Lawrence Hamiliton lives the true China expat experience, which is some strange stalemate between the contending forces of being repelled and held captivated.
Dear China, It’s not me it’s you.
Somehow you do it to me every single time. As soon as the papers are stamped and the exciting fatigue of air travel wears off, I realize that I am fucking stuck with you again.
This is the third time and I promise you this will be the last. I am not sure what suckers me in — your vastness, the allure of your Mongolian or Russian border towns, the excitement of your geopolitical importance. In reality, the cold hard truth is much simpler: you pay me to be here.
The thing is I want to like you, I really do. I want to believe in your magical history and stunning vistas. Each day begins in preparation for your seven schools of cuisine to whisk me away to some magical culinary wonderland.
The reality is a fraud. The history has been re-created in such ways that would make Walt Disney envious. The beautiful peaks and valleys are smudged with grey, coal stained ink. The air is coated with particles of rust. Every dish is an oily concoction of salt and chili with a seven extra pinches of salt, a heaping scoop of MSG, and a mass of lipid drowned cabbage that will leave you bloated for hours.
You make me hate myself as a traveler. I have trekked in Tajikistan and was trapped in a riot in Bolivia, but here I find myself constantly seeking refuge in my room and in the English books I have brought from home. Jesus, you even made me nostalgic for a Phish concert the other day. “What’s the point?” I ask myself as I drudge through your open streets that are lined with tiles that look like they are from a subway toilet.
To be fair, it’s not all your fault. I have refused to put in the hours to learn your seemingly inscrutable tongue, and I cannot expect people here to bend over to accommodate my ignorance.
Why, though, must everything be so dirty? I understand in India where the poverty is seemingly so grinding and dire. Here though, you seem to have turned the corner to modernity. The streets are clogged with automobiles and light scooters, skyscrapers shoot up into the skies at regular intervals. Yet this new found wealth is covered with a thin veneer of dirt and grime. Somehow I can leave a closed apartment and come back to find more particulate matter dust than when I left. I thought I would love you for your magic but now I hate you for your parlor tricks.
You’ve turned me into an idiot abroad. The ignorant laowei who won’t try anything and is constantly riding waves of depression. On my second night back in the country my employer arranged a banquet. While the cooking oil you call bajjiou was flowing freely a variety of “dishes” came out. One of them was a baked potato with some kind of purple sauce covered in sprinkles. Baked potato with candy sprinkles. Basically, clown shit.
Yet you still hold sway over me. The people are friendly, strong in their belief and culture, eager to smile and to help. You are never boring, whether it is the university students practicing their oratory along the footpaths or the random old people jiggling their bodies against trees as a form of exercise. Although admittedly, on a good day this can be seen as culture, on a bad day you feel like you are trapped in an insane asylum.
Even the attempts at English, while sweet and endearing, can be garbled and unbelievably confusing. When you tell me that you are going to go home and ‘relax yourself’, I can’t help but wish you would keep your personal life to yourself.
Can you also please put doors on the bathroom stalls? The one area of my life that I truly love and can control is my English class. Everyday the 56 eyes are anxiously awaiting the lesson and they are awesome to teach in front of. Almost all of my students are eager to learn, talk, and laugh the class away. That being said, it is something else to duck off after class for a quick piss and see one of my student’s bare ass over a trough waving at you with a turd dangling out.
As in many developing countries, life here is lived out in the open, the indoor apartments or college dormitories are too crowded for people to live their daily lives in seclusion. Where I have the luxury to have private space and private time, you have to live your hopes, dreams, ambitions, and failures out in the open for all to see. Much like your oft-cited economy, it can be quite hard to tell where the public and private begin and end.
See, it is happening again, I am slowly becoming vaguely entranced within your tentacles. Perhaps we can work it out, come to a sort of understanding. For this brief period of time you can help me monetarily, and I will do my best to muster an interest in your culture, to look past your bleak coal burned grey skies and dusty streets. I will do my best to learn some Mandarin phrases and see what I can on my short free days.
Then it is over, it is time for me to cut the chords and say goodbye. God help me though if I ever agree to come back.
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