I’m back (at?) home in Austria, wondering if I’ve failed with the small (photo and writing) projects I started in and on Beijing because I’m not finished with them… and yet I realize that this is just one of those points where being somewhere else can actually bring you closer to a place.
It’s not this dream that “if only I were *there* rather than *here*, I’d be so happy and everything would be so great” that people sometimes fall into that I am talking about.
Yes, I know.
Where you are can be familiar and “at home” just as well as it can be that familiar hellhole you want nothing but to get out of – but so can any other place.
We have a natural tendency to think in such ways.
We get used to what we always see, tell ourselves that somewhere we don’t know would be much better, and end up liking or disliking both here and there based more on what we decide to focus on than all that’s really there.
This process plays out particularly well when it comes to foreigners in China, where a whole other level of exoticism or “going native” or criticism or you-name-it comes into play.
One of the constant debates among “China watchers” circles round and round the (im)possibility of knowing China when you are not living there.
It just happens too often that some expert/pundit visits Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen and pronounces the power that China has become. Equally as often, experts or analysts sit in London or Washington and declare China’s impending collapse.
Meanwhile, “old China hands” live in the midst of all the chances and changes and challenges in the country and shake their heads over the naiveté of these pronouncements.
You may have noticed something similar when it comes to your own country, or even city or county:
The further someone is away, the simpler their statements about a place, and the more convinced they may often be about them.
At the same time, however, the opposite problem can also apply:
Being in the midst of a place makes one only too aware of all the nitty-gritty details of daily life, but less likely to look down deeply into the history of this place, or up and at longer-term trends and patterns.
When we are in a place we “know” (i.e., we have been for a while and know our essential ways around), we don’t usually even notice any sights that are of note to others from farther away anymore.
This is what has always struck me about my China experiences (especially because it was the same pattern I then noticed about my attitude towards my native Austria):
Living there is great for the direct lived experience, indeed.
But the same direct experience also makes for so much focus on everyday things that happen and that need doing that there is little time and energy for anything else.
Only when I’m back somewhere else do I get to better libraries and more of an interest in understanding more deeply what I had been observing before. Not to mention the critical distance from which to try and see larger patterns, not just everyday problems.
It’s just this kind of a balance that is a back-and-forth between intimacy and distance, engagement and aloofness, that we actually seem to need in many a situation.
Even romantic interest doesn’t work without some degree of separation (at the very least, enough for interesting individuality); variety spices up life; the familiar becomes more interesting (and all the more comforting, often enough) only once it has been the unusual.