James Kramer is making his way back home after six years living in China...
Where to start? I guess I’ll just begin by saying that I’ve missed you. It’s been six years, right? Not too short a time. You are the city I grew up in, where I spent those early, ill-considered years. But for over half a decade I have, for better or worse, called Beijing my home. I’ve experimented with forbidden cities, apocalyptic smog and a landscape of epic proportion.
Now that I’m coming home to you, how do I feel? More importantly, how do you feel? I can say in earnest that I’ve missed your cobbled streets, your low and untroubled sky, the green of Meadow’s fields and the incline of Sherwood’s rolling hills. Are the Thompson twins still there? Are the bars and cafes that I used to frequent still present and in standing order? Did Jade finally fade? Was the Fleece eventually stolen? How many of the places so imbedded in memory will be gone and have to remain there as ghosts, not dissimilar to myself?
But I’m already jumping too far ahead. Let us go back for a moment, to explain just where it is that I’ve been.
For the past six years I’ve worked as a teacher of English literature, listening to a class of Beijing’s new elite recite 1984 without a shrug of irony. I would then watch them march in line to their daily, mandatory school-wide workout, conducted outside on the smog-dusted playground to the sounds of neo-synthpop anthems. I’ve sat somewhere between being what might loosely be called a professional, an almost accredited educator, to little more than a lucrative foreign mannequin; a dancing clown for kindergarteners with wealthy parents, where classes consisted of little more than taking posed photos with me, a smiling outsider, standing centrefold.
And yet, through this, I have seen the vast north-eastern region of China. I’ve seen Zhengzhou, Kaifeng, the ice-cities of Harbin and the desolate urban plight of Jinan and so many, many more. I’ve got some horror stories for you my old friend, of the great middle kingdom’s industrial north. Cities that would put all of your end-of-days, Fury Road fantasies to shame. Places on earth that colour had long since forgot. There will be times when still I remember with desolation the potholed journey to Kaifeng, where tundra dustbowl fields fused with a polluted sky in an invisible horizon. The only signs of human life on the infinitely outstretching dual carriageway were grim-faced road-side vendors, selling “advanced baby strawberries” and “luxury milk” out of sand-covered containers from the boots of their makeshift steel carts.
But will I miss and crave the taste of stinky tofu once I return to the Midlands? Will I pine for street barbeque of indefinable meats, all washed down with 78% baijiu rice wine that serves nicely as an amiable paint stripper? Perhaps, most probably so. But I am also looking forward to that first hummus and halloumi in the Alley Café, those Portuguese coffees and Indian sweets that forever remind me of Forest Fields. All of the multifarious flavours that intertwine to reflect the taste of my hometown, I’ve missed them all so much. But will they waiting there upon my return? How much will have changed, and what might already be gone? Am I still a native with what little trace there once was of my accent having vanished for good?
In Beijing, most still endorse that archaic and wonderfully inaccurate stereotype that the English are all absolute gentlemen. And let’s face it, there are worse ways we are often considered overseas. And year by year, I’ve become little more than a parody of that monocle-clad age, sounding like an awkward extra on a low-rent period drama, while my expatriate colleges hide their own Georgia twang or lilting Danish drawl for reasons of their own. Equally woeful would be the result if, upon my return, requests were made for me to demonstrate my Chinese. The greatest leap forward that I ever made remains being told that I had advanced from sounding like “a toddler” to “a street person”. Girlfriends can be so kind.
I’ll miss the Beijing punk scene, with its imitation CBGBs out in the barren wasteland of the Tongzhou district, its ramshackle live houses with ill-equipped escape routes and semi-legendary combustible wiring. Bands like Demerit, The Flyx and Hell City, playing down small Hutong-style alleyways that define the old quarters of the city.
But I’ll be coming home to see what’s thriving in those Hockley nights. And I see you’ve become an international City of Literature since I’ve been gone. Do your poets still cut mod haircuts? Are your musicians still sneaking in underage? (I wrote that Mr Bugg’s first review, got to cash in on that somewhere at some point).
Nottingham, I feel trepidatious and anxious, like I’m going on a first date with an old friend. I’m not sure if you think this change between us will be a good thing, or that maybe it’s better being a little further apart. Having said that, I’m ready and willing to give it a go if you’ll take me back.
So, what do you say Nottingham? Can I come home?
James Kramer has been a writer, poet and all around abuser of the English language for the past decade. He has resided in a part of Beijing that is currently in the process of being knocked down. With clean air, he can see the Bird’s Nest from his apartment. This has only happened twice in the past year. He will be reading and writing in Nottingham soon.
James Kramer website
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