When I first came to Beijing, in 1999, the pollution made my throat swell up so much that I couldn’t speak. In 2003 I spent a week in hospital here, giving endless blood samples, having various body parts scanned, and answering questions like ‘How often do you cry?’ or ‘Do you ever feel an almost uncontrollable rage?’ I never found out what was wrong with me. When I got here this time, five weeks ago, I had such crippling jet lag that I barely slept for three days. Wandering the streets last month, hoping to exhaust myself into sleep, I came to the conclusion that Beijing was a terrible place: polluted, ugly, lacking in style, unredeemed by Tiananmen Square, the National Museum of China or the few surviving hutongs. Unlike Shanghai, Chengdu or Kunming, it’s a city I can’t find it in me to like.
So when I got to the airport to be told that not only had my flight out been cancelled, but that the next available one was not until 4 May, I shouldn’t have taken it well. Like the three Dutchmen in the queue in front of me, I should have pushed my way into the Air France kiosk and demanded to be put at the head of the waiting list. Like them, I should have insisted that it was ‘absolutely not acceptable to wait so long and in this place’. At the very least, I should have joined the Camp of the Defeated: the would-be passengers who had circled the wagons of their bags and suitcases and sat in disbelief on the floor. Instead I left the terminal and caught a cab to a hotel.
For the past fortnight I have felt a pronounced calm, the like of which I have only experienced once before, when Richard Tryb, my fourth-form classmate, landed on me after diving from the medium-height diving-board. After the impact, I was simply surrounded by water, unconcerned about reaching the surface or breathing. Soon there would be hard hands to my chest, the coach’s hairy mouth on mine, but for that stretched instant there was the peace that comes from knowing that absolutely nothing is expected of you.