29 October 2007

Atavism of the highest order

What does it mean to be home? Your indulgences for a small excursus into amateurish philosophy, but I ask this because landing in Xi'an last night felt like coming home. Not only that, but the days leading up to our return saw us engaged in thousands of conversations that began with "You know what I miss?"

Why should Xi'an be home? We first laid eyes on it just a month ago. We know nobody here. We have no community, no ties. We know it only by its major roads, its tourist sites, a soup dumpling restaurant, and its McDonalds (I don't know what worries me more—that the Big Macs taste different than the ones in New York, or that that fries don't). It's a big, polluted, Chinese city, replete with the vigorous construction of grandiose facades over squat little buildings that characterizes this exploding economy. And it's littered with the spittle of old grandmothers, the discarded wrappers of bao zi, and ATMs that gleefully accept your card without dispensing money.

But, in these last few days—and especially last night—we've felt, as Moore wrote three centuries ago, ...sadly sweet / The dream of home... / Steal o'er the heart, too soon to fleet, / When far o'er sea or land we roam.

What makes this city, once so new, feel like home? Is it simply that we've been here before, and that there's just a sense of safety, of sameness, of not having to fight against the new? Is this feeling only an example of mankind's tremendously facile ability toward adaptation, directed at what has once been experienced and subsequently removed? Is homesickness simply a longing for what's known in the midst of the strange? Is the very concept of home, then, anything more than the crystallization of psychic familiarity, a concept laden by the emotional weight of its very absence, an example of atavism of the highest order?

I don't know. All I know is that we're reveling in a town where there's a free pool table in the common room of our hostel, where we're forced to endure the Backstreet Boys' almost-hits at ear-bleeding decibels, and where hot-water showers are plentiful.

All this is good, since we leave for Lhasa in 36 hours, far over land to roam.

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