Traffic is always heavy in Beijing, which results in a lot of taxi waiting time (I am willing to give this time up since my elitist streak rarely includes the subway, despite the fact that it is literally three minutes away from my apartment). This morning, on my way to work, was no different. As I sat there in my normal taxi slouch, right side back seat, head tilted against the window pane, wishing it was a pillow, the road ahead of me was not in its usual dusty, bicycled form. Instead, a charcoal path lay before me, sprinkled with tiny golden leaf petals, flipping and turning in the light like sequins on a showgirl. Had there been music, I would have been in my own movie, like that scene in Pleasantville where they drive down the lane between the trees, peach blossoms falling and floating to Etta James’ At Last. In my movie this morning, the entire road shimmered and moved like a whimsical school of acrobatic fish. A wave of nostalgia swept me back to boarding school in Massachusetts, where I spent many an autumn day wandering about the deserted aqueduct in the middle of Wellesley. That place was like my own Bridge to Terabythia. From it, I could see an entire valley, wallpapered with leaves of crimson, ginger and russet, some sliding down the stream, some jumping from tree to tree.
Today reminded me of then, and I was ecstatically happy.
This morning was worth cementing in words because nostalgia and ambience are not things easily found in Beijing. When you’re crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, you feel something. The city is more than just its buildings and history and fabulousness. It is a living being with a vigorous and profound pulse. Entering the city is enough to give me goose bumps every time. But Beijing, with its hugely creative architecture, widespread landscape and giant international presence, has never even raised the slightest of arm hairs. Sometimes, when I am missing America terribly, I cross the city in desperate search of a familiar feeling or hint of reminiscence, and the only places that resemble a fraction of the latter are shopping centers that have been modeled specifically after the Mall of America and Starbucks. And even then, they only exude plastic, muted versions of the real thing. This city (and country for that matter) has been so instantly saturated with modernity and foreign influence that it has yet to fully form a personality of its own. The States has had time to transition from the industrial to the information and now to the networking age. But China is a salad bowl, melting pot and street kabob of every age, which means, despite my crazy optimism, almost everything seems like a glass half empty. The surface is beautiful and offers a smörgåsbord of flavors, but go a little deeper and you’re greeted by florescent lighting and a ton of fake Louis Vuittons. Puerile materialism is fully present, but ambience is not.
In America, ambience is really just a form of mature materialism, or what I like to call an extension of our immense enthusiasm for life. Fall isn’t enough, so we thought we’d go to Michael’s and buy some fake auburn leaves to wrap around the dining table centerpiece. Giving thanks doesn’t quite recreate the first meal, so we pop on a pilgrim hat, bake pumpkin pie and stuff cornucopias. Christmas is not just a familial celebration for the birth of a famous baby; it’s a regular shopping spree to extra-fy everything. Let’s redo nature with spray-snow, tiny cookie houses and ideas of crackling fires, jolly St. Nicks and Home Alone 4.
But it works.
It works so well that every year, particularly approaching holiday season, I yearn, from the depths of my goose bumps, for that fully mature materialism. I crave that cozy western atmosphere, hot chocolate, sleigh bells and all. Which is why on days like today, I get so excited, because finally I feel an inch closer to home.