As I step out of the apartment, I’m hit by a waft of warm air. In our hotel and at work, there is powerful air conditioning always at work in the rooms and elevators, but the corridors and foyers are downright tropical. Amazingly, one of the elevators is on the sixth floor (as am I). Usually, in the before and after work rush, there’s a wait. (Incidentally, all buildings – and hence elevators – in China have a thirteenth floor. The Chinese hang a lot on lucky and unlucky numbers, but their superstitions don’t involve thirteen.) In the elevator, the walls are covered with ads for local electronics and department stores. One of them features Jackie Chan. A commercial plays on the monitor on the back wall. I exit the elevator and am hit by my second blast of warm air for the day. On the left, there is a couch, a coffee table with a full ashtray on it, and a guard desk. The guard isn’t there. I turn to my right to look for him. “Nie hao!” I smile. He nods, looking slightly disapproving. He’s the surly one. The chubby one, the one with the fauxhawk, and “Ma Ke” (Chinese for “Mark”) are all friendly, though. Ma Ke especially. He really likes the Kid and enjoys practicing his baby English on her while she returns the favour with her inchoate Chinese. Once, last week, when I came downstairs, the one with the fauxhawk had a little wild sparrow sitting on his desk, eating a snack of crumbs he’d placed there for it. In my terrible Chinese, I asked “your friend?” whilst flapping my hands, winglike, beside my face. He nodded and smiled. I’m disappointed none of them are on duty.

The front door, as always, is open. As I step outside, the sun is already unforgiving. This third blast of heat is more extreme than the first two. But it’s nothing yet. Nanjing is one of three so-called “furnace cities” of China. Something about the geography makes them hotter than other cities at this latitude. (Calcutta, for instance.) Throughout July and August, most days the temperature exceeds 30 degrees Celsius. About ten days each summer, the temperature is in the 40s. And, this is a typical summer. By midday, the heat will have the shirts of even native Nanjingers sopping wet with sweat. The men will roll up their shirts and expose their midriffs in search of some relief. The heat never drives women to undress in this way. Even on the hottest days, many of them wear panty hose with their shorts. But, they find some relief under large hats and umbrellas. I too carry a little collapsible umbrella everywhere so that I have it when the heat becomes overwhelming. It’s funny. One night early on in our stay here, I was caught in the rain because, even though we’d only been in Nanjing for a week or two, I had already come to think of umbrellas as intended for sun protection rather than for rain protection. That evening, as I headed out, I thought to myself, “No point bringing the umbrella. The sun has set.” And then it rained, and I remembered what I used umbrellas for pre-Nanjing.

If I turned left, the first business I would see is the Lamborghini dealership housed in the same building as our hotel. But I turn right, crossing the alley that might be a road. Thanks to five weeks in Nanjing, I no longer feel confident in my ability to distinguish between alleys and roads. Cars drive everywhere, even in the narrowest arteries, and act (rightly or wrongly, I don’t know) like they have right-of-way everywhere. The road-alley distinction is a fuzzy one here.

Our first week here, the Kid and I spent twenty minutes sitting in front of the hotel watching an astonishing show in this very alley. For several days there had been leaning against the opposite building three or four used metal dividers of sorts. Each of them had a skeleton of hollow steel square tubes covered with sheet metal. We didn’t know whether they were there because their owner needed them for a project or because they were being thrown out. The night of the “show”, we could hear from our hotel room a loud, persistent banging. When we went downstairs to pick up some snacks at the shop around the corner, we saw three men – two young and one old – a three-wheeled bike with a trailer on the back and a van all engaged in a salvage project. The old man, assisted by one of the young ones, was kicking the crap out of the metal dividers, using his feet and whatever blunt objects he could find to try to hammer and pry the sheet metal loose of the girders. The third man – we later decided that he owned the van and got out of the vehicle when he realized there was no way to drive around the project – watched from a few feet away, his arms folded over his chest. Over about fifteen minutes, the two workers managed to detach all of the sheet metal from the skeletons, to roll the sheet metal up, and to somehow strap everything – steel frames and sheet metal rolls to the bike trailer. Well into this project, an expensive black SUV tried to pull out of the hotel’s parking lot via the alley and, when foiled, began honking. (There are signs at all of Nanjing’s intersections prohibiting honking. One may just as usefully put signs in fish tanks prohibiting swimming. Chinese drivers and cyclists are universally enamoured of their horns.) So, the van guy and the two white women were watching and the SUV guy was honking. A woman – perhaps an employee; she seemed authoritative, but I didn’t recognize her – came out of the hotel, got right up in the faces of the two workers, and began waving her arms and screaming at them. The workers were impassive. No matter how much she gesticulated and screamed – even I could make out that she was threatening to call the police – they ignored her and silently carried on with their task. In any event, once the task was finished, the young guy who’d been helping simply walked away. Could he really have been a stranger who stopped to help? The old guy slowly pedalled away on his bicycle. The yelling woman stopped yelling and went back inside. The fancy SUV and the van both pulled away. In the alley, there was no trace of the metal structures that had been there an hour before.

But it’s weeks later now, and I’m on my way to the university. As I finish crossing the alley, I hold my breath for a second. I’ve discovered that one little expanse of the alley always smells like urine. Then, I’m in front of a row of shops: a massage parlour, a fancy clothing store, an optician, a fancy grocery store (still closed; security metal still covering its plate glass windows), a little outdoor snack stall where they sell drinks and tea eggs and sticky rice steamed in banana leaves (Are they banana leaves? Well, they’re some kind of leaves anyway.) and steamed corn on the cob and a sort of bain marie full of little foods – mostly meat – on bamboo skewers – the skewers stand at attention like a little army. I never see anyone buying food there. I worry that the corn and the eggs are as old as the proprietors, a crotchety couple who take turns sweeping the area in front of their stand with a home-made twig broom and scolding their mean little white dog for terrorizing the grocery store’s customers.

I walk briskly along, dodging e-bikes. Nanjing has a gazillion merciless e-cyclists. The city has a great system of separated bike lanes, but the most aggressive and the most timid cyclists both prefer the sidewalks because there are fewer other cyclists there to get in their way. This makes the sidewalks treacherous to Nanjing pedestrians. They don’t seem fazed by it, but the e-bikes constantly whizzing past so close that I can feel their breeze freak me out. As I wend my way through the throng, I notice a little off-leash wiener dog. Most Nanjingers don’t use leashes for their dogs; so I assume this one has an owner, but I can’t see one anywhere. Could it really be a feral wiener dog? Is such a thing possible? Certainly, Nanjing has its share of feral dogs and cats, but the breeds aren’t usually so exotic. Many of the city’s dogs bite if you approach them, but the wiener dog seems more or less harmless. Nonetheless, for no reason I can discern, one man takes a hate to it. He rounds on another pedestrian, whom he takes for the dog’s owner, and begins gesticulating towards the dog and telling the guy off. The second man, who is clearly not the dog’s owner, adopts the international facial expression for “WTF!?” and strides off. The first man chastises the wiener dog one last time and then carries on. The dog trots along, apparently unaccompanied by any human, unaware that any of this has happened.

Then, there’s the Sichuan restaurant with the stone floors, the heavy wooden tables, and the friendly, patient staff. Then, the guard gate for the middle school. Sometimes, children in uniforms and red sashes emerge from this gate. The Kid tried to get in to take photos one time, but the guard was unmoved by her request. After the school, there are more stylish dress stores, the fancy Hong Kong eatery with the rude staff and the terrible scallion pancakes, and a series of electronics stores – already open and already blasting air conditioning onto the street.

Then, I’m at the intersection of Zhongshan Lu and Guangzhou Lu. “Zhong” means “middle”. It is the first character in the Chinese word for “China”. Like, “Middle Kingdom,” you know? The character for “zhong”, which looks a bit like a squared-off Greek phi, occurs in the logo for the Bank of China precisely for this reason. “Shan” means “mountain”. “Lu” means “road”. There is a mountain in Nanjing, and Zhongshan Lu does head vaguely in the direction of the mountain. So, when we first figured out what “Zhongshan” means, we thought that the road was so named because it’s kind of the main – or middle – road one takes to get to the mountain. We were wrong. “Zhongshan Lu” is like “Main Street.” Almost every city in China has one. This is in honour of Sun Yat Sen, the founder and president of the Republic of China (and, hence, an important historic antecedent to Mao Tse Tung). His seat of government was in Nanjing. He loved Nanjing and was much beloved of Nanjingers. His mausoleum sits atop the mountain. He had several names. One of them was Sun Zhongshan. The street is named after him. Any resemblance to nearby mountains is purely coincidental.

This intersection is one of the major ones in the city. There’s a metro station there, two five star hotels, a high end shopping mall, tons of restaurants, cafes, bars, shops, and an astonishing crush of pedestrians and cyclists (e- or otherwise). It takes three or four minutes for me to cross from the southeast corner to the northwest one, watching all the while for bikes and cars, neither of which have any compunction driving into a pedestrian crossing while pedestrians are crossing. Once across, I slip behind the building with the sushi restaurant and the glass elevator and the “music pub,” and into a narrow alley-road (again, I can’t tell which it is, or even whether the distinction has any traction in China). In the alley, there are fewer bikes and cars. The alley is lined with busy little storefronts – mostly restaurants, dispensing morning bao (steamed white buns stuffed with vegetables or meat or tofu or noodles or red beans – they are to Nanjing as cereal is to Waterloo) from stacked bamboo steamers on outdoor cookers to people on their way to work. Nearby, laundry is hanging from makeshift clotheslines. The Chinese hang laundry everywhere. On sunny days – which are frequent – people bring their wet laundry to the city parks to spread out on bushes to dry. One young woman is crouched down, washing some metal dishes in a basin of water. The alley is teeming with life and thus smells riper than the main intersection. I step carefully to avoid potholes and suspicious looking puddles.

Then, checking first for bikes, I cross the alley and step through a solid metal gate, thereby entering the Nanjing University campus. My point of ingress is a residential area, but it’s sketchier than the student residences. Every morning when I pass by, there is an open, idling garbage truck with an old man shoveling the most vile garbage into it from his cart. Why every morning? I can’t tell. In front of the residences, there is not only the ubiquitous laundry, but also garbage and discarded household objects. Old people sit around on stools. One time, there was a row of empty 500 ml beer bottles on one of the lawns. The area, though on campus, is squalid. Is this where the university’s workers live? Or the students with families? One of the residence buildings here has a picture of two birds sitting together on a sign outside its front door. Does that symbolize married students?

I turn right when I get to the construction area, which is surrounded by a blue corrugated metal fence. Now that there is some (imperfect) respite from the traffic, I notice the clattering of giant cicadas in the wutong trees all around me. They sound as if they each have a set of castanets. All summer long, they have been banging away at those castanets, turning the entire outdoors into a giant, mad, city-sized percussion instrument. After the construction area, there is a huge pile of dirt, covered in red, white and blue striped plastic sheets and itself surrounded by corrugated metal. I guess that they’re building a new residence. The pile of dirt must be what they took out of the ground to dig the basement.

After the sketchy residence buildings, the others are all tidy and orderly – long, low-slung grey buildings, with lots of little air conditioners, laundry lines and covered bike racks. As I come out of the student resident area, I see the so-called “School Supply Supermarket,” which doesn’t have all that many school supplies in fact, but where I did manage to pick up a pretty little manila notebook decorated with Chinglish. In boldface: “I could not resist too much plot…” And then, in regular type: “Pink world divided into three/scorecards align the Christmas/…madness of the times.”

Not far from the School Supply Supermarket is the student canteen, where they prepare dozens and dozens of different Chinese dishes each day – many kinds of dumplings and soups and vegetables. Oh, so many vegetables: eggplant, kale, chard, long beans, bitter melon, cucumber, tomato, potato, sweet potato, chives (which are often as not cooked as a vegetable here), bok choy, other cabbages I don’t recognize. …And tons of meat and poultry dishes and a huge array of fresh fish and shellfish. And, at one table, a mountain of watermelons and woman with a cleaver chopping them into huge pieces for the students. One time, three of us feasted here on dumplings, rice and five different vegetable dishes for eight RMB (less than $1.50). And it was delicious – some of the best food we’ve had in China! The students here eat way better than Canadian university students.

I pass the bank and arrive at the only crosswalk in Nanjing that cars and cyclists actually respect – a wide pedestrian area leading to the southern gates of the academic area of the campus. I nie hao the grey-uniformed guard stationed at the gate, and pass into a verdant avenue of trees and bushes and huge red banners celebrating NJU’s 110th birthday. Now, there are winding paths in little gardens. Old people sit on benches there, many of them with a baby or a child. When the parents go to work, the grandparents take the kids to the park. After the gardens, there’s the stately building housing the international exchange program offices, as well as the offices for the study of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. I don’t know about Macau, but this is attention that Hong Kong and Taiwan would perhaps prefer to avoid. Despite the recent celebrations in Chinese media of fifteen years since Hong Kong was returned to China, and the TV reports about how happy Hong Kong residents are with the transition, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents have taken to the streets to protest the new mandatory “Patriotism Studies” courses the Chinese government has introduced into curricula at all levels of study there.

The next building is another long, low one, most noteworthy for the tribe of feral cats always sleeping on the path beside it. Nearby are empty take-out containers from the food the students brought to feed the cats. They are well-loved, but they do not reciprocate the affection they receive from the students. Do not attempt to pet these kitties!

Then up the hill to the sports fields. They are more or less empty now, but in the evening, when the workday is done and the temperature has cooled a bit, these fields will be crowded with tons of people – little kids, university students, and old people – running and playing soccer, basketball and badminton. Across from the fields are a couple of poured concrete platforms where, at this time of the day, there are always one or two old people dancing or doing Tai Chi. This morning, it’s a single old man. Sometimes, it’s two women. The women always play music on a little portable stereo. Sometimes they dance to it, and sometimes they do Tai Chi – with swords even! (Last night, when we went to the Ming Ruins, there were old people on top of them doing Tai Chi as well.) The next concrete platform is empty in the morning, but in the evening parents bring their kids there to roller skate and play badminton.

Next, there’s another guarded gate – the one for the west end of campus – and then my building. I walk inside and nod to yet another uniformed guard. The air is hot and close and I am damp from my walk in. The elevator takes forever to arrive. There are two elevators in the building, but in my five weeks here, they’ve only both worked at once for about five days. One is always out of order. The one now working was out of order for a very long time. A pizza guy got stuck in it for hours, and it was crazy hot and the a/c in the bum lift didn’t work either. And then one day it was working again and the other one was out of order. The first time I entered the formerly-out-of-order elevator, I saw that the maintenance people had added a small red and pink plastic phone with a cartoon of a bunny on it. The phone was scotch taped to the elevator’s wall. Seeing this phone never inspires much confidence in me, but it’s too hot to hoof it to the seventh floor where my office is. I take my daily leap of faith and, once more, step into the bunny-phone elevator. A waft of cold air hits me as the doors close. My steamy journey to work is done. It’s time to go to class.

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