I used to joke about giving my first-born to China, but that has not been funny these past few years. There was the pandemic and lockdown, first in China and then in the United States and around the world. One thing after another - most recently the war, as there are no longer flights over Russia - kept Tom in Beijing, and it continues to be impossible for me to go to China. At last, however, things seem to be lining up for him to return home - albeit to a country, he points out, that is not where he was born and where he has lived for less than half his life.
He was, however, born an American citizen, with a US as well as UK birth certificate. I took him to the US embassy in London when he was 10 weeks old to get an American passport (so we could go to Paris, naturellement). And while his earliest memories are of life in Camberwell, London, he tells me that his school years in Great Barrington, Massachusetts are also vital and warm memories - as they were, incidentally, to that global traveler of the 20th century, W. E. B. Du Bois.
I’ve just returned from my first trip to London since 2019. This is the first time in decades that I haven’t been in the UK every year, after having lived there for 15 years, from my late teens to early thirties. Tom has now spent a similar period living in China, and, as he keeps telling me, the US is a mighty foreign place.
Tom first went to China when he was 15, on a trip that happened because I wanted my kids to see Asia as part of their world. (That’s how the Scribner’s Encyclopedia of Modern Asia, developed by Berkshire Publishing, came to be. Read more.) Over the years, in different ways, our lives became more China focused. But he is the one who learned Mandarin and became a Beijinger, working for the last seven years at a Chinese healthcare company.
I know a lot of people have this divided sense of home, a kind of lifelong liminality. It wasn’t so hard to deal with when international travel was relatively easy and relatively inexpensive, when we weren’t ready to face up to the real impact of climate change. And for people who are recent immigrants, or refugees, the sense of living between worlds is profound, and often very hard to bear.
But having a sense of the wider world is something positive, too. Tom is now looking for a job in international business development. He tells me people ask if he’ll return to China. That was the first thing a friend of mine in Beijing asked yesterday, when I sent her a message on Wechat and mentioned that Tom was leaving.
There is no question that he’ll want to return to China, and do work connected with Asia and Europe, but it’s certainly not going to be as easy for him as it has been for me to go back to England. He won’t have the experience I had this month, of going back to my old neighborhood for lunch with a friend I’ve known since Tom was a baby. But I feel sure that just as London is in my bones, Beijing is in his.
There were many Ukrainian flags flying in London, and on my first day I happened to walk past the Russian Embassy, where there was a Russian protest underway. It brought me to tears. There were young women wearing flower wreaths and white dresses and a display of toys and household goods and photographs, all splashed with red paint.
No COVID-19 testing was required by the UK, but I had to take a test to return to the US. Throughout the trip I wore an N95 mask in shops and on public transport. A few recommendations:
Enjoy using your touch credit card to ride the Tube - no need for tickets or an Oyster card.
Take a bus using your credit card, too - a great way to see London (and other cities). Now that there are electronic noticeboards and announcements for every stop, it’s easy for someone unfamiliar with the city to get around.
Take the train. I got some good advice from Seat61.com before I left, but found that the simplest thing, since I was traveling off-peak, was simply to buy a ticket at the station. I made trips to Essex, Kent, Surrey, and the Cotswolds and every one of them went smoothly. This left me disheartened by the general vision for rail in the US (“more Amtrak” doesn’t make the heart sing), especially since UK trains are by no means the best on the planet.
Walk! London is a walker’s city. I also had wonderful walks in the Cotswolds and in the Downs near Guildford, where my friends took me to see the bluebell woods.
A heartfelt thank-you to the many friends who made my visit so special, and took my request for country walks, ancient churches, and pub lunches so seriously. And thanks to those, colleagues as well as my scattered siblings, who have made Tom feel that he will have help with his reentry into the United States. And bravo for continued US and UK support for Ukraine.