I’m in the last week of the 6 months for which I joined the “international migrant workers” and went abroad to make some money.
A week or two, longer than most people would take, or indeed have, to discover Beijing on vacation – and it very nicely drives home the point about the tension between familiarity and exoticism in at-home-making: In having been here for a longer time, and this not having been the first long time I have been in China (or even in Beijing), I feel quite at home here.
It is a feeling that is driven by a familiarity with the city and the citizens that can be a bit numbing, though.
Some people may say that this sort of numbness is rather necessary to survive and stay sane anywhere, but especially in China. If you notice too much, interesting as an exotic other can also be, you will also notice only too many things that may bother and upset you; infamous “bad China days” are the consequence.
This sort of numbness is, of course, why we tend to feel at home (or at least comfortable) where we have grown up: because we are familiar with it. We know it, we know the people, we have some friends, and even if there are things we want to complain about, they are “our” problems that we are used to.
Move to a place like Beijing, and the smog will mess with any training plans you might even consider following, the food will often be great and healthier – and other times it will make you sick and doubt not just its quality but its safety (if not its edibility).
Then again, of course there are those fantastic and exciting sights that everyone visits, or at least wants to visit. The excitement of places so special, so high up on many a list of must-sees.
Having a chance to visit them more often and more easily holds some promise – but the same accessibility can easily make them less appealing. When it doesn’t take a flight to get somewhere on a vacation that only offers a few days to see as much as possible, then the hour-long subway ride to get there and the mass of tourists is, in comparison, insufferable.
China, like many a non-‘Western’ and not more southerly country, has a lot to show even so.
So much of life happens on the roadside, in the parks, publicly, there is sure to be a lot to see. Yet again, though, when you are used to it, when it all is around you only too many a day, the fascination easily falls away.
It becomes more noticeable when there’s a middle-age woman stepping out a doorway whom you see out of the corner of your eyes, think not to be that bad looking – and then she suddenly hawks up a gob of phlegm and deposits it in the middle of the road.
And so, it goes, everywhere the same.
You are where you’ve always been, and you’re only too familiar with it even as you may not know all that much of it. Hardly a worthy way to live.
You go to a different place, and the excitement may be great, but it’s the superficial excitement of the new and extraordinary and must-see that is just touristy.
Hardly a good way to live, either.
Stay longer, and the excitement that makes only the extraordinary visible gives way to the familiarity that makes even the ordinary become invisible, having been seen only too often.
A boring way to live.
This is why I talk so much about at-home-making.
The idea of “at home” we usually have is that of being or getting somewhere, and having everything fall into place. You know you have arrived, you feel comfortable, everything is just as (you think) it should be.
Life, however, is never like that, certainly not for a longer time. And indeed, realizing that things are never going to just simply be perfect and dealing creatively and positively with that is a major aspect of living in reality, making oneself at home in life and the world – and everything – as it is.
Making oneself at home is also what it takes.
It is not a passive thing that happens (though it may certainly take its time), but an active process of learning and discovery.
This, too, is what it takes to break through the shallow excitement of the exotic and the equally-as-shallow blinders of the familiar: getting active about one’s learning, setting out to explore and discover more, be that in surroundings, in scholarly pursuits, or in simple pleasures.
Go out for a photo project, to look for certain scenes or themes.
Learn something about where you are and what it is that can be seen, and see things in order to try and learn more about them.
Go different paths from the usual and seek out the new in the known (and the known in the new).
And, the extraordinary (and extra-ordinary) shines through the veil of the merely familiar…
Another example, perhaps: Beijing Sleepers. A better example, I am still working on ;)