I end my account of this sojourn in China as I started it: wrapped in a duvet scrunched up in the corner of a bed. This one is a top bunk in a soft sleeper cabin from Beijing to Hong Kong, the duvet now buffering against the airconditioning instead of the winter cold. In 14 hours I will be in Kowloon, having traced the same route I took on leaving Harbin almost 21 years ago.
I know I keep mentioning the years but I write it partly to keep myself honest. I have found that the Chinese cannot tell how old caucasians are so if it didn’t feel a little pathetic to pretend I could probably have got away with being in my early to mid thirties.
In part assisted by this phenomenon my five months here has embodied a weird sensation of reliving my youth while trying to work out what to do with my maturity. Most of my classmates and many of my teachers have been younger than me. The latter would often tell us we had much ahead of us given our youth while smiling apologetically at my raised eyebrow. The former would remind me of my age with comments like “oh! So you’re a year younger than my mother!” as we cycled back from a night out dancing together. It never helped that my main companion and study mate was a mature 26 to my immature middle age and that I was asked on dates by guys from 4 to 8 years younger than me, oh happy days.
It has consequently been hard not to feel much younger than I am while trying not to behave like a piece of mutton trying to gambol with lambs. My older friends ask how the mid life crisis is going; my young friends are too polite to say anything.
All told I have met some amazing people in Beijing. It’s not an easy place to live and most people are there for love – of the place, the people or the promise of history and culture, even if it sometimes falls short. I’ve found the young students unusually thoughtful and hard working in defiance of the negative media reports of youth today. The older expats have ranged from the novelist/rocksinging/international law lecturer through entrepreneurial wine dealers, bankers, journalists and members of NGOs and MNCs, almost always understated and often quietly getting on with society-defining work.
I still have no idea what I want to do when I grow up but I’m looking forward to the next stage of my youth 2.0: my Masters in HK. Not least I can prolong the charade of my second twenties a bit longer. While I study I might also investigate my current travelling companion’s suggestion: she reckons I should publicise myself on China’s dating show 非诚勿扰 (Only the Serious Need Apply). Even if I can’t find a husband apparently I might get a job. Now I just have to decide what age I want to market myself at.