It was emotionally overwhelming to return to Beijing, a city I’d once called called home for four years. Neighborhoods had been transformed by the emergence of new skyscrapers. Old favorite haunts had either gotten major facelifts or gone out of business. Knock-off markets had all been shut down by the local government, and the ban against smoking doors was now actually enforced.
Some of these changes were a good thing (I used to hate coming home smelling like smoke every night), while others less so. There was a different energy about the city – it’s less inviting, and way more tame. The heady freedom we expats had once enjoyed in Beijing was definitely gone (work visas are harder than ever to obtain, and police have done a few drug raids at bars popular amongst foreigners, sending a clear message: no one is immune, and crackdowns on "corruption" are now imminent). Meanwhile, the Great Firewall is as ironclad as ever (when I lived in Beijing from 2009-2013, Facebook and Twitter were blocked; now Gmail and Instagram are as well).
On the one hand, it’s nice to see Beijing growing up (albeit with less freedom -- though the local population seems more informed and cosmopolitan than ever). On the other, I found myself almost missing the chaos, the spontaneity, the feeling that anything could happen. But mostly, the trip was a stark reminder that I’m growing older and further apart from Beijing, and that memories of people and places I’d held so close to my heart can never be relived or replicated.
Nostalgia aside, though, it was a great trip. The food was just as good as I remember (still waiting for the day that Yunnan and Xinjiang cuisine get the shine they deserve in the USA), and it was wonderful seeing old friends. If anything, I left realizing that I need to visit Asia more often. Stay tuned for my photo diaries for Bangkok and Shanghai, coming up next! x