“Strangely clean, lacking in texture, like video games before they’d learned to dirty them up”
– William Gibson, on Vancouver
If someone had told me a year ago that I would miss Beijing I’d have thought they were as crazy as the ‘brain infected’ old man from Shogun Assassin*. That I’d miss China? Maybe. That I’d miss my slinky, shoe-washing co-teacher? Certainly. But that I’d miss the smoggy North Capital itself? Nah.
There is a joke that certain people once whispered in pre-Brexit Britain**: “What’s the difference between yoghurt and Canada? Yoghurt has culture!” A similar joke is told here in Vancouver, except ‘Canada’ is pronounced ‘Calgary’ and ‘yoghurt’ is pronounced wrong.
The tricky thing about evaluating ‘culture’ is that it’s a pretty subjective concept. To me, culture is like a planet’s atmosphere: something fiendishly complicated and occasionally life-supporting that builds up in the right conditions over a long period of time***.
I’ve spent most of my 2016 working in a hostel in my adopted homeland, making beds and scrubbing vomit from washroom floors. Some might say it’s a step down from teaching the children of wealthy Chinese families but if you’d ever worked for the same company as me in the Beijing boonies, you’d know that it’s actually an improvement!
But I have missed the Jing, which is why I’ve decided to go back there. I like Vancouver. The people are, on the whole, both dope and chill, usually because they spend a lot of time smoking dope and/or chillin’.
To my eyes, Vancouver is a young city. Not jailbait young, but certainly not creaking at the knees under the weight of its own mythology (like, say, London or Paris). Van City, therefore, comes with all the advantages (and disadvantages) that youth has to offer: It’s beautiful, the air is fresh, there are as many mountains as skyscrapers; it’s got bicycles and beards and artisan coffee shops coming out the wazoo. A veritable Utopia for a pretentious hipster type such as myself! It’s even relatively safe to cross the street without worrying about being hit by a car.
So what has prompted me to return to the not-so-mysterious east? Why the sudden urge to re-enter the dragon? Why do I want to become Ben the Foreigner again? Was I polishing some fans at work when I suddenly inhaled dust that triggered a wistful memory of Tongzhou’s fecal smog? Had I run out of toilet paper and become misty-eyed at the recollection of squatting in a hutong with a red-raw medieval arsehole?
The short answer is, “No, don’t be silly.” I simply couldn’t shake the feeling that, like Stallone between Rocky 5 and Rocky 6, I retired too early. That there’s more of China still to experience.
I’m also a little tired of hearing myself start almost every conversation with the words “when I was in Beijing…”
I arrived in Hollywood North the same way I left the Big Dustbowl: with mixed feelings. There is, of course, the temptation to disappear into the woods like Emily Carr or Henry David Thoreau, to play at being Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans or to go on some sort of shamanic quest (at least as far as Banff). But there is also the temptation not to bugger about with that sort of thing and to face the fact that I’m still more interested in where the sun rises than in where it sets.
I told you I’d see you on the next adventure. Are you ready?
*see https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/04/06/hello-world/. (I’m not made of film references!)
**(before nearly everyone there started Googling ‘How To Move To The Great White North’)
***(NOT something that happens instantly in scientifically inaccurate movies at the push of a button while Arnold Schwarzenegger’s eyes are popping out of his head).