Ah well, the usual bureaucracy involved in renewing residence permits, transferring foreign expert certificates, and generally doing anything more complicated than breathing, is causing its usual round of headaches. I wouldn’t have noticed had the office fax machine hadn’t thrown a paddy (where in hell did that phrase come from?! I’d be surprised if it has any anti-Irish connotations considering how often my of-Irish-descent mother used it when I was a child, and yet I wouldn’t be surprised, because it was my of-Irish-descent mother who used it most). No big deal, though, after a bit of struggle, we convinced the fax machine to cooperate.

About the only thing I like about this part of town is that, despite the unusually large transient population, there is a real community here. I can hear it in the warmer months when the windows are open and various community activities are happening outside. Things as simple as brothers and sisters (yes, they exist in “one child” China) squabbling, husbands and wives arguing, or various song and dance sessions or gatherings of people just hanging out. It’s the kind of noise I want to hear in the background, the kind of noise that makes a place seem liveable, perhaps even home-like.

I remember the three months we lived in Songyu Xili, not far from BeiGongDa, when we had a primary school outside the back window. Every Monday morning at 8 am, if I wasn’t up already (which was most likely, seeing as that was one of the periods I had no steady employment) I’d be woken up by the National Anthem being blasted out the PA system of the primary school as they started their school assembly. When that noise died down, it was replaced with the clackclackclack of the Eternal Majiang Games played constantly by the laotaitai and a few laotou oustide our side window (our apartment was at the end of the block, giving us windows on three sides). Sure, we were only there for the summer, and the advent of cooler weather would’ve changed the community sounds, and I was really glad for the space and air and light that Tongzhou offered when we moved out there, but still, I have really fond memories of living down there, even if it was only for three months. It felt so much like the kind of place you could settle in to.

I mean, it only took me a day or two to find my beer-, water-, and other staples- suppliers, although I should admit that we were both already reasonably familiar with the area, considering that when we met, I was living at Shuanglong Xiaoqu, just around the corner, and we had many reasons to be passing through that area (the local branch of Jinbaiwan/金百万 being one of the bigger reasons- and damn! that was just 20 metres from our apartment there! What the hell were we thinking when we left?!), but still, it was a really easy place to settle in to.

Can you tell? I’m really, really looking forward to moving back down to that part of Beijing. Even if we’ll be closer to BeiGongDa, we’ll still be very much in the Songyu Li realm of existence, a half hour walk from Panjiayuan (a pleasant half hour walk, I should emphasize), and generally in an area both of us know and love.

Anyway, the point I was going to make was that it’s that feeling of actually living in a real community, even if, by virtue of your skin colour, native language or nationality you’ll never be accepted as a real member of the community, that can really make or break your China experience. Far too many of us foreigners in China find ourselves segregated into either foreign teachers’ accomodation (which is usually completely separate from anybody else’s accomodation; if not, then closer to students’ dorms than regular folks’ community) or those “expat-friendly” ridiculously expensive places common around Beijing’s CBD. Judging from my experience, living in an ordinary, average Beijing residential area both makes you feel much more at home and brings the experience so much closer to home than anything else. And I suspect the same would hold true for the rest of the country.

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