Coming from Beijing, I grew up in what Chinese people would call a "dayuan" which, translated directly, means “big courtyard.” The word specifically refers to a kind of self-sufficient residential community for retirees from state-owned companies or the military. Built to cater to the needs of seniors who don’t travel a lot, dayuans normally have everything: a few dining halls, a convenience store, a hospital, a library, and even a kindergarten. I guess Beijingers do believe that your living environment shapes who you are.
The main gate of the dayuan I grew up in is in the shape and color of a rainbow. Walking from the gate to our apartment takes about ten minutes. At the end of a long day, I cherish the time of that walk to reflect on the happenings of the day. The rainbow marks the end of the hustling, bustling city outside and the start of the quiet “miniature city” inside.
There isn’t much to do on those walks, so I look up at the sky and just think. The thoughts I have on my walks have, as would be expected, changed over the years. In middle school, my thoughts were on a boy I liked that had smiled at me or an online fanfiction that I had snuck out of bed to read the night before. In high school, I would think about the future of going to college in America or if I liked a guy back or not (I guess some things don’t change after all). During this past winter break, I thought about how friends from home had both changed and not changed and how much authentic Chinese food I had or would consume before I flew back to the Orange Bubble and took my finals.
I have come to realize that what really defines me as a dayuan child are these walks. They are unique occurrences; nowhere else can I be close enough to home to feel secure, while still far enough to feel adventurous, to roam around a little and let my thoughts roam as well.
These walks aren't always a solitary experience. Sometimes I have companions, my parents and my grandmother. Walks with my grandmother are slow and quiet. The pathways for pedestrians form a mile-long circle in the dayuan, and we go along the circular path hand in hand, step by step. Topics are simple: how the weather has changed, how I should dress more warmly, and whether I prefer pork ribs or shrimp for dinner. My grandma always says yes to my request for popsicles or “tanghulu,” a traditional Beijing sugary snack. As I hold my tanghulu stick like it is the greatest treasure in the world, grandma looks at me like I am her greatest treasure.
Walks with my parents take place at night, after they come back from work. Under the warm glow of yellow street lamps and colorful lights of the rainbow gate, we walk on the same circular pathway to talk about inconsequential matters like how good the dinner was, or life-changing topics like “how I met your mother.” Walks with my parents record a coming-of-age story that probably began with my dad entertaining my childish curiosity about Mayan alien myths and continues on to the never-ending topic of how the three of us — the best team ever — become our best selves as we enter new phases in our lives. My coming to America has been the biggest transition we have faced.
I guess I’m one of those Beijingers that believes in how the environment shapes who we are. Growing up in a dayuan has made me more reflective and bonded me with my family in ways I don’t believe would have been possible in any other setting.
On campus, instead of walking from the rainbow gate to our apartment, I hike from Frist to Rocky under the starry night sky of Princeton. I miss the Orange Bubble when I’m in my dayuan in Beijing, and the dayuan when I’m in Princeton. These two places are so different, but they are both places where I can be introspective. They are both a kind of home.
As an international student here at Princeton, sometimes I feel strongly that I am somewhere in the middle, not out in the world yet also no longer at home. When I get stressed or nervous, I like to think that I am simply on a four-year long walk in the dayuan. I take the opportunity to let my thoughts and dreams drift to places I want to reach. And I walk on.