On my flight home, I sat next to a native Beijinger who lived in a small house in the Hutongs, which are parts of the old city. He taught himself passable English in his retirement and had decided to move to Cincinnati for his remaining years. I spoke with him for much of the flight. I would speak in Chinese and he would speak in English. We would correct each other when needed, but the focus was on sharing things of interest from our respective worlds.
In China, there’s an unspoken understanding that anyone you see who looks elderly has probably seem some terrible things, especially a native Beijinger. Between the Great Famine, the Civil War, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and the events leading up to Tiananmen Square, the elderly in China have had more than their fair share of hardships. It was amazing hearing his stories and his take on the world. He was unbelievably optimistic, given all that he had seen.
It dawned on me halfway through my flight that this is what I would miss the most about living in Beijing. You could go anywhere and meet someone with a fascinating story, who was more than willing to share it with you. You could go around the city and collect amazing stories, make friends that would blow you away, and be in awe of the resourcefulness, intelligence, kindness, and creativity in who you spoke to. This is not to say that people in the United States are boring, but they are reserved. You can’t meet someone that night and hear his or her take on their life story. Life stories are reserved for closer friends and I think that’s a shame because plenty of people—most actually—really blew me away.