Beijing, China - April 2016
A massive red wall rises before me. Mao's image hangs on high, watching over all. A soldier stands motionless, eyes squeezed shut against the sun. An endless stream of bodies shuffle forward, phones held high in reverence. One does not visit Beijing without visiting The Forbidden City. The tourists file into the belly of the beast. Hundreds and hundreds of individuals. I turn away and walk against the flow. Not today, thanks.
Those tremors of excitement are contagious. Vibrations that emanate from one body to the other. But: is it because of the history, or because it's famous?
I felt them, too, long ago. It made up for the unsettling numbness inside. Why didn't I feel what I was supposed to feel? What was I doing wrong? There were few famous sites that truly interested me. I went because I was told that this is what one does when one visits ___(insert city here)___.
Paris 1988. The Louvre. The line to see the Mona Lisa stretched down the long corridors. We shuffled forward, a listless procession. And then, there she was, hanging on a wall behind a wall, way behind a glass window. Each person had just enough time for a glimpse before we were ordered to move along. Do I feel like my life is richer for that glimpse? Nope.
And yet, it was not time wasted. Sometimes you have to experience what you don't want to realize what it is that you do want.
I want. To inhabit a place with all my spirit. With every step, every glance, every breath, every sensation.
Paris 1999. Drifting through the streets. Cafes and street art. The little rituals of daily life. The philosophical grafitti scrawled on the metro. The soft pride I felt when I realized that I could understand it. The language that was blossoming into my second.
After the obedience came the period of defiance. Disdain. The deliberate avoidance of the Must See lists. But that didn't last long. Let people be as they wish. There is no perfect way to travel. It's all good.
And so I drift. Until Beijing feels like home. It never takes long, anymore.
Off the main drag and through a vibrant portal. They call these little alleys hutongs. This is where life happens. Tiny teahouses and cafes: battered metal tables and plastic chairs on the sidewalk. The tangy aroma of seafood enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke and grease. The rasp of brooms sweeping pavement. The language, so birdlike. Emphatic chirps that pierce the air. Weave in and out of bicycles and carts and cats and dogs. Watch where you step.
This impossible shade of red, everywhere. Like blood, like love.
Shop owners lean in doorways or sit on steps. Their heads turn to watch me pass. One waves and calls out, “Where are you from?"
I halt, perplexed. Where am I from, anymore? America, my birth country? France, my adopted nationality? Czech Republic, my current place of residence? Outer Space? Inner Space? The same point of origin from which each human comes into being? Everywhere and nowhere?
“France,” is what flies out of my mouth in reply. I'm traveling on my French passport. It's as good of a response as any.
“Bonjour!” He flashes a tea-stained grin.
I smile and bow my head. “Nĭ hăo”. And mosey along.
On the right, a crimson gateway beckons. The Confucius Temple. I'd hoped I'd find my way here.
The noise from the hutong soon recedes. Once again, I've found the quiet place in the chaos. The solitude in the hive. I peer into the face of this holy man. Set in stone for eternity.
What would you like to say to me, Confucius? Would you say that we are all one? All the same? That's what we're told we're supposed to feel in order to be considered spiritually evolved. But I don't. I know almost nothing about you, or your words, but somehow I feel you'd understand this.
I venture deep into the complex. Through the multi-colored temples. I pause and peer into a koi pond. The fish float motionless. They glow like coins in a wishing well.
We all draw from the same reservoir of thought. Some stand on the edge, completely dry. Some wade in. Others submerge themselves. Luxuriate in the depths. And, in so doing, find treasure.
Shrill music emanates from the back of the complex. I drift back there and peek around a corner. A group of young girls are practicing traditional dance. The teacher, a young man, sashays back and forth, hands on his slim hips. He disappears out of my line of sight. The traditional music comes to an abrupt halt. Chinese pop music takes its place. The teacher pirouettes, and claps his hands, pumping his long arms up and out. The girls imitate his steps, giggling. And then, one by one, they find their unique groove.
I watch, unseen. This hidden little corner is worth more than any famous monument. I turn away and head back through the complex. I pause, once again before a pearly white statue. A face, so inscrutable. A jolt seizes me. It softens into a gentle glimmer of pride. I bow one more time.
All those years ago, I set out to discover myself. That journey will never end, and I don't want it to. And yet, I believe I have succeeded.
Roads were made for journeys, not destinations – Confucius