I can’t believe I’m here.

This thought has struck me no fewer than four times in the last ten days. It is this week’s theme. And it reflects as much temporal astonishment as spatial.

I still can’t believe I’m in China. Still – after all this time. Every day, I recall my first tentative mention of the plan to the Guy and the Kid: “Listen, I know this is going to sound crazy, and it probably isn’t going to pan out, so don’t get your hopes up or anything, but I just got the oddest email…” Right up until we stepped onto the plane, I didn’t quite believe it would pan out. And, I still find myself amazed that we’re here. But, now, more than that, I can’t believe that we’re in our final week and will soon be heading home. The time has raced by.

As the clock sped up, so did we. The blog went silent for a bit because, with our return pressing ever closer, we picked up our pace, doing one amazing thing after another.

…which leads to the spatial – or, more properly, contextual – disbelief. But the details of that must wait for my next post because, before I get to the source of my late incredulity, I still have so much to report about our time in Nanjing.

The time in the ex-pat café spent sipping Americanos and debating Gramsci and Chinese urbanization with Steve, the big shot Berkeley prof. The repeated trips to Fuzi Miao (Confucian Temple), where we ate gorgeous street food, and haggled over trinkets and ogled classic Chinese architecture and colourful lanterns from a slow river boat. The terrifying thirty minute chairlift ride to the top of Zijin Shan (Purple Mountain) for a view of Nanjing that encompassed multiple temples – Confucian and Buddhist – dizzying skyscrapers, ocean liners on the Yangtze River, modern town houses and crowded alleys, bullet trains and nuclear power plants.

And, of course, the Yangtze River Bridge, broad and grey, with clean lines and monumental socialist realist statuary. The Russians started the bridge, but left with the plans before its completion. The Chinese completion of the bridge marked a turning point in Chinese construction – and, more importantly, in the Chinese self-conception. In the bridge museum, there is a model of the bridge, complete with tiny cars and people. The Guy finds a mummified lizard who somehow got caught in the diorama. Around it, there are overturned figures and vehicles. We imagine the lizard, suddenly rendered huge, on a Godzilla-like rampage before he finally succumbed to the lack of food and water. When we leave the bridge, there are chickens running through the bushes. The locals teach us how to say “chicken” in Chinese. The Kid takes photos.

And, still more memories from Nanjing – Kun Opera, the opera of the Wu people, the dominant ethnic group of Jiangsu Province. Kun Opera is slower and less colourful than Beijing Opera, the speaking mannered in a way we’ve never heard before, the movements astonishingly precise and acrobatic. The performance we attend has a set piece in which a student and a nun, who are flirting via their zither-playing, take turns inviting each other to sit at the instrument. “Qing zoe,” they each say in turn. And, the Kid, the Guy and I are elated because we learned the phrase in Chinese class. “Qing zoe.” Please sit. For one refrain, we don’t need surtitles.

And the bus trip to Tongli, a pretty canal town from the days when canals connected Beijing with the rest of the country, moving people and goods back and forth. We look at former officials’ homes and gardens, take a lazy boat ride along the canal, and then peel off from the group to visit the Chinese Museum of Sexual Culture. Three thousand year old dildos and Maoist propaganda cheek-by-jowl! And, then it’s a bit of shopping and a quick visit to a Chinese house of horrors – pitch black with dangling things and a costumed figure who leaps out at us periodically, scary! – before boarding the bus for the ride home.

And, the food! The spicy Hunan food with pictures of Mao everywhere! (And, overfed cockroaches too!) Mao was from Hunan. The Mao-themed restaurants always serve the spicy, fatty food typical of the Hunan region. We like it better than the mild, sweet food of Jiangsu and frequent the place regularly. The cockroaches start to recognize us. …And there’s the lovely French restaurant, where we treat ourselves after the typhoon has passed. And, wonderful hummus and zucchini fritters at the cool Turkish café. And, from a cart on the street corner, paper thin pancakes, with pickled cabbage and fried egg and hot sauce inside – cooked before our eyes and wildly delicious for all of 5 yuan (about 84 cents). And a fancy lunch with the CEO at Shanghai Min. A private room in a topnotch restaurant, and a huge lazy Susan offering up duck, abalone, shrimp, pumpkin, mushrooms, mandarin fish, beef, lotus root, noodles, soups, watermelon and mooncakes.

And cocktails on the 78th floor of the Zifeng Tower! It’s the fifth-tallest tower in the world, 2nd-tallest in China. But it’s mostly empty. The Chinese government subsidizes the construction of skyscrapers so that Chinese cities’ skylines will look appropriately modern, but the rent is too high; so, they sit empty. For $17 (100 yuan), you can take the elevator to the 82nd floor of the Zifeng Tower for a view of the city. Or, instead, for a mere $11 (66 yuan), you can go to the 78th floor and have a cocktail. Towards the end of our time in Nanjing, this becomes a regular thing for us.

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial is the most moving thing we see in our final days there. The memorial commemorates the massacre (sometimes called the “Rape of Nanking”) by the Japanese military of 300,000 Nanjing residents, mostly civilians, during six weeks, starting in December of 1937. The memorial is modern and huge, occupying a large city block. It is perhaps the most effective memorial of its type I’ve ever seen. The memorial is many things – a thorough and carefully curated repository of artifacts and archives relating to the massacre, a graveyard (In one hushed enclosure, visitors gaze on a partially disinterred mass grave, now a bone pit, adult femurs piled beside smashed infant skulls.), a meditation room and a peace park with live white doves.

Nanjing University, where I’ve been teaching, is part of the story of the Nanjing Massacre. When the expat Europeans and North Americans who worked at and around the university learned of what the Japanese were doing, the Germans among them, most notably John Rabe, took advantage of Germany’s diplomatic ties to Japan to broker a deal rendering the NJU campus off-limits to the marauding Japanese. Thus, some 200,000 Nanjing residents were saved.

After all of the galleries devoted to the atrocities of the Nanjing Massacre, we come to the section of the museum devoted to Rabe’s Safety Zone. Here, there are photos of rescued Chinese gathered, smiling, under Nazi flags. To say that it is unsettling and confusing to see the iconography of Nazism associated not with atrocity but with rescue from atrocity is an understatement. We are set off-kilter. This is more difficult for me than the naked human bones.

And, how do you go back to cheerful travel writing after a paragraph like that one? Will an ellipsis do? Probably not, but still…


And, then the exams are done and graded. And one by one the students and professors start to leave Nanjing. Warm goodbyes all-round. Promises to return, to write, to stay in touch. The things that people say to make leaving less difficult.

The Kid writes goodbye notes in Chinese to locals with whom she’s become friendly and gives them out, along with small gifts. “You’re going?” they ask in Chinese. “Tomorrow?” Her closest friend, Marku, the hotel guard, she doesn’t see until the cab is pulled up to take us away. As she says goodbye to him, they both start to cry. I take a photo of the two of them together. The lens is cold from our apartment’s a/c; the air outside is already – even though it’s early morning – hot and humid. Thus, in the photos I take, the camera too seems to be crying. Poetic sympathy.

And now, as I write this, Nanjing is a whole week away, and four times since we’ve departed I’ve thought “I can’t believe I’m here.” I’ll say why in my next post.