My fireplace smells of old ashes

Here I am, in a new city once again. I’ve set myself a low-key, tentative, two-year deadline for time spent here, enough to finish my degree and look forward to the next new thing. It’s a good amount of time, enough to make a full circuit of the hundred plus shops in my area and perhaps find one to call home, enough to flirt with cute waitresses and sleep on a few couches, and enough to assemble yet another piece of me, a compartment, a cardboard box I shall label Bmore.

My new apartment is rugged, probably close to a hundred years old if not older. My fireplace leaks when it’s raining outside, the windows are on chains and drafty, and the low-hanging lamp assaults me at least twice a day, but there’s plenty of charm and brick and creaky floorboards that make up for its shortfalls. Mostly, it is nice to have my own place again, to live with people my own age, to be responsible for stocking a kitchen, to be able to dance around naked when no one’s around to see.

Being in the city has its perks, too. Yet again I find myself flummoxed by anyone willing to put up with the US’s typical personal commute. Why would I spend two hours of each day stuck in traffic and upset with frustration when I can prance to-and-from the office with such delight and ease? And so, I am living by whim these days, thankfully.


Being in Harbin all weekend is both exciting and daunting, exciting for the celebratory air, the reason for being there, family, friends; daunting for the pressure of delivery and planning. My grandfather is turning eighty, 80, it’s a pretty big number. I’m only 30% there. It really gives me perspective: on the amount of things I’ll be able to accomplish in all those years. My grandfather has done a lot of great things in his lifetime; he has studied, and discovered, and taught, and raised children, and moved numerous times, during times of war and peace, starved, persecuted, chased. It’s all there, it has made him the man he is: wise, slightly embittered, knowledgeable, and full of words.

I think about the type of person I am to become in the next ten, twenty, fifty years, and the person I am now. Celebrating this occasion, being squeezed in between a dozen other family members and being told to smile simultaneously, being retouched, prodded, performing under glaring lights, being shuffled between restaurants and graves and houses, it adds a strange artificial gild to all of the weight of this occasion. And then I think, I wonder what it’ll be like when I’m eighty, whether there will be as many people available to celebrate my accomplishments and life, whether I would have made an important impact on anyone at all. Maybe I’m just being too cynical about all of this; it’s definitely nice getting the family together again (hasn’t happened since about 10 years ago), and of course, I love any and all excuses to go to Harbin.

A few degrees of freedom

I am befuddled by the size of the world sometimes. I gaze outside at the rows and columns of people and cars and buildings, and I imagine the enormity of the number of people these boxes hold, the number that I do not know, would not recognize, and would perhaps never meet. And then, I think about the rows and columns of these same structures that exist outside of my plane of vision, in this district, in this city, and in the thousands of other cities which exist throughout this country and the rest of the world. That number is such an exaggeration; my eyes can barely tell what one thousand people look like, much less ten thousand, one million, one billion. Yet, even within this structure, this world that seems so big and boundless and unknowable, I find that it’s easier to bring people together rather than push them apart. In Beijing, in a city with more than 22 million people, I find that coincidences happen. I run into people I know at every corner, on every subway ride, every time I visit the places I call my own. In some ways, my life here in Beijing is fast becoming my life in Boston, no longer anonymous, instead filled with familiar and unavoidable meetings with familiar and unavoidable beings. It’s good, I suppose, living in this global community, a web of travelers, traipsing, never stopping, blanketing the surface of this planet with our inability to settle down.

The multiple occasions during which my friends have traveled to a different city and encountered another friend of mine are now more than fluke coincidences. The messages of, guess who I met in , they say they’re a friend of yours, interrupt my daily rhythm with a wry smile and a sincere appreciation for chance. The world is at once huge and unbridgeable and tiny and familiar. Sometimes, I fear that it’s no bigger than the address book in my blackberry, but then I throw open the shades for some perspective.

Location: Beijing, China