A foreigner at home
Mariya Yanishevskaya | 14 February 2020
Beijing Airport. Picture by Atwan on Flickr
Underneath the fog, I could see the buildings materialising. They resembled miniature pieces of Lego which became larger and larger as the plane started its descent towards Beijing Airport. As we landed, I felt the kind of excitement you feel when you are about to be embraced by a sense of familiarity. After all this time abroad, I was back in Beijing!
Walking through the corridors towards Border Control felt surreal. I couldn’t help but smile. The chattering of Mandarin around me and all the signs headed with Chinese characters seemed to say: ‘Welcome home!’. As I was thinking about all the food I would soon be able to eat, a uniformed woman pulled me out of my little day dream. ‘Foreigners this way!’ she said while ushering me into a side lane where people were waiting for their fingerprints to be taken. I took the small piece of paper issued by the machine and joined the ‘foreigners’ queue at border control with an unsettling feeling. Perhaps it was this new biometric data procedure, or perhaps it was the realisation that I was really coming back as a visitor rather than as someone coming back to their day-to-day life, but the word ‘foreigner’ stuck out to me more than ever before. I was overwhelmed by one thought — is Beijing still my home?
People have often asked me where I consider my home to be. Whenever someone poses the question ‘where are you from?’, I have a well-rehearsed answer: I am half-Bulgarian, half-Russian, but I was born and raised in Beijing, China. It is like a formula that wouldn’t be quite right if any element was missing. ‘But where does it feel most like home?’ some would push on. This is where I struggle. Coming from a transnational background, I cannot define ‘home’ as a single place. It requires a complex explanation that constantly changes — one that I am still trying to grasp.
At last, I arrived at my house. And it sure feels, smells and sounds like home! This is where I grew up, where I lived until I left for university five years ago, and where my parents and little brother still live. Now we were reunited after months of being apart! Surrounded by my family, I sat on the dining room floor, getting ready to perform the post-arrival-at-Beijing-from-Sofia ritual of unpacking the stash of Bulgarian goods. I took out packets of sirene (a type of Bulgarian cheese), carefully packaged in aluminium foil to avoid confiscation; jars of lutenitsa (a type of Bulgarian condiment); some bottles of rakia (a popular alcoholic drink in the Balkans); and cosmetics made with Bulgarian rose oil. The scent of some of my favourite Chinese dishes wafted in from the kitchen, and from the living room I could hear the Russian TV channel on as usual. I soaked in all of these miscellaneous particles that made it ‘home’. And soon, I recognised the sentiment that had slowly filled me ever since I landed — nostalgia.
Despite the sense of familiarity, there was a kind of distance… a void torn open by the passage of time, inhabited by a longing for something that exists only in the bitter-sweetness of a memory. There were many signs of change and things missing. My room was no longer my room. It wore the decorations and belongings of its last inhabitant — my sister, who had moved into it after I left and, as of last year, has moved abroad herself. Outside in the city, the same void followed me. The technological advancements that have become essential to the city’s everyday life were an alienating reminder of just how out of touch I was. In my first days here, not having WeChat Pay or the latest taxi apps was like being held back by a barrier that separated me from the Beijingers and demarcated me as merely a tourist. Certain streets that I used to frequent now looked entirely different. Even places which looked exactly the same somehow felt different — maybe because I was no longer there with my high school friends, most of whom have now moved away, or maybe simply because I wasn’t that high schooler anymore.
What if the Beijing I knew so well slowly eroded with time, and all that was familiar and recognisable sunk into the past? What if none of my family or closest friends lived here anymore? Would I still be able to call Beijing my home?
I have grappled with these questions for a long time, and this is my explanation to what ‘home’ is for me. Above all, my home is multiple. It is made up of multiple places, cultures, languages, people and temporalities. I could not designate it to a single nationality or stamp it with an expiration date. The homes of my past are just as valid as the homes that I have made now and those of the future. I have also come to peace with the fact that home has always and will always encompass a simultaneity of belonging and unbelonging. Children of transnational upbringing are often either romanticised as being able to adapt to and belong anywhere or described as being stuck in a limbo, never truly belonging anywhere. In my experience, neither case is true on its own but rather it is some combination of both at the same time. While I might belong to multiple homes, a part of me is always going to be a foreigner anywhere I choose to make a home. So, to the question ‘is Beijing still my home?’ this is what I would say: I will always be a foreigner in Beijing, but Beijing will also always be my home.
Mariya Yanishevskaya graduated from the MSc in Migration Studies programme at the University of Oxford last year. Her research interests focus on how nation states are imagined and national identities re-conceptualised in an era of growing mobility and settlement across borders. She hopes to one day write a book about the experience of transnational upbringing and the so-called ‘Third Culture Kids’.