I was four years old when I first arrived in Beijing. I remember passing by the Tiananmen gate and staring at the magnificent structure in awe. I remember looking into the eyes of the giant portrait of Mao hanging right above the city gate, trembling in excitement and fear. That was my first encounter with the city I would later call home.
I’m now 21 and 6,824 miles away from the city I grew up in. After coming to Columbia, the busyness of schoolwork and the commotion of New York have rendered pieces of my past incredibly distant. In 2011, when I left Beijing for high school, I did not know that the city that radically transformed itself in the tides of modernization would keep evolving and expanding, with more historical sites demolished and more skyscrapers erected.
In wintertime, industrial smog covers the city, and now when my flight lands I can hardly make out Beijing’s landscape in the yellowish grey haze. From 2010 to 2016, the population of Beijing has increased by around 2.1 million people (to give more context, the entire population of Chicago is 2.7 million). This past summer, I always found myself stuck in traffic or lost in the swarming crowds of the subway in a way I wasn’t six years ago. My home city has become so monstrous and alienating; I can barely recognize it.
People have told us it would be natural to miss home, but no one has ever told me what to do when my home is no longer.
On this campus, when most people talk about their hometown, they are referring to something that is constant and unchanging. When life at Morningside Heights gets suffocating, the prospect of returning home seems like a refreshing promise upon which the familiar idyllic comfort will be restored, our distresses and anxieties somehow mitigated. But now when I think of home, I can only think of the communist capital buried in smog and the red imperial city walls that have lost their vibrancy against the discolored sky. Much of my childhood memory is permeated by the smell of street food along my way home from school, but now many of the vendors have been dispelled under waves of aggressive urban renewal projects. Home is a place of loss and confusion, and I can no longer pinpoint the sites of my memories.
Many years after leaving Beijing, I realized how arbitrary the notion of home really is. None of us have chosen our childhood homes, and we have inevitably been shaped by forces beyond our control. When my parents uprooted their lives and moved to Beijing, a hectic metropolis distant from their own hometowns, they did not expect that their daughter would grow up to speak a different dialect, enjoy a different type of food, and develop an affinity for the capital city that none of them actually like. They still refuse to call Beijing home, but the city has naturally become home for me. I acquired a Beijing accent in school, and when I got older, I traversed the old city of Beijing with my friends. I remember the first time I saw the Bell Tower standing tall against Beijing’s modern skyline—the sight was so beautifully striking that I almost cried, right under the blazing summer sun. It felt as if the city’s history and present were merging before my eyes, and I was an innate part of it. That moment has made me realize that no matter how far I travel from home, I will be intrinsically tied to this city as long as I live.
I chose to study East Asian languages and cultures at Columbia because I wanted to understand the region in which I came of age and its reconfigurations over the years. In my classes, I read about how the Chinese I grew up speaking is in fact a hybrid product of the traditional vernacular and words that only emerged through translation; I studied multiple attempts to reorganize the urban sphere of Beijing; I watched films that depicted my city long before I was born (narrow alleys, rattling rickshaws, pigeons flapping their wings across the sky). Bit by bit, I pieced together the landscape of my home as a multifaceted mosaic. I then began to see the spirit of Beijing, bustling and restless, persevering through the clash between the bygone and the modern.
For those of us who have voyaged far to come to Columbia, it is oftentimes difficult to consider our lives before Morningside Heights as important as our time here. But it is crucial to keep our past in mind, and to examine it, over and over again, to ensure that we don’t forget who we really are. Our hometowns have nurtured us, and the least we can do is keep them within our minds, as moving and alive as they were at first sight.
Charlotte Pu is a junior in Columbia College majoring in East Asian languages and cultures. She is a native of Beijing and has lived in Los Angeles. Other Shores runs alternate Thursdays.
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