Being back in Beijing—especially when the sky is the color of Paul Newman’s eyes and the air quality is good—reminds me why my daughter Sabrina loves it here. This city has so much character, an ambience of old and new as well as a blend of locals and the foreigners who love it.
I love it too: setting out in the morning, biking down a little alley and stopping at the fruit and veg lady and then at the lady who sells my favorite tiny peanuts that are all oily and salty in their red paper skins. Both ladies smile, not the least bit self-conscious about their rotting teeth.
At twilight, I reverse my route. Today I needed slippers. It was a lowest common denominator situation at the slipper lady in the alley: either the pink ones with stuffed bunnies sewn on the top or the red Hello Kitty ones. I chose the Kitties.
Two days ago I bought a new, used, probably stolen bike to replace the stolen Flying Pigeon brand bike I’d bought on a previous visit.
It’s a conundrum because I don’t want to support the stolen bike industry by buying a used, probably stolen bike. (When I went into the store I looked around for my old bicycle, which would be the only one in all of Beijing with safety features, like a mirror attached to the handlebars.)
I then took my probably stolen bike to a guy in an alley who, for the equivalent of nine dollars, put on a basket, a bell, a new chain and made the gears and brakes work like charms. Chinese make miracles with little more than a screwdriver.
If I had bought a shiny new bicycle, then I’d just be adding to the supply of used bikes, because that would surely have attracted thieves. At least with a rusty old bike, there’s a chance no one will take it. Plus, it’s cool and hipsterish, because that’s what Sabrina said when she saw it.
I’ve been here for two days now, and spent yesterday editing my homeless writing group’s monologue stories for a performance at the DCJCC’s Theater J (April 4 at 8 pm, free admission, reception to follow, tell your DC friends*) and drinking coffee at a vegan cafe with big windows in a sunny lane; today I’m sitting on the roof of another cafe, drinking grapefruit tea and warmed by the sun, despite temperatures in the forties. Soon I’ll get groceries for dinner and track down a place to get a key made.
It makes me feel like l live here–writing, doing errands, cooking dinner. In general, whenever and wherever I travel, I’m drawn to routines and places that feel most like home.
Note to burglars: Lest you get the idea that my house is unoccupied, my dogsitter, Brutus, is staying there with my pitbull, Rocco.
*Ever since early January, my writing groups at Miriam’s Kitchen and at Street Sense have been working hard on their personal stories to share with you. These unforgettable oral histories tell of love, fear, homelessness, prison, Hurricane Katrina, bullies, Santa Claus, and more.
As one participant remarks, when contemplating his history of homophobia, “We are all human beings.” The humanity of these homeless and formerly homeless individuals has changed me and perhaps will change you too.
The monologues will be professionally staged and directed by NJ Mitchell and performed by professional actors.
What is your travel MO?
LOTS ABOUT MARRIAGE AND RELATIONSHIPS AND CHINA IN MY NEW MEMOIR . . .
“A first-rate personal essayist, Susan Orlins delivers the goods time and again. Underneath her self-mocking voice, her abundant humor, her brio, there is the serious candor of a moralist who worries the problems that won’t go away.”
–PHILLIP LOPATE, author and editor of The Art of the Personal Essay