Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Way It Is

Every night in a million different bars, in almost every country in the world, a sour-faced barman, impatient to shut up shop, will try to dislodge the last lingering customers stubbornly glued to their barstools by calling out, "Haven't you got any homes to go to?"

And always one of the late-staying drinkers will rouse himself to mount a token resistance on behalf of his fellow barflies and meet this taunt with the stock reply, "But this is my home." And then, as often as not, he will pause, and sigh heavily, suddenly recognising in this plaintive little quip a bitter kernel of truth - that this place is more a 'home' to him than anywhere else.

That's how Beijing has been for many of us expats over the years - not quite a real 'home', but certainly something akin to a favourite neighbourhood bar: always an entertaining place to hang out; friendly, comforting, reliable; a ready source of diverting conversation and like-minded company; and yes, a space somehow removed or insulated from the tiresome responsibilities of the workaday world - or the world that we've tried to leave behind in our countries of origin. Plus, of course, the drink is very cheap.

And then there's the added appeal that Beijing really is a 24-hour city: there's always somewhere you can go for company and conversation, food and drink. They never send you home earlier than you want to go.

And so, for the last several years, many of us have been having the time of our lives: on the go 24/7, constant stimulation, almost limitless fun - a non-stop party.

And then, at the start of this Olympic year, the sour-faced barman started reminding us that this isn't our real home, that we're no longer welcome here, that we should make ready to leave. It was bitter indeed to realise that this place we have come to love does not love us back, that we are not necessarily all that welcome, that our tenure here is ever precarious.

It is not so much the lack of a party vibe around last month's Olympics themselves as the fact that we expats have all had to face that threat of arbitrary expulsion in the last year, and that we all know many friends who've had to leave, which leaves me feeling so flat and jaded now.

But that was just a temporary blip in the Beijing experience, right? Everything should be more or less back to normal in a few more weeks. All this Olympic 'security' nonsense can be forgotten, and buying our visas will once more be an inexpensive and hassle-lite routine.

But what is the post-Olympic Beijing going to be like? What is expat life here going to be like from now on? So many of the foreigners working here in the last few years were employed in fields specifically related to the Olympics: architecture and construction, sponsorship and PR, security and hospitality consultancy. These people are all moving on. Many of them have left already. Many more - people like me - came here in the last 7 years primarily because we were fascinated by the idea of witnessing the reshaping of the city in preparation for the Games; and 2008 was thus always - at least in some vague, unspoken way - a likely terminal date for our stay here. Many of this group, too, have left, or will soon leave, or are searching around somewhat forlornly, somewhat desperately for a new reason to stay.

And the 'next wave', the new expats who'll be coming out for the first time over the next few months, the ones who didn't give too much of a damn about the Olympics and the transformation of the city they have triggered, but are hoping to be a part of a continuing economic boom here - what of them? Well, I don't think there have been any sightings yet - because it's still next-to-impossible to get visas. In a month or two, they may be arriving in droves.

It will be interesting to see what lies ahead for all of us. At the moment, there's a kind of vacuum, and a sense of hopeful anticipation mixed with a slightly anxious uncertainty.

The year ahead, I think, could be a very good one. It will almost certainly be quite different from the last few we've known.

I really don't mind too much how it turns out, just so long as that miserable git behind the bar doesn't try to send us home early again.


gary said...

Well said, man. That's the best piece about Beijing 2008 I've read.

Froog said...

Why, thank you, Gary. It's nice to have a "fan"!