Beijing isn't a sentient life form. But on my first day there, I believed it hated me

The Guardian-4 years before

Though I sometimes fantasise about living alone, that fantasy doesn’t last long – I don’t take good care of myself without supervision. When my boyfriend travels for work and there’s no one else in the house to keep watch on me, I stay on my computer until after dark, avoid basically all housework and forget to eat. When I finally do remember to eat, it’s usually something gross: beans straight out of a can, or two-minute noodles with frozen peas added “for health”. A pile of dirty laundry builds and builds, until it starts to ferment with an odour I can only describe as in...ense “dude”. At the very least, living with other people keeps my own living standards up. I’m better behaved when I’m motivated by a deep fear of someone else’s judgment.

But surely this can’t be healthy. At my age, is it so impossible for me to exist as a solitary human being, independent of others? Am I truly that incapable of having my Walden moment?

A few years back I got a chance to test-drive my solo living skills when an opportunity came up for me to live in China for several months and do research for a book I was writing. I jumped at it. There were some obvious reasons to go: my parents are Cantonese Chinese, and though I’d visited Hong Kong a lot, I’d never stepped foot on the motherland.

China Obviously the work – researching how young LGBT people connected online, in a country where the experience of being both gay and online was very different to mine – was going to be interesting. But it also represented a good opportunity to test whether I could handle being in a new place by myself, completely apart from anyone I knew; to find the person I was when I was alone, in a city of 21 million. I spent a couple of months learning the basics of spoken Mandarin – “Hello”, “How are you?” “Where is the toilet?” and the one I’d use the most, “Yes-I-am-Chinese-but-my-parents-are-from-Hong-Kong-and-I-was-born-in-Australia-so-this-is-why-I-look-like-you-but-speak-Mandarin-like-I-have-brain-damage” – then applied for my visa and flew over.

I’d like to point out that my entire life has been a series of idiotic close calls and near misses

Things started falling apart the moment I boarded the plane. Usually I’m great with flights. I’m a compact guy and don’t need much space. And though I think I’m relatively proportional, I’ve had to hem up every pair of pants I’ve ever owned, like some stump-legged freak. Moral of the story is I don’t really need leg room and economy’s fine. Throw me your worst conditions and I’ll usually sleep right through it. However, Air China doesn’t have the best reputation. On Skytrax it has a rating of 2.5 stars – any lower and Casa would probably need to ground it or set the entire fleet on fire – and sample reviews include phrases like “strange buns and limited drink choice”, “horrible airline”, “rubbish experience”, and “you are taken back to the 1960s”.

And though I’m impervious to bright lights and bad turbulence, loud sounds and low-level engine growls, what I can’t block out is smell. On this particular Air China flight, the portly Chinese man next to me smelt like a pungent mix of cigarette smoke, ginseng and damp clothes, and spent every few minutes noisily clearing out the phlegm from both orifices into his sick bag before scratching his pubes. Though it wasn’t as bad as my friend’s Air China experience, where his neighbour somehow boarded with a plastic bag of cooked prawns and proceeded to peel and eat them, my flight didn’t make for a great experience either. It was a red-eye; the noises continued, the smell was unabating, and I didn’t get much sleep.

When I hit the ground at 6am, Beijing was already muggy. It felt like walking into a Turkish steam room that had been erected over a tar pit. Disorientated, sweating and sleep-deprived, I hailed a taxi, passed the driver my address in simplified Mandarin, got inside and involuntarily fell asleep. When the driver stopped and woke me up, I felt half-drugged and wrung out like an old rag, and had no idea where I was. It was in this state of delirium that I hauled my suitcase out of the boot and dragged it towards my assigned apartment on campus. As soon as I slammed the door and the cab sped off, I realised I’d left my smartphone – and, with it, my Mandarin dictionary, city guide, currency converter and maps – on the back seat.

At this point, I’d like to point out that my entire life has been a series of idiotic close calls and near misses. As a toddler, I once crept into the back of a stranger’s car for no other reason than that it was red, like my mum’s, and if it wasn’t for my mother’s sharp eye, a stranger would have left Kawana Shoppingworld with a random Asian child in their back seat who had no way of telling them who they were or how to get them home. Who knows what would have happened to me. Even now, outings with my family or friends often end with someone saying, “Ben, you left your wallet on the bench,” or, “Ben, you dropped your keys on the floor,” or, “Ben, you literally left $50 on the table, what the fuck is wrong with you?”

No such luck this time. When I called the cab company and explained my plight in halting Mandarin and urgent sign language, reminiscent of Jodie Foster coming out of the woods in Nell, they confirmed that another passenger had already stolen my phone. I’d been flying solo for less than a day and I’d already royally fucked up. What followed over the next four hours was a comedy of errors: my apartment key not working, getting a replacement key, the new key not working, the door’s batteries (WHAT ABOMINATION OF A DOOR REQUIRES BATTERIES?) turning out to be flat, and then finally getting inside and discovering that the internet wasn’t working. Half a day had passed, and I still hadn’t been able to get a new phone or file a report at the police station.

By 2pm, Beijing was 41C – one of the hottest days ever recorded in the capital. Desperately wanting to leave my residential enclave, alone, sweating profusely and without a map, I wandered aimlessly, trying to escape the unexpectedly vast campus so that I could reach the office of the professor in charge of my research program, which for reasons unclear to me was located halfway across the city. Barely halfway into Day One, and our first interaction would involve her taking me to the police station. I’d become “that” international visitor.

Finally, I found some corrugated iron with a piece of A4 paper stuck to it. “FRONT”, it said in English, with an arrow pointing right. When I walked 400 metres towards the right, there was another sign. “FRONT”, it said. This time, the arrow pointed left. At that point, I think I felt my soul physically leave my body.

Beijing, from what I understand, is a city. It isn’t a sentient life form, capable of hostility and feelings of ill will towards people. But on that first day, it felt like Beijing hated me. On the verge of heatstroke, with my face melting in the sun, and trapped in some Kafkaesque mess of poor urban planning and personal stupidity, I felt as though Beijing and I were having a conversation.

“Hey, Beijing!” I was saying. “I’m a guest, all by myself, and I’ve only been here for a few hours. Give me a break!”

In the capital city of the world’s most populous nation, I’d never felt so alone in all my life

By the time I finally escaped the campus and stumbled on to a subway, I wanted to weep. And I probably would have wept if it weren’t for the fact that my sweat glands had already discharged my body’s entire supply of saline.

I desperately wanted to call my boyfriend, a family member, a friend – someone – to tell me everything was going to be OK. Oh wait, I have no phone. Well, maybe I can get on to my computer, hop online, and Skype my family inst – I remembered my internet wasn’t working. The grim irony wasn’t lost on me. In the capital city of the world’s most populous nation, I’d never felt so alone in all my life. And as pathetic as it sounded after being away from home for less than 24 hours, I missed my friends and family.

But the great thing about being overseas on your own is that you quickly become friends with people, even if you share the most tenuous links. You have to. Jen was the girlfriend of a guy whose brother I used to work with. We’d met before, but, other than that, barely knew each other. She heard I was in town and got hold of me when I was finally online.

“Forget about everything and come over now,” she said. That night, she introduced me to 10 other people. After one of them explained to me that smartphones in China couldn’t access Wi-Fi, he pulled some strings, ordered one from Hong Kong instead and delivered it to me the next day on a bicycle. Those friends introduced me to their friends, and other people back home wrote even more introductory emails. By my fourth week, it felt as though the entire city was looking out for me. I felt at home.

Best Australian Comedy Writing cover Facebook Twitter Pinterest After that, I became smitten with living solo in Beijing. Sure it’s brash: people smash their way past each other on the subway, spit right next to you on the footpath and won’t help you out if your Mandarin is shithouse. On bad days, the streets smelled like dead possum, and I longed for home and everyone who was back there. But on good nights, I’d ride my bike down the city streets by myself, past old men with their watermelon carts and college students finishing class. And I’d think to myself: with more than a billion people, any one of these people could be a new friend. Hell, I’m in China, after all. For all I know, they might even be family.

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