Life In Transit
It's eight in the morning. I wake up. Grab the phone. Check messages - What's App, Facebook, Gmail...if I wake up early enough, and the coffee is made, and the breakfast gets eaten, I might still have some time to turn on the computer. After all, I’ve slept through the afternoon back home. Answering messages on Facebook is way easier than on the phone. I have been staring at the phone for hours - its screen is the last thing I see before I fall asleep, and the first thing I see in the morning when I wake up.
Eight in the morning in Beijing. So it's one in the morning back home. I've become strangely familiar with the sleeping patters on everybody I know in Croatia. I'm surprised at the sheer number of people having trouble sleeping, or with utterly weird sleep schedules.
Ana has trouble sleeping, so I talk to her when I’ve just arrived at work. She fills up my time before the break. Lidija, like my sister, wakes up very early. Hrvoje wakes up and gets to work rather late, when half of my work day has already passed. Talking to him fills out my afternoons and evening. And Katerina, too. And Tina. And more of Lidija.
My life is led on two continents, in two time zones, at once. My cell phone set to Beijing time, my computer running on Zagreb time. I am so involved in life back home that I am often asked in Gmail threads and Facebook messages: Where are you? In which time zone? On what continent?
I came to China to work, but so much of me stayed in Croatia – my family, my partner, my friends, my professional and personal interests. My everyday life in Beijing is mediated between here and there, in the span of the seven-hour time difference, in the Beijing hutongs and the streets of Zagreb.
The other night, my friend Masha grabbed the phone out of my hands during a dinner party in celebration of Chinese New Year. Sometimes it's like the phone is fixed to my hand and I can't get it out. Well, I have to send a photo of the jiaozi I just made to all the groups on What's App that I have with my friends and family! They have to see what I am doing at precisely this moment. So I am a part of them, and they of me.
It may sound weird, but this constant communication keeps me grounded in a way, because it ensures that I am still part of their lives. And although social networks make me feel a part of the lives of the people back home, I often ask myself how much I am missing right now.
I wonder: does this reluctance to meet new people stem from my fear of forming firmer bonds here?
That's my biggest problem with the expat community – the fakeness of it all. Relationships are superficial, and everybody's your friend, even though you've only known them for five minutes. There are no responsibilities in relationships, because you can hurt someone and just continue on, find new friends, completely reinvent yourself.
I am talking with my colleague and the conversation turns to dating and Tinder. He mentions all of these people whose descriptions are all some variation of: I've visited thirty-nine countries and counting. Twenty-five countries.
What it this? Some sort of a game show? "Gotta catch ‘em all", like Pokémon? Rushing through countries, obtaining symbolic capital and then flashing it around in conversation. You're judged by the number of countries visited, the number of parties attended, the number of people you know in this vast city of never-ending migration. Because here, somebody always leaves and new people always come. There's always a farewell party.
I am forever in limbo – I know that I am now better off than most of my friends and colleagues back home, that I can finally have the normal life that this type of economic independence provides. I’m going to Japan, for God's sake. I just decided. Imagine that, to be able merely to decide to go somewhere, and then go. Back home, this would entail detailed planning and months of saving money - months of questioning, do I really need this? Is this wise?
But this new-found “freedom” makes me anxious. I see this merely as an aberration, as something out of the ordinary; a brief, serendipitous period after which everything will go back to the way it was before.