Goodbye to All That and More

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It might seem overly simplistic to say that I bought Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York because I was leaving Beijing and could not find an anthology of elegiac essays bidding farewell to this grimy city instead of its more famous counterpart across the Pacific Ocean, but it would be true nonetheless. You would think someone would have come up with a book of essays on leaving Beijing, given the quantities of foreigners arriving and leaving every year.

I’ve lived in this city for a collective four years and I am leaving and although, like so many of the writers in Goodbye to All That I know it’s the right choice, the only choice, my heart is breaking with every item I pack, every hour that passes, every last bite of malatang I consume. I’m sitting here on my squashy brown couch and my sadness is like a physical weight inside me.

Leaving things you love is easier when you’re younger. You make stupid decisions about the wrong people. You slam the apartment door, throw your lover’s clothes out the window onto the sidewalk. Leaving gets harder as you age. You don’t leave out of anger or from coming to your senses, but because your love is not as strong as your reasons for going. – Melissa Febos, Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York

There were so many times when I hated Beijing and China. So many times when I cursed everything from the air pollution to the pushing crowds on the subway to the treachery of real estate agents. In three years I went from living on the outskirts of the city, taking a three-hour commute to work and back in the depths of a fiery summer, collapsing in bed every night exhausted from working for a truly psychotic boss to living in the heart of the city, zipping to work and back in a breezy half-hour, napping at lunchtimes and cobbling together grad school applications.

When I think about the bad times I’ve had here, the many ways in which my life has dwindled — almost as many ways as it has expanded — I wonder why I feel so sad about leaving this city. But I think the truth is that the bad times are the reason I feel sad.

I did a huge chunk of my growing up here. In apartments and office buildings and streets around the city I’m leaving behind versions of myself I’ll never see again.

Your experiences change you, your personality, your expectations, your beliefs, your desires. This is self-evident, but not at the moment when you’re working late at a job you should have outgrown years ago, or crying unexpectedly in public, or listening to your ex-boyfriend say he’s marrying someone else. At that moment you’re just wondering what happened to the person who used to have your name and how you can be that person again, how to get back that freedom, or innocence, or whatever significance that old body contained for you. She’s gone for good, that girl, the girl who could give herself completely to a person or an idea, who believed she could handle anything and plunged forward into the unknown as easily and thoughtlessly as she tied her shoes. – Ruth Curry, Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York

While reading Goodbye to All That I kept thinking about how heavy a word goodbye is. How much weight it carries. How in this age of cheap air travel we don’t ever really have to say goodbye forever to a place and yet how every goodbye is a final one because we can never return just as we were. I will never again be 22 and innocent, walking through the campus of a Chinese college, my brown boots on my feet, hearing the wheels of a bicycle swish past me, the creak of the brakes as the boy on top of that bicycle turns around and grins at me. I will never again be 24 and sitting on my boyfriend’s bed, looking out a window at the river of Beijing traffic underneath an evening sky, feeling optimism rise like a balloon inside me. I will never again be 25 and standing silent and unseeing as a zombie on a crowded subway train. I will never again be 26 and snuggled down with my boyfriend on our couch, watching movies while our cloisonne table lamp casts weird shadows on the walls. The ‘I will never again bes’ seem to define my life, somehow.

In the end, there’s nothing else to say except goodbye, I guess, to all that.

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