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“The first year’s the best.”

Someone actually said that to me seven years ago, some grizzled expat who I swore I’d never become, and yet, as it happened, he turned out to be right. So here I am, dear reader, saying the same thing to you.

In 2008, two equally important things were true: I was 22, and time didn’t matter. Indeed, I was hardly cognizant of it.

All those insignificant seconds ran together, piling up into a life that was aimless, meandering, and, best of all, completely without responsibility. With no promises and no obligations, anything was possible.

There was only one rule: don’t buy furniture. Don’t buy anything that can’t go home in a suitcase.

For me, that year had the feeling of a scrimmage, as if the score would always be set back to zero and the real match was always somewhere in the offing. Choices would never sour into regret because they could always be changed.

Was it me or was it Beijing?

Would I have felt the same in New York or Paris or Nairobi? It’s impossible to know without being 22 again, without having two lives to waste.

You taste every flavor in that first year. Nothing is too far because you have no idea how far anything is. You’re willing to travel, across town, to the outskirts, to Shunyi for chrissake, just to meet a friend for dinner. You cab it too. You don’t yet know which kinds of people you like and which kinds you hate, so you meet them all, talk to everyone, nod politely. They tell you what life is like and you don’t believe them.

In the first year, everything is new. Every experience  every exploding firework, every scorpion-on-a-stick, every child pooping – is so full of wonder and awe that you can’t wait to run home and blog about it. Perhaps more telling, you believe someone will actually read your blog.

You spend money like you’ve never seen it before because, well, you haven’t. Eventually, you learn to put a couple stacks out of reach, to protect them from yourself.

You meet some of your best friends and share some of the best times – talking into the night, dancing until the sun comes up, going to work drunk and realizing: wait, no one cares.

Even the pain, with time, ages into something sweet, like the crush who tells you, as you’re stepping off the subway, that she’d had a boyfriend the whole time.

Those moments come fast and furious that first year because every time is the first time. Maybe that’s why I stayed. Maybe I mistook the exception for the rule.

I’ll never be 22 again or have another freshman year in Beijing, but like a junkie with a new drug, I’m content to chase the highs, even if they come less and less frequently.

Ultimately, I’m glad I did. By deciding to stay, I experienced the most perennial feeling of all: loss.

The final lesson of that first whirlwind year is that everyone leaves, sooner or later. Even your Chinese friends go abroad or back to their hometowns. The only rock not moving in this river is you.

Then slowly, as time goes by, it dawns on you: everything changes, everything’s happened before, you are not unique. And that scrimmage? Turns out you were playing for keeps all along.

And in the end, I’m still left wondering: was it me or was it Beijing?

I’ll never know. But by the end of that first year, I had changed. I was ready for something larger than my suitcase. I was ready to buy furniture.

Read further ruminations by Peking Man here.

Photo: Christian Schmitt

Visit the original source and full text: the Beijinger Blog