Leaving China

I leave China tomorrow, after four and a half years here.  I am heading out to get an MBA at London Business School (LBS), a two year program that has me graduating in the summer of 2012 (just in time for the London Olympics!). 

As my time in China comes to a close, I’ve been thinking a great deal about endings.  They don’t happen in a moment or even a day;  it’s not an “end,” after all, but an “ending.”  I am now, for instance, writing from a hotel in Beijing, as I moved out of my apartment this morning.  Did I stop living in Beijing this morning already; or will that happen tomorrow, maybe when my flight leaves the tarmac?  Ending three years at Kamsky Associates has also been a gradual ending.  While my last day was June 18th, I started transitioning most accounts to my colleagues long before, and will surely stay connected to the people I met there for many years to come.

But while my time in China is ending, there was a clear moment today when my time in Beijing abruptly ended:  when I walked away from my bike.  You see, China is a country — a concept. But Beijing is a place.  We tend to think that places are concepts too, perhaps defined by the people in them, their vibe, their ascetics, their history, their ideals.  But I would argue a place is just that:  a place, a physical location.  Maybe it’s just that I’ve been reading Omnivore’s Dilemma and watching too much of BBC’s Life series, but I do think that our brains are hard-wired to pay particularly close attention to our physical surroundings.  It’s important for survival to know how to get home, where to find food, and where to avoid becoming food as well.  Or if that’s too caveman-esque of an example, how’s this:  what I suspect I remember most clearly from my childhood are the locations of the hidden “1-UPs” in Super Mario Brothers.  Indeed, now two decades later, if you put a Nintendo controller back in my hands, I bet I would still know that the 1-UP was hidden in the red brick four steps to the left of that pit (you know, the one near the two black-shelled turtles that hit each other and change direction just as you come on screen).

Like a Nintendo controller, my bicycle helped me understand Beijing by letting me understand its “placeness”.  When some people think of Beijing they think of the Olympics, or Communism, or cheap ties.  For me, though, Beijing was the (unnecessarily high) speed bump near my apartment, and the smooth and rewarding downgrade heading east off Dongsishitiao, and the patter of the packed ping pong tables near Jianguomenqiao that I would pass on my way to work.  And, since I could bike to most destinations in under half an hour, regardless of traffic, my bike helped make this sprawling and often congested city accessible.

So, you can imagine that abandoning my bike today (albeit to the kind ownership of a friend and colleague) was really hard.  I wasn’t just leaving a bike, I was leaving the tool that let me play in this amazing city, get around it, and, in my way, understand it.  Outside of Beijing, I can still read about the city’s economic and political developments.  But how will I know if they finally put a pedestrian traffic light on the western crosswalk of Xin Dong Lu and Dongzhimenwai?

Hmm, it’s getting to be that strange time between night and morning now.  A good time, it seems, for this Aabservation to come to an ending.

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