It’s been five days since I arrived in China. Since then I’ve had a whirlwind of experiences, all showing me a different side to this place that I guess I want to call home. I arrived in Shanghai and immediately went to a place called Tianzifang. Tianzifang is a hip arts and culture area in the old French Concession part of Shanghai. From there I took a bullet train and raced at 300 kilometres an hour north, to Nanjing. Nanjing means ‘jewel of the south’ and I was born there. I lived in Nanjing until I was about five, after which I emigrated to Australia. I lived with my grandmother and for a brief time with my mother and father too (they emigrated before I did) and our apartment was located about 10 minutes walk from Xinjiekou, the heart of the city.
Nanjing has been my base for the last few days, and looking back it feels like I’ve been all over the place. For some time I’ve lived with my grandmother in her clean, renovated apartment, spending time with her during the day chatting about my life and hers too. She’s housebound because she’s too frail to climb the single flight of stairs down to leave the house, and so she spends the day sleeping, eating, watching TV, listening to the radio, and sitting. Her son, my father’s brother, lives with her and cares for her. It’s a full time job so he’s currently unemployed. In contrast to the domesticity and the rawness of that experience I’ve also spent a few nights staying with my cousin, who is what I would call a ‘modern’ Chinese woman. Recently divorced, she works hard and earns quite a bit of money. Living in a flash bachelorette pad in the centre of town, she drives a red Audi, smokes and drinks with the boys and travels in Asia regularly on business. I’ve also spent some time with my oldest cousin, who is in another sense a different kind of modern Chinese woman. She’s married, has one young child who is treated like a little emperor, and has her parents live with her. Her parents look after their grandson, who goes to a prestigious English language kindergarten, and mum and dad go to work on weekdays and sometimes on weekends too. Their free time is filled with extracurricular activities, like badminton, going to the gym, going out to eat, and regular playdates for the little bub.
I’ve been to the heart of Nanjing, with its bustling streets filled with department stores galore. From small boutiques to large chains, Nanjing is a modern Chinese city that houses over eight million people. I’ve eaten all kinds of food in different sorts of places, from street stalls to authentic little Japanese boutiques to big Chinese restaurants where dozens of tables heave under a dozen more plates of food. I’ve eaten fermented tofu, duck’s blood, eel, century eggs and pig’s feet. I’ve visited Western style bars where they play the Eagles and Tom Petty and serve beer on tap. I’ve been invited to KTV (karaoke) palaces so glittery they could rival Los Vegas, and I’ve sat amongst American, Chinese and Japanese businessmen and their numerous ‘princessess’ – beautiful young Chinese women that you pick from a line up and who are paid to celebrate the night with you. They’ll drink with you, converse with you, dance with you, and let you touch them and kiss them to your heart’s content. I’ve been to nightclubs in Nanjing’s famed 1912 nightlife area, and danced to music that’s pumped out nonstop till the early hours of the morning. I’ve been accompanied by gaggles of handsome young Chinese men – ‘models’, they’re called – who, if you are a female, are similarly paid to entertain you, drink with you, play dice games with you, and be your gentlemanly chaperone during the night. I assume the potential of kissing and touching was also a part of the deal too, but I didn’t venture that far to find out. These nightclubs are intense, and reek of hedonism, sex, and money.
I also took a road trip out to the countryside. Jiangsu, the province in which Nanjing is located, is a very highly developed province, being the home to port cities like Nanjing and close to big cities like Shanghai. Compared to the urban jungle that is Nanjing, the countryside holds a completely different feel. Traditional farming is still being practiced, with rice paddies nestled amongst vegetable gardens full of spring onions, eggplants, cucumbers and beans. Cranes fly in and out and water buffalo rest in the fields. The roads climb uphill revealing old and new communist style houses, little children running around, elderly citizens speaking the local dialect and timid looking stray cats and dogs. The fog moves slowly in the distance, revealing a small mountain range far away. There are also signs of industrial development too – power lines soar over the rice paddies, workers in traditional farming attire stand knee deep in the fields talking on their mobile phones, roads are paved, and cars roar up past me on my leisurely stroll. ‘Putonghua’, the standard Chinese dialect disseminated from the country’s capital, Beijing, is also spoken by a few of the inhabitants of this little farming town. Being thankful that the dialect had spread to the villages, I was able to have a conversation with a few of the elders as we crossed paths on the road.
Experiences like that make me recognise that on some levels, I’m incredibly lucky to be travelling through China as the person that I am. I look Chinese enough not to attract too much attention and I am able to converse fluently enough that I can pass as a Chinese person too. On the other hand I hold the values of adventurousness and openness, which in my opinion come from me having grown up all over the world in developed western counties. Armed with language and curiosity at my side, in some ways I have the perfect entry point into experiencing Chinese life. The reserved and somewhat hostile faces of the people I meet all break into wide, welcoming smiles as soon as I say ‘ni hao’. But on a slightly more personal level, things aren’t all that picture perfect. Culture shock has really grabbed a hold of me, and I’m still finding my feet. Whilst I’m sure you could say this of many countries in the world, everything really is different here. China is a hard place, and you can see it in the people, in the cities, in the traffic, in the economy and in the landscape. There is a coldness, an indifference and a distrust that I’ve never found anywhere else. Many people on the street don’t know what to make of me – I may look mildly Chinese, yet I can’t speak their language completely fluently. A lot of them write me off as being Korean or Japanese, but the majority of them probably don’t care.
Nearing the end of my first week here I’m also getting sick – it’s a result of fatigue, stress, and eating low-quality food. In the west I would usually turn to a healthy organic diet, supplements and rest to strengthen my immune system. In a city like Nanjing I should’ve known better than to go looking for organic food. Going to one of the biggest supermarkets in town, I walked the aisles with dismay, unable to find anything that wasn’t processed, fake, sprayed with pesticides or raised in cruelty. I went home with a confused bag of groceries: bleached white bulbs of garlic, overpriced German muesli and American dried cranberries.
Language has been another issue too. The Angela that I’ve always known has always been able to make herself known and understood through the words she’s used. Being someone who craves deep and meaningful connections, I’ve learned to be able to reach out and connect with others through the English language. I can eloquently express precisely how I’m feeling and I love that I’m able to give expression to all the nuances of my being. In China, that Angela doesn’t exist. On a very basic sense I get by, buying food, asking for directions, making small talk. However, get me to talk about anything like emotions, experiences, thoughts and opinions, and I’m stuck. I can’t express the conflict that I might feel about wanting to go out and experience all that Nanjing has to offer versus the internal pressure that I feel about staying in and spending time with my elderly grandmother. I can’t put into Chinese words how I spent the entire evening deliberating over whether the friendship I made with the ‘model’ that I spent the evening playing dice games with was real or inauthentic. I can’t tell you about my future plans to travel around China by bicycle, because I want to document the traditional crafts and skills that are slowly dying out in some kind of cultural and personal repair. None of my extended family will be able to read this blog post, nor know me fully. It’s a very lonely feeling. But I knew that this would be the case when I arrived. I had talked to a friend about it – how do I express who I am when I don’t have language to express it? How can I still embody the values and the qualities I hold dear? Wading my way mutely through the Chinese cultural norms and ways of being, I’ve felt the loneliness of not being seen, nor understood.
But there is one place where I feel the most myself. On my first day in Nanjing I got ahold of a bicycle and made my way through the streets. Even though the traffic is all over the place – it’s a hodgepodge of cars, electric scooters and bicycles all making their way to a thousand different places – as soon as I was on two wheels I fit straight in. There’s a saying in English – that there’s a method to the madness – and riding along, I felt it. Riding a bicycle here is so intuitive – you stay alert and watch out so that you don’t get hit, but apart from that you simply join in with the flow. And there is a flow. It looks daunting but it’s felt like the most natural thing to do, and I may be an idiot, riding around sweating on a humid 30-something degree day, but I’ve got the biggest smile on my face. Some of my happiest moments here have been on a bicycle, being in motion. And I guess I’ve been able to embody and express those qualities that I was talking about – adventurousness, openness, curiosity, connectedness and most of all: a freedom of being. Unlike the realm of words, on a bike I can go wherever I wish. And seeing a city by bicycle is like nothing else: you’re alone, but you’re also immensely and deliciously in it.
I talked to a friend in Australia today and he laughed jokingly at something I had said about the culture shock I was experiencing. “Did you think that just because you have the eyes, you could just fit in?” He said it sweetly. And I guess with each and every interaction I have, my hopes of ‘fitting in’ get stripped away. I become more and more aware of how different I’ve grown up to be. I want to eat different food, I want to enact different values, I have different kinds of relationships, and I want to do different things with my life. But a few decades ago in China, before there were cars, there were only bicycles and they filled the streets. And in a funny way when I get on my bicycle, I am transported back to that past, back to that specific heritage. It’s a past that feels more familiar, and it’s one that I can feel connected to. And it’s not much, I know, but it’s a start. So let’s let the adventures begin.