Back Alleyways, Bright Future

No one accomplishes anything alone.

As I walk down my usual route of 25 minutes between the Third and Second Ring Roads of the city of Beijing, scenes from my travels play in my head. I navigate through the dirty streets, trying to get acquainted with my new neighborhood. It's a mix of hutongs (alleyways) that smell like barbeque, fresh bread and old saliva. And new saliva too. You can hear it. Hawk, spit. Hawk again, spit. Repeat. It's filled with people who are new to the city, like me, all trying to make a buck and succeed somewhere outside of their hometowns. The "foreigners" don't really belong here, but neither do a lot of the Chinese. Most come from different provinces, from the countryside, and some are less aware of Beijing's history than me. It's a place of run-down apartment complexes and the elderly population I'm sure migrated here after the Cultural Revolution and haven't left their hutongs since. The random abandoned couches and chairs on my walk from the mart to my apartment compound make me believe so.

I realize that I've spent almost everyday waking up having little idea of where I'm going. This is particularly true of my time in Beijing, since I left Canada (yet again) in May, and basically since I started to walk. I'm not sure if that is conducive to travel or not, or because I'm just a bad planner. Either way it is a significant realization for me. And I wonder if I'll ever slip out of that phase, or I'm meant to be a hopeless wanderer my entire life.

I can't help but find myself completely alone in this city-on a walk back to my apartment, eating in a restaurant, at a new cafe, or when I finally get back to my studio apartment after a long day trying to get by in this crazy city. This city is manic. This city is fast. Well, it moves two steps forwards, thinks in backwards steps, and goes to bed early. You have to creep around the alleyways to find a dark bar where people are enjoying a drink and some conversation after 10 p.m. You can turn a corner onto a street that seems totally dead and drab, but all of a sudden you'll end up in a place filled with life; filled with people, Chinese or otherwise, all smiles and ready to tell you their life story, or at least buy you a drink. As for my living situation, I've decided roommates will be the way to go in a few months, if I am not kicked out because of an expired tourist visa and if my landlord allows me to leave the lease in a couple of months-whichever comes first.

I have a habit of making hasty decisions and the attempt to start a new life in Beijing was no different. I started at a school a few days after I arrived. I signed a lease on an apartment not even 24 hours after landing. I met up with old friends my second night in the city and had visions of a fanstastic year ahead. I tried my best to ignore the layer of smog so visiblly resting on the toes of the party-goers on Sanlitun, as they crossed the busy Beijing streets, looking for another drink, a driver, or their dream.

Things didn't unfold so easily as the days went by. I should have taken the hint on that Friday night in August when I landed in Beijing. I took the airport bus to the city, got off, dodging the black taxi guys who saw my little self and my backpack and gave me a thumbs up (some people support adventure in spirit). I lugged my suitcases across the street to hail a cab. I waited for over an hour, only to be picked up by a tuk-tuk driver who drove myself and my stuff not even two blocks down the road, and dropped me off right across from Tian'anmen Square. He couldn't go any further because little carts on the road are illegal, and there was a policeman in front of us. I gave him his 30 kuai (5 dollars) and walked with my stuff down Qianmen hutong, to a hostel. I only had dinner that night at 11:30. I was not ready for my day ahead.

A lot of time in Beijing is spent hailing a cab. I can't help but find myself in the middle of some of the busiest intersections in the city, perhaps even the world, standing there with one arm out and zero luck. I also spend a lot of time stressing about how I'm going to communicate to the driver where I want to go once I actually get into one. Life in the capital ain't easy. During those times of desperation (and a little fear) I think about countries I've visited, opportunities I've missed (personally and professionally) and I begin to doubt my life choices. Why didn't I stay here years ago when I had the chance? I would have been a pro at Chinese by now, and life would be easier! Why couldn't I have tried teaching in Myanmar? Or stayed in Thailand? So many palms trees! So much love! Then I look around and think: Stop thinking so much, you crazy person, and appreciate that you're HERE! But first, get to where you need to go. Cross the road, maybe you'll have better luck there.

So I did. And I do. I take an extra glance at the drummers under GuangMing bridge. I buy street food despite the rumours and sometimes unsanitary conditions around me. I'm making friends and working hard. There's still plenty more to discover in Beijing, and there's tons of kids ready to be taught English. If I can get my 25 students to say, "teacher, may I go to the bathroom?" instead of wetting themselves during Circle Time every morning then I will consider my first term of teaching in China a success. After only two weeks, little Alina, who didn't say a word to me my first few days with her, now says "See you tomorrow!" every evening when her Dad picks her up. She waves goodbye to me as her Dad takes a photo on his smartphone of me interacting with his little girl, as I help her button up her Burberry coat. One of these days I hope for a reply to my "nihao" or just a kind nod in my direction from this man. First come the new generation, and hopefully the former will change. Onwards.

I might have six days left in this country, I might have six years. Maybe six months. I have no idea. But I know I won't be spending that time alone. I'll be spending it happy, with a giving heart, and hope for the best. The smog and the stares aren't going to get in my way.

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