I can’t believe it’s only been 72 hours.
We landed three days ago – tired, disoriented, excited but discombulated. My t.a., Lixiang, (lucky for me – a student I’ve taught before at UW) and two other SIE employees met us and some other SIE faculty at Nanjing airport. They brought us water and sweet buns and loaded us into the waiting van while a car behind honked the horn impatiently – the first of many such honks we’d hear. The drive to Nanjing was about an hour. In the darkness, the empty, modern highway could as easily have led to Toronto or L.A. We observed aloud that when you arrive in a city at night, you get little sense of what it’s like. There were signs for the Yangtze, but we didn’t see the river.
We arrived at our hotel room, which was pleasantly spacious, clean and cool (although the night we arrived, Nanjing was unseasonably mild; so we didn’t yet appreciate how important air conditioning would become for us). Lixiang and my “personal welfare assistant,” Sha, came up to the room with us to make sure we got settled ok. Around the room, someone had placed post-it notes with English translations of the Chinese signs – “on/off”, “caution – fragile”; on the television: “4 has English sub-title” and “147 is an English channel.”
Other oddities: the washer/dryer is a single unit. The very same compact object both washes and dries the clothes. Magic! The kitchen sink has two taps – one for sterilized water and one for unsterilized. This is a huge luxury. Most Chinese must drink boiled water because they have no potable water in their homes or workplaces. (The yard outside the student canteen at Nanjing University is a forest of large, brightly coloured thermoses. The students leave them outside and fetch them as needed.) The glass of the shower stall forms one wall of the bedroom; the person in the shower is afforded privacy by venetian blinds on the bedroom side of the glass wall – a Penthouse letter waiting to happen. Inside the shower – three pairs of plastic sandals. We’re meant to shower in sandals, it seems. But three pairs? Because we’ll shower at the same time? Or because the sandals mustn’t be shared? Curious.
I was worried that nervous energy would keep us awake all night despite our sleep-deprived state. The worry was misplaced. The second our heads hit the pillows, we fell into long, deep sleeps.
The next morning, we had to talk ourselves into venturing out to look for breakfast. Still tired, we weren’t quite up to the challenge of finding food – vegetarian for the Kid and me – without the benefit of a common language. We’d been told there was a hotel restaurant on the second floor, but that we couldn’t access it with our elevator. So, we go to the main floor and greet the security guard at the door with a cheerful “Nihao.” He looks unimpressed. We point to the elevator and hold up two fingers to ask about the second floor. He is unresponsive. We try to open a few doors to find the elevator that will apparently take us upstairs. We find one, but it doesn’t go to the second floor either. So we head outside.
We’re greeted by warm, moist, close air with the already-familiar scent of coal soot and five spice powder that pervades Nanjing. The city is bustling. We’re in the thick of downtown and have no idea where to go next. We begin by circling our building. We discover that the building also houses a Lamborghini dealership (!) and, on the second floor but accessible by a separate door, a fancy restaurant with the red and gold that is characteristic of traditional restaurants here. The staff are friendly and greet us warmly, but we can’t yet muster the nerve to attempt to order food in Chinese; so we smile and flee.
We decide to walk around the block to get our bearings. Just past the Lamborghini dealership, there is an alley – a bit on the squalid side for one so near such a business – beside each door backing onto the alley a small food stand with meat, dumplings and unfamiliar things. We don’t yet have the nerve to shop in the alley, so we keep walking. Then, beside the Bank of China and behind a battery of parked e-bikes (there are more e-bikes than regular bikes in Nanjing; they clog the streets and sidewalks), we see “Ivy Food Store.” A possibility. But a glance in the window reveals a stock of Western foods and liquors. We may not be ready for the alley yet, but we’re not going to resort to expensive foods for expats. Half a block on, we find the SG Supermarket, which has some foreign foods, but Chinese foods too. We buy honey cakes, yogurt, fruit and juice and head back to our apartment. This first meal feels like a real accomplishment.
This will be hard. How will we make it work? We begin to hatch a plan to increase our radius a bit. Then, the phone rings. It’s someone from SIE who wants to know if we’d like a personal welfare assistant to take us shopping. Yes. Very much.
Soon enough, Sha is walking us north on Zhongshan Lu to the busy intersection with Guangzhou Lu. We turn, cross the street and head past several blocks of shops, restaurants and street vendors before we arrive at a large, shabby two storey department store – groceries upstairs, housewares and clothing downstairs. We buy some pots and pans and utensils, and a supply of tofu, beer and chilli sauce. “That is spicy,” Sha warns me. “I know,” I reply. She looks surprised – “You like pepper?!” Sha, it turns out is from Hunan, where the food is spicy. She loves Nanjing, but misses peppery Hunan food “almost as much as my family,” doesn’t much like the blander, sweeter food of Nanjing. And, she prefers rice to the corn that is ubiquitous in Nanjing this time of year.
As we walk, we take turns chatting with Sha, who has studied English for six years, but who is unaccustomed to idiom, and whose English pronunciation is very difficult to parse. Like many English speakers here (as we’ve discovered), when Sha speaks English, she does so using Chinese intonations and phrasings. We’ve now several times heard speech on t.v. or on public announcements where, only towards the end of the speech have we noticed that they were speaking English. It is no doubt an effort for Sha to carry on discussion for so long in English; but it is also an effort for us make out what she is saying. When she doesn’t understand, she says “I cannot catch you.” We begin to use the phrase too. Stopping in at the SG, I ask Sha whether the store is primarily intended for foreigners since it stocks many Japanese and Korean, as well as some European, items. She cannot catch me. She tries to explain what a grocery store is. I repeat my question. Still no luck. It is only later that it occurs to me that Sha may never have shopped in a grocery store herself. Certainly not in her little Hunan village, and not likely in Nanjing, where she lives in a student residence with five other students and eats in the student canteen.
After the shopping is done, we say goodbye to Sha and return to our apartment, with plans to head out for dinner around 5:30 We’ve read that Chinese people eat dinner earlier than our usually late dinner time and aren’t anxious to try to talk someone into staying open later for us. As soon as we reach our room, though, it is as if a spell has been cast on us. All three of us fall asleep, and don’t wake up until 8:30. We quickly gather ourselves and head out to a nearby restaurant which has, thankfully, both pictures and English in the menu, and whose staff is patient, warm and hospitable. We eat the most delicious, unctuous eggplant and green bean dish, a crunchy and savoury celery dish and, inevitably for Nanjing, a plate of corn. And rice. The rice here is sticky and savoury. Unlike in Canada, it is not served with soy sauce. It doesn’t need it. The rest of the evening is spent drifting back and forth between sleep and Chinese television.
The next day, the Guy stays in the room to work while the Kid and I head out to meet Sha. There is a problem with our showerhead; so Sha takes me to the front desk which is, inexplicably, in a small room on the 14th floor, to get it sorted out. The Kid takes her camera and heads outside to try to take a photo of the local middle school girls who are outside in uniforms and red scarves doing their morning exercises. No dice. We can see the exercise yard from our hotel room, but it is inaccessible from the street. (Later, Sha asks a guard at the school if we can enter the yard to take photos. He is not amused by the suggestion.) When we join the Kid outside, a parade of young boys, all wearing gold trimmed red sashes, marches by. The Kid snaps some photos.
Sha walks us to the university. The buildings are shabby and outdated, but the grounds are lush and green. The central avenue is lined with trees and strewn with red banners marking the uni’s 110th anniversary. The students, who all study English as part of their mandatory curriculum, often stop to say “Hello.” We answer “Nihao.” I see the classroom I’ll be teaching in – 1940s era wooden desks bolted to the floor, a blackboard at the front of the room. It’s a real “To Sir, With Love” classroom, although I have no illusions that my pedagogy will be as life-changing as Sir’s. We pop our heads into a classroom full of young people sitting behind such desks. Lixiang is among them. He looks relieved to see us. “You look like a student,” I tell him. “I feel like one,” he replies. Apparently, Chinese t.a.s are more regimented than Canadian ones.
Sha shows us a row of foreign restaurants. I see a coffee shop and can’t resist (It’s been two days since I’ve had a coffee, after all.) We sit at a booth. I order a latte, amazed that it’s possible to do such a thing. Molly orders a pot of oolong, Sha an iced tea with milk. As we sip our drinks, Sha teaches us a bit of Chinese; we teach her a bit of English. We flip through our travel guide and phrase book and show each other stuff, ask her about the country.
Sha has been in Nanjing for six years. She loves it and would like to stay, but the Chinese authorities severely limit migration from rural to urban areas. For now, she’s permitted to be here because she’s a student. After she graduates, she’ll need to buy a house or marry a local if she is to stay. Or, she might get a job with a wealthy firm who can help her to get a residence permit. I ask her if she has a local lined up to marry yet. She doesn’t (and she doesn’t seem to discern that I am kidding). We practice a bit of Chinese script and work on our pronunciation.
As we’re leaving campus, Sha invites us to lunch at the student canteen. I tell her I’ll buy, but she insists that it’s her treat. It’s very cheap, she says, and she can pay with her student card. I am reluctant to accept her generosity – I can only imagine how much richer I am than her – but equally reluctant to spurn her hospitality. Finally, I accede, insisting that it’s my treat next time.
The student canteen is a large, unadorned room full of four-seater tables and surrounded by counters arrayed with dozens of large serving dishes full of a dizzying variety of foods. There is a counter for soup and dumplings, another for seafood where whole fresh fish and piles of crayfish are evident, a counter for meat dishes, one for vegetarian, and other counters we don’t make it to. Sha orders a dozen leek and agar dumplings for us. The dumpling kitchen is a blur of activity. One woman is rolling fresh dough; another is stuffing the dumplings; others still are steaming and serving them. Several industrial fridges are full of cookie sheets piled with freshly stuffed dumplings. While the dumplings are being prepared, we head to the vegetarian counter where Sha orders three metal bowls of rice and five dishes, each likewise served up in a metal bowl – long beans, chard, cucumber salad, tofu and tomato, and shredded potatoes. I say, “This is too much!” Sha assures me that the students always order two dishes each. At the dumpling station, Sha has to twist the server’s arm to get a bowl of pepper sauce for dipping, but she is undeterred. The pepper sauce is the closest thing to Hunan flavours Sha gets in these parts.
Sha grabs three pairs of chopsticks from the dispenser. I tell her that we have our own with us. We carry them both because the Kid wanted to buy some nice ones while here and because various China travel blogs advise that carrying one’s own chopsticks reduces the risk of exposure to illness. But I don’t tell Sha this. She seems surprised that we have chopsticks with us.
I am feeling vexed about the amount of food Sha is buying for us. As if she’s read my mind, she turns to me and says, “All of this – only eight yuen!” That’s about $1.33. Is such a thing really possible? I paid over 70 yuen for our coffee and tea. Perhaps that’s why Sha was so insistent on buying us lunch.
We had resolved not to eat any salad in China. Raw vegetables here carry the risk of food poisoning or hepatitis. But, I don’t hesitate before diving in to the cucumber salad. Sha has been incredibly hospitable and I’m going to show my appreciation by savouring every single dish. It is not at all difficult since every dish, including the cucumber salad, is delicious. The dumplings are the best I’ve ever had. We all three agree that, besides the dumplings, the long beans are the tastiest dish and that the pepper sauce is wonderful. I ask Sha if it’s poor manners to put pepper sauce on one’s vegetables. She says that it isn’t usually done, but we decide that I’ll be violating so many Chinese norms that this further faux pas will do no harm. I slather chilli sauce on my potato. Sha follows suit.
That afternoon, when we return to the hotel, both the Kid and her Dad again fall asleep. The speed and force with which fatigue overcomes us lately is astonishing. We’ve had three days of uncontrollably falling asleep in the middle of activities. While they rest, I head out to explore the city and to buy groceries for dinner.
Nanjing’s downtown at 5 p.m. on a Friday is a wonder to behold. The streets are crammed with cars, bikes and pedestrians. Every square inch of the sidewalks is occupied by street vendors. This one has baskets of flowers; that one is frying eggs, a bowl of ground meat at her elbow awaiting some further treatment; there are balloons in the shape of animals, baby chicks in tiny bamboo cages, giant white peaches, corn, watermelons, baskets of some kind of green plant product that I can’t identify – bright green, fist-sized and the shape of a funnel, with large seeds protruding from the flat surface, they look like something from space. And the food! Long metal skewers of meat, roasted duck and pancakes, sweet cakes and fresh squeezed juices. At the end of the workweek, the street is a veritable carnival.
I buy bok choy, noodles, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, fresh lychees and Chinese beer. Back at the apartment, we are soon eating soup and a spicy ginger-chilli tofu dish that I come up with, inspired by Sha’s Hunan reminiscences. Nanjing has begun to feel like home.
The next day – this morning – after finishing up the last of the soup, accompanied by glasses of green tea, the Kid and I head south to Nanjing’s city centre. On the way out, we encounter some other SIE faculty heading out for the day with their personal welfare assistant. They seem astonished that the Kid and I are going out without a guide and that we know where we’re going. They still seem overwhelmed and anxious.
The city centre is emblematic of the “new China” – shiny new skyscrapers emblazoned with “Cartier” and “Gucci”. The billboards feature photos of Gwyneth Paltrow and Charlize Theron. In the semiotics of Chinese capitalism, white women stand for luxury. Selling jewels or wine or massages? Better use a white model. Selling toys or cookware or educational c.d.s? A Chinese model will do. Turning left onto Zhongshan Donglu at the sculpture of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the founding father of the Republic of China, we soon see countless bustling book stores. The Chinese clearly *love* to read. E-books are (for now) no threat to Chinese publishers and booksellers. The Kid begins interacting with people. She’s been practicing her pronunciation and starts to approach salespeople to ask about products and prices. I am astonished by how quickly she is picking the language up, and how well she’s interacting in it. Where did this child come from? How is she doing this amazing thing?
Then, we pick up the Guy and hop on the Y1 Northbound bus in search of the Jiming Temple. Before we go, the Kid copies out the characters for Jiming Temple on her notepad. We get off the bus and approach a McDonald’s worker on a smoke break. The Kid shows him the characters. He borrows her pen and pad and draws a rough map to the temple. En route, every time we need help, we show people the Kid’s note. They point towards the monastery and wave us off with a smile. Finally, we arrive. The temple – a working Buddhist temple with many prayer rooms – is huge and gorgeous. It backs onto a large, pretty lake and faces Purple Mountain. Our first order of business is to find the temple’s renowned vegetarian restaurant. “Shu shr?” (vegetable food) we keep asking. People keep pointing up. And up up up we go to the top of the mountain temple where we are rewarded with the nuns’ amazing vegan food, and with stunning views of the city, the lake, the mountain and the Ming Dynasty city wall against which the monastery abuts. Sated, we explore the temple for a while, light some incense and then head to the Ming wall.
The wall is shockingly free of tourists, but we have company – several playful magpies who taunt us, always just out of reach; a heron of some kind; an egret and some doves; many swallows darting back and forth overhead, hunting; giant friendly bumblebees; two or three kinds of butterflies; and a chorus of the loudest cicadas I’ve ever heard.
We walk for hours until we’re tingling from the heat and humidity. I adopt the Chinese habit of using an umbrella as a parasol. Leaning over the ramparts to catch the cool updrafts affords a bit of further relief. After we descend from the wall, we stop for cold water and then begin to make our way back to the hotel. En route, we see fortune tellers, beggars, a man selling live ducks, turtles, snakes, quail and a hedgehog. The Kid asks if she can take a photo. He says no. Later, when we encounter the men selling songbirds in bamboo cages and the men gambling with backgammon, they encourage her to snap a pic. “Xie xie ni,” she says (thank you), and they smile broadly.
It’s only been three days, and our confidence is deepening; our circle is growing ever larger. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.
Postscript: I didn’t write nearly as much about our adventures at the Jiming Temple and Ming wall as I’d intended to. Fortunately, the Guy had plenty to say about them. Check it out over at Chinese Television.