Oscar Wilde once said, “Hell is the absence of other people.” For most of my life, I’ve thoroughly agreed. I’ve never lived by myself and can’t imagine I’d handle it very well. For 27 years, I’ve been a human relay baton, happily passed from a big family (childhood) to friends (teens and early 20s), before finally bunking down with my boyfriend. I’m like a tapeworm or oral herpes: something that needs human warmth in order to survive.
I fear what would happen to me if I lived alone, mainly because I don’t take good care of myself without supervision. With no one else in the house to keep watch, I stay on my computer until it’s dark. I forget to eat. When I finally remember, dinner usually consists of two-minute noodles with frozen peas, added “for health”. My dirty laundry builds and builds, until it starts to ferment with an odour I can only describe as “concentrated dude”. At the very least, living with other people keeps my own living standards up.
But surely this couldn’t be healthy. At my age, wasn’t it possible for me to exist as a human being, independent of other people? So when an opportunity came up to live in China for a couple of months, I jumped at it. There were some obvious reasons to go: my parents are Chinese and I’d never been to the motherland. There was also the opportunity to do interesting work. But it also represented a good test to see whether I could handle being in a new place by myself, completely apart from folks I knew.
With the basics of Mandarin barely mastered, I caught the plane over. Usually, I’m very good with flights, because I’m a compact guy and don’t need much space. Throw me your worst economy conditions and I’ll sleep right through it. I’m impervious to bright lights and bad turbulence; I can handle loud sounds and low-level engine growls. But what I can’t block out is smell, and on this particular Air China flight, the portly Chinese man next to me smelt like a pungent mix of cigarette smoke, ginseng and damp clothes. Hour after hour, he cleared the phlegm in his throat loudly, before spitting it into the vomit bag. I didn’t sleep much.
When I hit the ground at 6am, Beijing it was already muggy. Disorientated, sweating and sleep-deprived, I hailed a cab, got inside and involuntarily fell asleep. When the driver stopped to wake me up, I felt drugged and wrung out like an old rag, and had no idea where I was. It was in this state of delirium that I hauled my suitcase out of the boot, and dragged it towards my assigned apartment. Then, give minutes after the cab sped off, I realised I’d left my phone – and with it, my Mandarin dictionary, city guide, currency converter and maps – in the backseat.
Before I move on, I should point out that my entire life has been a series of idiotic close calls and near-misses. As a toddler, I once crept into the back of a stranger’s car for no other reason than the fact it was red, like my mother’s. If it wasn’t for my mother’s sharp eye, god knows what would have happened to me. Even now, outings with my family or friends often ends with someone saying, “Ben, you left your wallet on the bench!” or “Ben, you left your keys in that stranger’s bag!”
No such luck this time. When I called them, the cab company confirmed another passenger had already stolen my phone. I’d been flying solo for less than a day, and I’d already royally fucked up. What followed in the next four hours was a comedy of errors: my key not working; getting a replacement key; the new key not working; the door’s batteries – at my apartment, the door had batteries! – turning out to be flat; the internet connection not working. Hours passed, but I still needed to get a new phone and file a report at the police station.
At the middle of the day, Beijing was 41°C – one of the hottest ever days recorded. Desperately trying to leave my residential enclave, alone and without a map, I wandered aimlessly, before finally finding some corrugated iron with a piece of A4 paper stuck to it. “FRONT DESK,” it said in English, with an arrow pointing right. When I walked 400 metres towards the right, there was another sign. “FRONT DESK,” it said. This time, the arrow pointed left.
Beijing, from what I understand, is a city. It isn’t a sentient lifeform, capable of hostility and feelings of ill-will towards people. But on that first day, it felt like Beijing hated me. Close to suffering heatstroke with my face melting in the sun, I felt like Beijing and I were having a conversation. “Hey, Beijing!” I was saying. “I’m a guest, all by myself, and I’ve only been here for a few hours. Give me a break!” There was silence, before Beijing seemed to speak back. “Get the fuck out of me,” it said. By the time I finally got out of the campus and onto a subway, I wanted to weep. And I would have wept if it weren’t for the crippling heat, and the fact my sweat glands had released all that saline for me already.
I desperately wanted to call my boyfriend, a family member, a friend – someone – to tell me everything was okay. Oh wait, I remembered. I have no phone. I came up with a different idea. Well maybe I can get onto my computer, hop online, and Skype my family inst—. Oh, that’s right. The internet wasn’t working. The grim irony wasn’t lost on me. In the capital city of the world’s most populous nation, I’d never felt so alone in all my life. As pathetic as it sounded, I missed my friends and family.
But the most wonderful thing about being overseas on your own is that you quickly become friends with people, with whom you share the most tenuous links. Jen was the girlfriend of a guy, whose brother I used to work with. We’d met before, but barely knew each other, really. She heard I was in town, and got hold of me when I was finally online. “Forget about everything, and come over now,” she said. That night, she introduced me to 10 other people. Those friends introduced me to their friends, and other people back home wrote even more introductory emails. By my fourth week, it felt like the entire city was looking out for me. I felt at home.
Since then, I’ve become smitten with living solo in Beijing. Sure it’s brash: people smash their way past each other on the subway and spit right next to you on the footpath. On bad days, the streets smell like dead possum and I miss home and everyone who’s back there. But on good nights, I ride my bike down the city streets by myself, past old men with their watermelon carts and college students finishing class. And I think to myself: with over a billion people, any one of these people could be a new friend. Hell, I’m in China, after all. For all I know, they might even be family.