I'm feeling wistful, disaffected, restive.... Is it just the regular slump of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or something more?
Here are some of the images and yearnings that have been most often bubbling up into my mind over the past couple of weeks - indications, surely, that I am starting to become just a little homesick for the land of my birth. These are the things that I find I most miss about the country where I spent most of the first thirty-odd years of my life (or, at any rate, the things that I most resent not having here in Beijing!).
10 Things I Most Miss
Bracing walks over the hills; the sunlight dappled by clouds racing overhead, and the scent of heather in your nostrils. (I'm not sure that China has any moorland anywhere; maybe a little, down in the swampy south-west, around the fringes of Tibet?)
Here in Beijing - and in most of China, I think - we get stuck in a rut with our weather for days or weeks at a time. Our winter this year is still obstinately snowless: no precipitation of any kind, in fact, in well over two months. It's so much more energizing for the soul to have the cycles of rain and sunshine taking their turns every few days, every few hours.
Oh, these days we can get some nice stuff in bottles and cans here. Occasionally you can even find a mass-produced brand like Boddington's or Newcastle Brown on tap somewhere. But they're prohibitively expensive for a pauper like me. And I can't taste Abbot Ale from a bottle without imagining what it would be like from cask, and then imagining the invitingly cool dim interior of a country pub, a doorstep sandwich on fresh-baked bread, and a friendly collie sprawled at my feet... and the tears start to prickle at my eyes.
For a city of 12 million people (or whatever the hell it's supposed to be these days), Beijing has but a handful of cinemas. Most of them show only the latest blockbusters (whether Chinese or overseas); and there are very, very few screenings with English subtitles. When I first came here, there was a laowai film club called Cherry Lane Movies which would show English-subtitled versions of Chinese films every weekend - but that seems to have fallen by the wayside. Oh, there are occasional festivals of foreign films, and screenings here and there by some of the embassies, and the odd artsy-fartsy little coffee shop that will show something interesting once in a while, but - even taken all together - this really doesn't add up to very much (and it's not a real cinema experience!). For a man who's been to the cinema almost every single week throughout his adult life, it is one of the cruellest of deprivations. [And I might well have added the theatre as well. Precious few plays in English put on here (not so very many in Chinese, come to that!) and what there is, mostly am-dram.]
The tang of sea air
Beijing is, I suppose, about 80 miles or so from the coast. It might as well be 800 miles. The prevailing wind is from the other side, so even the stormiest weather off the coast doesn't carry the sea breezes more than a few miles inland. My maternal grandmother, a German lady of inspiring eccentricity, used to live on the English south coast in the small fishing town of Brixham on Torbay, and I'd spend long stretches of my summer holidays down there with her during my infancy. I think it's probably as a result of this that the savouring of brine and ozone have become hardwired among my deepest emotional needs; and if I don't get a little fix of them at least once every year or two, I go a little CRAZY.
The any-colour-as-long-as-it's-black homogeneity of Chinese hair is, for me, one of the least appealing aspects of the people's characteristic appearance. My ancestry is predominantly Irish. Therefore I have a genetic predisposition to be attracted towards ladies with a hint of redness about their hair colour: auburn, copper, russet, tawny... even outright ginger. It's all good for me. But no more black, thank you.
Rather than, as we usually have here, a utility cupboard with a two-ring gas-burner in it. In a proper home, the kitchen is as large or larger than any of the other rooms, and it is a central focus of social life, both with family and for visiting friends and neighbours - not just a place to cook and do the laundry, but a place to eat meals, a place to drink tea or coffee and read the morning papers, a place to just hang out, more cosy (gosh, we used to have an Aga once...), more informal, more relaxed, more fun than any lounge or sitting room. I have never seen such a kitchen here in China. (Although my friend DD's is close, actually.)
People standing aside to let you pass through a bottleneck on the pavement, or pausing to let you pass before they pull their bike out of a parking rack into your path (or throw a bowl of dirty water into the street right in front of you, or spit or discard a cigarette right in front of you, or....), or holding a door open for you. Smiling a thank-you when someone does something like this for you. Or just tossing out a friendly nod of acknowledgement and a muttered 'Good morning' to folks you pass on a quiet street during an early morning stroll. I'm sure this routine good-feeling-toward-the-world-at-large is getting to be in short supply in many parts of the UK these days, particularly, perhaps, in the larger cities. But it is almost COMPLETELY absent among the Chinese - and I do miss it.
Drivers who slow down or stop for pedestrians attempting to cross the road
Rather than wilfully trying to mow you down...
I'm a sucker for it. Although I'm not a terrible cook myself, somehow food that someone else has cooked for me - even if it's quite unremarkable fare - always tastes better to me than something I've cooked for myself; indeed, very often it tastes as good or better than food we might eat out. There's something about the comity of the experience of dining at someone's home that takes it to a whole other level from restaurant eating. Restaurants aren't good at capturing the robust - if in some ways unhealthy - simplicity of homestyle cooking: they'll either try and go all fancy on you (tarting your mashed potatoes up with sour cream or garlic oil) or they'll cut corners to try to stretch their margins; they won't make the mash with full cream milk and generous knobs of butter. In Beijing, alas, almost no-one cooks at home - because we all live too far apart from each other in this sprawling city, because kitchen facilities in Chinese apartments are almost always lousy, because it is so much cheaper to eat out all the time. I've been saying for the past five or six years that I'm going to start throwing occasional dinner parties myself, but I still haven't got around to it. Sigh.