Mumbai blues after one year in Beijing
At this time last year I was on a flight from Mumbai where I had spent six years, to Beijing where I had spent six days on a previous recce trip.
I have now lived in China for one year, a year that seemed very long on my own in 21M. I like to think that the M in my apartment number stands for Mumbai and suburban Malad where I used to live. My only friend in this 42-storey apartment is a young professional migrant from Mumbai. She spotted me last year and stalked me down the corridor till the elevator, surprised at the rare sight of a single Indian girl in Beijing — in her own building no less.
This weekend, I walked into her 27th floor apartment to share the rajma and rice she was cooking. I found a bowl of rajma on the dining table and two Bangalore girls on the couch.
The girls were visitors from Shanghai, where they had spent two weeks on assignment for the global IT major they work for. One of them recognised me immediately. We were from the same school in Pune and a batch apart.
“But why haven’t we seen any Indians in Shanghai yet!’’ the girls exclaimed at periodic intervals as we watched a DVD of Dil Chahta Hai on high volume. They asked this question at least five times. “We stay in the heart of Shanghai! We’ve not seen even one Indian face!’’
I know that feeling only too well. When I was in Shanghai last November, I didn’t bump into Indians either though there are more Indians in Shanghai than Beijing. All of China has about 25,000 Indians. But that day, as we planned their visit to the Great Wall (and mused that most of us had never visited the Taj Mahal) I didn’t feel 5,000 km away from Mumbai.
And I’m going home this week! To a reader in India the holiday list I am so excited about will seem like the boring basics:
Bollywood and salted popcorn at the multiplex:
To watch a movie at the multiplex closest to my apartment, for the equivalent of Rs 500 per ticket, costs a little more than taking the cable car to the mountaintop of the Great Wall near Beijing. China doesn’t import Bollywood movies. I’ve watched only one English movie at the multiplex during my Beijing year, on a half-ticket day. They only sell sweet popcorn. I never went back.
In Beijing, Indian expats envy diplomats for their access to Doordarshan (though we hardly watched Doordarshan while in India). I plan to stay up nights changing channels at home. I will watch everything from the song and dance contests to the evening sitcoms and the constant election coverage. I have been stranded with dozens of Chinese channels I don’t understand and the choice of just CNN, BBC, HBO, Discovery and National Geographic. But I am lucky I live in an expat hub even though I am not allowed to rig my own dish antenna. Most suburban apartments don’t have any foreign channels.
The great Indian thali
I dream of the mega thali (elaborate platter of Indian dishes) meal that I could never finish in Mumbai. I will be crushed if they don’t serve it with bhindi sabzi (lady’s finger). I have not tasted bhindi since July. I no longer find it in the only grocery store that stocks Indian products in Beijing.
I’ve gone from buying a book every week to reading borrowed books at infrequent intervals. Beijing has few English bookstores and few foreigners who can afford the books. They buy books on vacation in India (six to seven times cheaper than in China) and brag to me about the cut-price when they return to Beijing.
The neighbourhood coffee shop
My apartment in the land of tea is surrounded by coffee shops. Some of them collapsed during the economic crisis. At a café with a French name, the staff once asked me to explain what is a latte. Every foreigner has a personal story of the search for Beijing’s best cup of coffee.
I have developed a terrible habit of calculating everything I could buy in India for the price of a decent cappuccino in China. A cup of masala chai in a five-star lounge. Something from Fab India. Footwear on Janpath or Colaba pavements. That thali lunch plus drink. The multiplex movie ticket plus popcorn.
Mayhem at the malls
In Beijing, the malls have either overpriced imported goods or fakes. The clamour and crowds that make Indian malls so vibrant are missing. I’ve been to Asia’s largest Ikea and the world’s largest Adidas store in Beijing and I got bored.
The Arabian Sea
I never thought I would miss the Arabian Sea. To my surprise, I have walked around landlocked Beijing silently missing the sound of waves, and driving past Marine Drive. Indians from Mumbai and Chennai say they feel the same way.
Indian Chinese Food
When I return from China, please take me out for Chinese food. Hakka noodles, manchurian with gravy, fried spring rolls, paneer chilly and Schezwan fried rice. Indian Chinese food is what we constantly crave while we live in, er, China.