Ah, so much has happened since I last wrote.

Let’s see. Well, there was the first faculty meeting on Sunday. A dozen or so faculty, all from different disciplines – one prof per discipline. We’ll be having regular faculty meetings. This reminds me of college life in the 19th century. Some years ago, I was researching American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce’s education. In that capacity, I spent some hours leafing through the Harvard College papers from his cohort. I was charmed by the minutes from faculty meetings, in which all of Harvard’s professors would meet and discuss student issues. These days, we rarely meet to discuss our students, and we hardly ever meet across disciplines. There is something quaint and old-fashioned about being part of the SIE faculty.

The evening after the meeting, SIE staff, faculty and families all went to a local restaurant for a welcome dinner. The restaurant was housed in a huge ultra modern, very high-end, shopping mall that houses such labels as Dolce and Gabbana and Gucci. The restaurant was on the seventh floor, which also boasts a multi-plex cinema that shows both Chinese and Western films.

We sat on traditional Chinese wooden stools around four huge, round tables with lazy susans in the middle, Nanjing opera (different from Bejing opera) playing in the background. Each table was already spread with massive platters of crayfish, duck (the head is the best part, they say!) and assorted pickles and salads. Honestly, I think that the food on the tables when we arrived was likely enough for a full meal, but no matter. Once we were all seated, an army of waiters began delivering a steady stream of local delicacies – duck blood soup, lion’s head soup (no lions were harmed in the making of the soup – alas, the same cannot be said of ducks with respect to the duck blood soup), both steamed and pan-fried meat dumplings, spare ribs, chard, spinach, okra, cabbage and preserved duck egg soup, crispy tofu, sea bass, a sizzling platter of spicy eel, silken tofu and egg yolk, BBQ pork, soy beans and pork wrapped in soft pancakes, countless other meat and vegetable dishes, pitchers of freshly squeezed orange and watermelon juices and endless supplies of beer.

This was our first proper “family style” meal, and I was surprised by the size of our plates. In Canada, we dish Chinese food onto large plates and then focus on our own plate throughout the meal. Not so in China. You eat family style meals off small plates, which requires you to keep returning to the lazy susan for reinforcements. And, what chaos! With ten hungry people at the table, inevitably someone else starts turning the lazy susan while you’re still dishing your chard. And the food is simply brought to the table as it’s ready. There are no courses, no pause between deliveries. Since (as I later realized) our hosts were trying to impress us with their munificence, this meant that there was never adequate room on the table for the food that kept arriving. The servers started piling dishes upon dishes. Hong Ping kept pouring beer and opening more beer bottles in the most theatrical, innovative ways – this time with a chopstick, this time with another beer bottle. Pouring quickly and right into the middle of the glass so that the foam overflowed onto the table along with all of our waiting tools – plastic gloves for the crayfish, chopsticks, soup bowl, soup spoon, individual napkin packets for multiple clean-ups and for any trips to the restroom that might be necessary. (Chinese washrooms don’t have toilet paper. Everyone carries a little packet of Kleenex with them for their restroom visits.)

I usually eat vegetarian, but couldn’t resist trying the crayfish, sea bass and eel. They were all wonderfully delicious (even though, in my clumsiness, I got more crayfish on my skirt than in my stomach), but especially the eel, which was tender, sweet and unctuous. The Kid was more disciplined than me and kept (more or less) vegetarian. Her very favourite dishes were the cabbage and preserved duck egg soup, the okra, the chard, and the spinach. For the Guy, it was all about the crayfish and spare ribs.
Predictably, when the meal was done, there was still enough food left on the tables to feed the whole group twice over. Clearly, our hosts were keen to communicate their wealth and generosity. While I was impressed by the spread, I was anxious about all of the uneaten food left on the table. The Kid rescued some dumplings. An SIE staff member scooped up a whole platter of uneaten crayfish.

Outside on the street as we walked back to our hotel, old people in rough clothes were bent under yokes bearing at each end large baskets of lotus fruit, which they tried to hawk three for 10 yuan ($1.70). Others swept the sidewalks with homemade witches’ brooms.

The streets of Nanjing are way cleaner than I thought they would be. In North America, one hears so much about spitting and smoking and hygiene problems in China. In fact, I’ve seen no more spitting or smoking here than in Canada. The only difference is that Chinese smokers smoke pretty much everywhere – in university buildings, in non-smoking sections in restaurants – and no one tries to stop them. Despite the claims in the travel guides that Chinese people shove rather than queuing, I’ve seen plenty of patient line-ups and very little in the way of shoving. The streets and sidewalks are clean and tidy, and (unlike Canadian sidewalks) completely free of dog shit.

There are really only two problems with Chinese sidewalks. First, they are completely overrun by e-bikes and occasionally even motorcycles. They occupy full lanes of the roadways, but also spill over onto the sidewalks, which they barrel along at top speed, honking to warn pedestrians of their approach. Indeed, our first night in China, as we arrived from the airport, we noticed a number of road signs picturing a trumpet with a prohibitive diagonal line through it. “No trumpets?” we joked. “No jazz? No reveille?” And, then I understood, “Ah! No honking! I get it.” Beside us in the van, Lixiang wryly observed, “It doesn’t help.” He was right. The car and e-bike horns are a steady chorus, even in the quietest neighbourhoods. Chinese drivers and cyclists prefer to ignore right of way and barrel ahead, leaning on their horns to make sure everyone gets it. The sidewalks offer no respite. But no one seems to mind. Children and small dogs run loose, and pedestrians and cyclists alike stare at their phones instead of the oncoming traffic, and yet, somehow, it works. Everyone gets where they’re going.

The army of cyclists is a sight to behold. They all wear normal street clothes – for many, this means high heels and long, flowy dresses, for others the attire is more utilitarian and stereotypically communist. There are very few helmets. What helmets there are tend to be disco-era motorcycle helmets, not cycling helmets at all. More common are large plastic visors – like a cross between a card dealer’s shade and a welder’s mask, surgical masks, and bandanas tied over the riders’ mouths and noses. Many e-bikes have large mittens vaguely resembling oven mitts attached to the handlebars, presumably to protect the riders’ manicures. Some riders wear special removable fabric sleeves on their arms to protect them from dirt. Others slide their jackets on backwards, over their chests instead of their backs. A large minority of cyclists double passengers on their bikes – on purpose-built seats, or on fenders or, apparently, in very mid-air. Others have special contraptions to carry their wares, sometimes as large as whole sheets of plywood. And, when they arrive at their destinations, Chinese cyclists park their bikes right on the sidewalk. When you’re not ducking out of the way of a moving bike, you’re steering around a dozen parked ones.

The other problem with Nanjing sidewalks is the lack of storm sewers. Despite the fact that the region experiences heavy rain for two months of the year, the streets aren’t designed to handle the rain. When it rains, the water pools inches deep on the sidewalks, soaking pedestrians’ shoes and pant hems.

But, lord, the rain is spectacular. Yesterday, on the way home from teaching, I was caught in the rain. Astonishing, shattering, end-of-the-world. People clustered under awnings as if watching a parade. E-bikes with two riders under rain capes – four legs, one head – chimerae! I had taught Aristotle’s physics earlier in the day. He says terrestrial motion is downwards. Not in Nanjing. Here, rain falls horizontally. Later the same night, after an fancy dinner in the elegant New Era Hotel (a dinner, that despite the topnotch ambience and service and the generous, gut-splitting servings of delicious food, cost about $25, all in, for three of us), we stepped outside just as the sky opened up again. Umbrellas inside out, instant puddles, sheets of lightening and crashing thunder. The next day, back to the same old heat and humidity. The rain is the only respite.

Monday morning’s class, the room had no air conditioning. Crazy hot in a small room crowded with 40 bodies. Everyone sweating buckets after ten minutes. They all pulled out fans, or devised them out of notebooks. They stood up whenever called upon to speak. Squeaky chairs. Terrible, terrible chalk that breaks at the least provocation, but (inexplicably) the best chalk brush I’ve ever used. All the students Chinese; but two or three with distinctly U.S. accents. Most of them natives of Nanjing, home to visit their families. Many of them are from Rice. I asked why. Two answers mooted: “Rice students love Philosophy” and “Rice University loves Nanjing students.” I countered, “What does Rice have against Beijing students?” and the whole class broke into laughter.

I was back in my office after class when the building went dark and silent. Power outage. No a/c. Headed to lunch, I bumped into the Guy and the Kid wandering the neighbourhood. We made our way to a little spot around the corner with no English writing but a very friendly young man smiling and waving us in. Four tables, two occupied by the family who own the business. We ordered by pointing at things. A huge delicious (star anise and chilli flavoured) soup — way too much for us — of noodles, veggies, tofu and (accidentally, but these things happen; hell, they *keep* happening!) chicken, a big bowl of rice, a big bowl of veggies, three 500 ml beers and a Coke came to 60 yuan ($10). Our crockery arrived sealed in cellophane. We were served by the whole family. Brother cooked, grandma poured our boiling water (They serve boiling water here rather than ice water due to pollution), sister and mother took our money. Little brother played nearby — weirdly, with a toy often sold as a souvenir of Canada’s first nations community. I puzzled over this and then realized that most of those toys are made in China. I guess some fall off the lorry.

Next class was in the same room. A/C still out. Ten minutes into class, Ma Fei reported that there was an air conditioned room available for us to move into. We moved. However, it was already occupied by another class, but they were strangely compliant and simply moved to the back of the classroom as we moved to the front. For half an hour they watched me lecture, looking bemused. Then they left. The next morning, as I rode the elevator to my office, Lixiang got on and announced, “We’ve lost both classrooms. Somebody took them.” Oh, China!

Yesterday, I broke down and bought an Americano at the local Starbucks knock-off. Inside, a large table of businessmen was smoking, sharing fries and ketchup and drinking green tea. The burger menu features some great examples of Chinglish: “Hamburg steak signs, Pig carotid row Hamburg, Farm Chicken Hamburg, Grilled Bacon Hamburg, Pastoral Hamburg.” Pastoral Hamburg made me think of Beethoven. (Could it be a veggie burger? Hard to say. Tonight, at a local restaurant, the Kid and I gave the server a note requesting vegetarian dishes. She nodded and returned with chicken and beef.)

So many other things – too many to remember, but I don’t want to forget them. Cicadas louder than power drills, giant, elegant, long-horned cockroaches, playful Chinese magpies and swallows. The old women who practice ballroom dancing in the square each morning as I pass by on my way to work. The pretty dresses, so many pretty dresses. Young women who look like real-life paper dolls or Barbies – as if they were dressed by 8-year-olds who want to pile all of their pretty things on them at once. And the women’s legs! Why didn’t I know that Chinese women have the most beautiful legs in the world? It doesn’t matter how old or young, skinny or fat the women are – their legs are all perfection, shapely and lithe. But that’s the only generalization I can make about Chinese appearance. As I search the faces on the street, I see many shapes, many distinctive features – I suspect a dozen or more ethnic groups are represented in these crowds – Han, Nepalese, Mongolian… Such variety! (I’ve learned that, except around Beijing, home to Mandarin, most Chinese speak one language with their family and another one in public. And the Hunan and Manchurian students I’ve met don’t like Nanjing food — too sweet and mild. There are many Chinese cuisines.) And, in this context, I feel so weirdly British. Like I should be wearing a pith helmet and linens. Like a colonist.

And, what else? The kindness and generosity. “I like you very much” and “You are beautiful” are common utterances. After the grand dinner above, I thanked our host. “I am so, so, so, so, so happy you enjoyed the meal,” she replied, beaming. This morning, when I arrived at work, my employer gave me a beautiful silk and bamboo fan and a small red envelope containing a note wishing me a happy belated Canada day. My first Canada Day gift. Here. In China.

And, still there’s more – the shedding plane trees, the ubiquitous scent of five spice powder and rice, the little dog under the street vendor’s stall, the roller blading children at the university, the father and daughter playing badminton, the shabby alleys, the stunning skyscrapers, the thin, sour, wonderful yogurt, the students who keep buying me lunch before I can object…
There’s too much. I won’t be able to take it all with me. China is like that feast on Sunday night. I’ll have to leave too much behind. But, with this post as my doggy bag, I can keep some too, for later.

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