. My eyes take in the graceful arching of branches, the curved surface of the fish bowl, the cream-colored futons, the shifting lights from purple, to lavender, blue, and yellow. I am overwhelmed by the conviction and certainty of our belonging here, as if our presence is somehow justified in this space at this time, on this date – that this moment is ours.

I don’t remember our conversation, and if I had not taken the photos, I would have also forgotten the exquisite tastes that accompanied our words. But I remember the feeling of that hour, as if the air was saturated with time and experience, and everything — the past, the present, the future, the music, the hope, the betrayal, the pain, the pride, the despair, the travels, the stories — had all fused into some sort of strange and breathless magic.

I didn’t expect this and I never wanted this, but when I thought of taking my eleventh and final flight back to Kigali, I knew what I did not want to know.

It was painful. It hurt to remember and to be conscious in this way. Everything outside of this raw conviction rejected what I knew and told me to deny it, bury it, run away from it. But I had tasted love again — and the possibility of pain and rejection become irrelevant. Love was enough. I was enough. And because I was enough, I did not fear the utterance of those three words.

The magic became heavy, it pulsed and shimmered and throbbed. Your reciprocation was too much. It made the magic overflow, and suddenly we are Walking in the Air.

The magic follows us to the Beijing Capital International Airport. I wonder about the meaning of good bye and how to say good bye, I think about whether maybe it is better this way, and what will happen to us and why did this happen.

I look up at the departure board.

Ethiopian Airlines Flight 3015 to Kigali is canceled.

 

Impossible.

 

Ethiopian Airlines Flight 3015 to Kigali is canceled.

Ethiopian Airlines Flight 3015 to Kigali is canceled.

Ethiopian Airlines Flight 3015 to Kigali is canceled.

 

Distraught customers call their travel agencies, reschedule their flights, yell at airline officials.

In the midst of chaos, we stand and embrace without words as the magic approaches and envelops us.

 

 

On the drive home, moments from the past ten days take on sudden import and significance – ABBA at Christmas Eve. Spontaneous Ferragamos. Soaked black lace. Giggling in the massage chair. Anais Nin at Page 1.

It is January 3 and we are sitting in an empty jazz bar amidst the smokey haze of Parisian cigars. The performers wrap up their set and the bar prepares to close.

You come to sit by my side. You tell me that this is right and that you want this, that it is worth it.

I tell you that this is wrong, it doesn’t make sense, it will never work, this was not what either of us wanted, that it is impossible —

But I know I feel the same — and “Yes” is written all over my eyes, my heart, my lips.

Like you, I may not know what will happen, where we’ll be, when we’ll see each other again, whether this will work out — but at this moment and this point in time, I know one thing and this I cannot deny.

The whispered “YES” shatters everything else.

 

And the rest is a blur.

We start to watch “Roman Holiday” but before it is finished, it is time for me to leave.

This cannot be contained. Over 6,113 miles of oceans and mountains and continents and time differences and internet difficulties and opposing lifestyles and diverging career paths – no, this cannot be contained.

What can I do with my happiness? How can I keep it, conceal it, bury it where I may never lose it? I want to kneel as it falls over me like rain, gather it up with lace and silk, and press it over myself again.

In retrospect, it is better that you viewed the final message alone.

“So happy.”

 

Thank you, Beijing, for the missing piece.