One thing I love about language is each one has its own system that in some ways is only understood from a lens of the culture from which it was made. English is awesome because it accepts words so easily from other languages and is often quite malleable despite its often ridiculous grammar.
Language is semiotics. How does one thing represent another. Words are not immutable, whole representative entities. Words simply stand for an idea and change over time.
Thus, one feature of language is the words that are just not translatable. One of my favorites is in Scandinavian languages that basically describes that feeling you get from coming in after a long, cold day and you feel the warmth from the hearth. (I say “basically,” primarily cause I don’t speak a lick of any of the Scandinavian languages.)
Another of my favorites in Chinese is 下酒菜 or xiajiucai. It describes specifically a dish that goes well with alcoholic drinks. It could be translated as snack, bar food, finger food or any number of other ways.
But words have power in connotation, and xiajiucai specifically gets at the concept that food should pair with drink, that the flavor profile of a peanut can compliment a beer’s. (Trying explaining to your waiter that’s why you want another round of free popcorn.)
The one I love is saudades from Portuguese, which in a narrow sense means the nostalgia and longing for someone or something. But in a way, it wholly encapsulate the country.
Saudades de Portugal
Saudades captures the Portuguese psyche.
It is a longing for something that you know you may never have again. It could be a longing and melancholy for something that doesn’t even exist. It could be nostalgia for something that you never even knew was a thing. It’s sadness. It’s longing. It’s desire for something you’ll never have.
It evokes Portuguese history because from a current outlook the country will never return to its former status as the preeminent world power (or at least European power). Its access to the sea is no longer as important, and among numerous world trends over the last few centuries has not featured on the world stage for a long time.
It is both telling and fortunate that Portugal played a fairly minimalist role in the World Wars. (To claim Portugal has no part to play in world politics, however, is foolish, as the EU still continues to worry about its part to play in the union.)
Certain images get at this concept. One is during the Reconquista, a period of Iberian history, where – if I may anachronistically apply the terms “Spanish” and “Portuguese” here – the Spanish and Portuguese fought to remove a certain group of people from the peninsula, either the Moors, Arabs, Muslims or Maghrebi, depending on how you want to label them.
There’s an image of the men going off to war during the Reconquista, never to return, and women being sold off, never to be seen again. This is saudades.
The Age of Exploration, of which Portugal was the pioneer, is the defining time of the nation. The armillary sphere is still a primary metaphor, displayed on the national flag and memorialized by statues in plazas all across the Lusophonic world.
The image of a women waiting by the seaside for her husband to return, simply, is saudades in visual form.
For those of you non-Portuguese folks, perhaps you can relate to the Ghost of Maiden’s Peak episode in Pokémon, where a woman turns to stone waiting for her love. Gripping, powerful, sad stuff.
Then there’s fado music, which so poignantly evokes a sense of melancholy and longing, it basically speaks to the heart of the Portuguese people in just a few lyrics.
In many ways, it’s a culture longing for a grand future for its people and land, but unsure of what that should even be.
In a colloquial sense, one can say “eu sinto saudades de você,” simply meaning “I miss you.” In short, you miss something. In long, it’s melancholy, longing, unknowing loss, and a return to something from the past.
Saudades de Pequim
The term saudades tugged at my heartstrings a bit when I was longing for Beijing. I hint at two saudades here. First, is my own longing for the city of Beijing. Second, is the longing of the Pekingese for their own old city.
I’ve never hid the fact that upon going to Beijing it almost instantly became one of my favorite places. There’s a billion reasons, of which the smog is not one.
It’s got history. It’s got good food. It’s got cosmopolitanism. Although the naysayers say otherwise, Beijing is certainly an international city like Shanghai. Because of embassy row, it almost defintionally must be. It’s got an art scene. It’s got sports. It’s got bar streets. It’s got character. It has its hutong (alleys.)
To me, Beijing is one of the world’s great cities. New York, London, Beijing.
Some people have a longing for the first place they traveled. That first place you travel is the touchstone for which all subsequent travel is compared. It establishes the norm of “newness.” You can never recapture the raw experience of your first travel. It’s like chasing the dragon or masturbation; the first time is ethereally grand.
However, Beijing was not my first experience abroad. There were several before that. However, it was my first foray into Asia, and as Anthony Bourdain explains on his episode for Vietnam, it’s hard to explain one’s love affair with Asia: food, people, land, sights, vibe, everything. The continent is brimming with character(s).
I haven’t returned to Beijing, except to use its lovely airport for transfers in four years now, and every time I touch down in that smoggy air, I long for the good life in the Northern Capital. I miss Beijing. Eu sinto saudades de Pequim.
Old Pekingese long for their Old Beijing
A few months ago I watched a video/documentary/presentation by a Chinese who basically went through painstaking research to try to get to the bottom of the smog in China, and of course, no panacea was prescribed. Basically the findings are not good (hence why the government blocked it).
In it she interviews old Pekingese who outline a time in which kids would go out on the frozen Qianhai and Houhai Lakes next to the Forbidden City and the snow would fall gracefully over a beautiful, restful sky.
Winter used to be gorgeous in the Northern Capital but nowadays pollution just soils it. And in this moment is when that Portuguese term struck me. I love that city. I had a blast there. I feel a weird connection to it. And yet I’m not Chinese; this isn’t my country. This is why that term is so apt. I have a longing, a desire, a melancholy for the capital of China. I long for a time when pure white snow and not smog-ridden slush descended.
This emotion is felt by many old Chinese. The old hutong are being destroyed faster than one can count. Except that there are so few now, we can indeed count them, and that hyperbole lacks oomph.
In Michael Meyer’s portrait of prose, The Last Days of Old Beijing, he chronicles the loss of an integral feature of the old city, the alleyways, the hutong. In it, he interviews numerous folks who inhabit the central arteries being paved over for highways and shopping malls.
One man describes of his old city, “[it] is not easy to explain. It’s something flowing inside me.” Cities are collections of people and buildings, and to the extent that these are the only two variables, urban life would be boring. But there’s obvious more.
Hutong are being demolished, ostensibly for new development, but also because they’re slightly an eyesore. They’re made of perishable materials with shoddy amenities. What city planner would want that to persist?
Much of China is thought of these days in terms transactions. Hutong, culture and legacy, however, are not up for sale. They are stolen, only.
Much the way small town America is paved over with interstates, strip malls and good intentions, the longing, the saudades for an old time is real.
This isn’t to say all Chinese yearn for the good old times, because that exact era was also fraught with infighting, civil war and war lords. The hutong predate the Republican era, back to dynastic rule, but few remain from the Qing Dynasty.
Many Chinese don’t care, see the world as transactional, and would rather the government did away with “grimy” hutong in the name of modernization.
But for the rest of us, the loss of this heritage, this old relic is deeply saddening. The world over, there is a loss of identity through architecture, be it ISIS destroying Palmyra or Eisenhower’s interstate destroying Cleveland, we must understand how city planning, buildings and space profoundly impact identity and movement.
Let me know what you think of hutong in the comments below!
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