About a week ago the temperature took a dramatic plunge downward. We had a few more hot days, but the nights now are cool, and today I saw a couple of people wearing jackets, an ominous sign of things to come. Last week only the most die-hard of the hundreds of migrant workers at the construction sites around my office were walking around shirtless; the week before they were the majority.
I guess if there were leaves in the part of Beijing where I live they’d be changing now. Everyone agrees, “Autumn is the nicest time of the year in China,” but it’s always too short. I remember walking up Tuan Jie Hu Lu (where I used to live) back in the fall of 2002 and wondering if any other part of China could be this beautiful. Even though the 3rd Ring Road and Gongti Beilu are seconds away, the lights and the neighborhood feel of Tuan Jie Hu made it seem like it was in another city, far from the noise and the traffic. It was in the first week of October and there was this huge copper harvest moon and I wanted to hold on to that moment forever.
I always get depressed when winter comes, and now I’m getting depressed in advance, knowing that Beijing’s beautiful autumn weather is famously ephemeral. Back in 2002, in the third or fourth week of October, winter suddenly dropped down on Beijing like an executioner’s axe, ushering in a winter that set new records for sub-freezing temperatures and snowfall. Ten weeks later or so, we began to read stories for the first time about a mysterious new sickness afflicting Hong Kong travelers, and it was all downhill from there. Six months later I’d watch on CCTV as the US marched into Iraq on a mission that was going to be over in a few weeks.
I hate the winter, but I believe the four distinct seasons do have a purpose. They remind us of the passing of time, putting it into useful perspective. It is the drop in temperature, for example, that causes me to remember it’s been nearly a year since that November day that I flew up to Beijing from Taiwan, believing it would just be a final visit before I moved back in a few weeks to America. And somehow, that little visit set off a chain of events that led me to do the one thing I swore I would never do, i.e., move back to Beijing.
So yes, it’s the weather and its seasons that remind us of the passing of time. In America, I live (not surprisingly) in Phoenix, where the seasons are far less defined – it’s always summer. As blissful as this is to someone like me who thrives on warmth, it’s also insidious. You are less aware of time passing because there are no seasons to act as markers along the way. Suddenly, you realize a lot more time went by than you realized.
Not quite sure how I got onto this, but let me see if there’s a graceful way to end this somewhat meaningless if heartfelt post…. All I wanted to say was that it’s that time of the year again, where summer is replaced by an infuriatingly short autumn, followed by an endless winter. It’s that time of the year, and it saddens me because to me warmth is safety and security, while cold is, well, just the opposite.
I went on long bicycle rides the past two weekends, exploring parts of Beijing I had only seen fleetingly from taxi windows. Winter is coming and I won’t be able to do that sort of thing much longer. I guess the best I can do is take every day of Autumn as a gift and savor it as best I can. Lots of bicycle rides. Maybe even a ride over to Tuan Jie Hu Lu, for old time’s sake. I hope it’s as beautiful and as secluded now as it was five years ago.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.