Nothing makes a place feel more like home than returning to it. I think I first said this, about Xiamen, after a 10 day trip to Taiwan in 2009. Returning to the Xiamen, seeing simplified characters, getting on my usual bus, knowing where my next meal was coming from – it was the first time this island felt like home.
When I landed at Xiamen Gaoqi airport on Saturday, I thought of all the times I’ve returned to Xiamen. By my count, it’s something like three times in that airport, twice by train, once by bus, once by boat.
Unlike the other times, I didn’t really know what to expect. Five years is a long time, especially in China. When I went to Taiwan for 10 days, I remember they remodeled Coco, my favorite milk tea place, and I almost didn’t recognize it.
Especially after my time in Beijing was less than lovely, I had a lot of anxiety about coming back to Xiamen. Part of my post On Beijing and Loving China was an attempt to understand why I’ve loved China, remember why I loved Xiamen, and predict whether or not I would still love it.
The two easiest changes to identify are the absence of my international friends, and the inevitable changes in myself over five years. During my time at XiaDa, I had very few (like 3?) American friends, but as my classmates were also studying Chinese, they were all international students. My best friends were Dutch, Spanish, Cape Verdean, Russian, Slovenian, Japanese, Filipino, Thai, Mexican, etc., and it was hard to imagine Xiamen without them. I ate most meals with them, went dancing with them, debriefed with them after strange or frustrating experiences. Our knowledge of the city was communal. I’ve since seen several of them, in their countries or in mine, and they were as delightful as I remembered, so it seems natural to question if they were what made Xiamen delightful. Then, in their absence?
As for myself, the unhappiness I felt in Beijing worried me. Maybe I had lost my adventuring spirit, or my patience, or my sense of humor. China requires hefty supplies of all three. Was this Beijing that I didn’t like basically Xiamen, seen through loveless eyes?
But now, five days later, I’m once again devastated to leave Xiamen, pained at the knowledge that I don’t know when I’ll be back, and struggling to express my feelings.
There have been changes – There are two giant new buildings on the horizon, visible from any part of the island I go to. The air is worse, although the worst day I saw here would still be in the top 10% of my days in Beijing. There are a ton of tourists now – I think the opening of the new high-speed rail routes since I left has been huge for tourism here. This translates into crowded beaches, once the domain of us foreigners only, and significant traffic, of the kind I had only seen before on national holidays. There’s a Walmart on Zhongshan Lu, now, and a Carrefour, too, so you can buy Western goods without having to travel all the way to SM.
Distances changed, too – not in reality, obviously, but in my memory. I went walking around 西村 and found our old malatang place and our old jiaozi place, but they were at least three times further than I remembered, and I almost gave up before we got to them. It was amazing that I was able to find so many things that I remembered, between the pace of development in China and my notoriously bad spatial memory. But for everything that was gone (Green Chairs Restaurant!!), there were two that were still there (the malatang soup place, the hand pancake stand). I’m honestly not sure what surprised me more, when I found something exactly where I expected it, or when it wasn’t there. Both astonished me, every single time.
But these changes are fairly superficial. The island is the same island I loved. Xiamen just can’t help being beautiful. People are always surprised when I say that Stanford is not the most beautiful campus I’ve lived on, but it’s true. Minutes from the beach at Baicheng, surrounded by mountains – In comparison with XiaDa, Stanford might as well be in the middle of Iowa. The most ridiculous thing is, Xiamen doesn’t seem to know it’s beautiful. Everyone always talks about Gulangyu, this smaller island nearby, but it’s so full of tourists I find it anything but peaceful. It’s okay, you can have Gulangyu, I’ll take Xiamen any day.
Xiamen is a very clean city, and it seems like aesthetics were considered when building and developing it. I always feel stupid saying this, but one of my favorite things about the city are the highways – sleek and white instead of the usual dull gray concrete, and they light up at night along their edges. I could sit all evening on the beach at Baichang, watching the sunset first and then enjoying the winding illumination of the highways.
Coming to Xiamen was good for my soul. The last few days in Beijing was honestly less a countdown to Xiamen and more a countdown to the next time I would see something beautiful. Counting generously, I would say the last time I saw something beautiful was at the Bird’s Nest, on July 18th – two weeks ago. Then there were those few clear days at the beginning of the month . . . and then orientation, when we went to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. Hmm, still have a few fingers left on this hand.
So that first evening in Xiamen, as XuLei drove me along one of the bridges over Baicheng, I saw the sunset and cried. How was I so blessed to live here for a year? Questions like that ran through my head for most of my visit. What could I possibly have done to deserve this?
Because it’s not just the island – it’s also the people. Oh, 厦门人，你们真的了不起. For all the time I spent with my international classmates, I was also pretty involved at church and did a lot of dancing, and in these circles my friends were mostly Chinese. To a person, everyone seemed as happy to see me as I was to see them, and they were so good to me. Chinese hospitality manifests itself in large part in “treating” (paying for things), which sometimes makes me uncomfortable because I don’t know how to respond, but I also appreciated the time people took (away from work, away from their families) to spend with me, and the way they welcomed me back into their lives for a few days after, for some of them, five years without contact.
I made a few new friends, too. My host and good friend Xu Lei’s boyfriend/fiance; the labmate of a church friend who climbed Nanputuo with me; a Mexican woman I happened to sit next to at Chinese Mass who happened to be, like, my soul sister. And there were a few people I didn’t really remember from church, but they were really excited to see me (I made chocolate chip cookies that Christmas and handed them out at church, which I think did a lot to foster feelings of good will) and we talked more in these few days than in the whole year I was here.
I saw Bishop Cai at Mass on my first day here, and talked to him afterwards. How have you been? he asked, Everyone is happy to see you. Thank you! I replied, it feels like coming home, I told him. Welcome home, he said.