Over our (first?) Ma La Tang dinner I was struck by how wasted my two years in China were. Not only from a career or whatever perspective (in which case they were an active hindrance not merely a waste (also assuming we aren’t speaking of writing as a career, which I’d be loathe to do till I make some money at it)) but more importantly from a relational perspective.
I don’t have any Chinese friends. Not real friends, just a few students I never write to. Holly though, she’s really found people here to love. And not just Zhao Xing. Her roommate Xiao Meng and Charity and Johnny and more. And she loves things which I only endured, like learning the language and hotpot and the like. I envy her that. It feels (from the outside) like she’s found her place in the world. She may not be certain where exactly in China and where with her family and friends but China really is more than “that place she lived for a while.” Her life is centring on it and I wish I could find something like that. A pile of papers on bookshelves don’t feel like enough.
And though she complains about not having any friends in Nanjing, how many people have we hung out with? Yesterday was lunch with a couple of NanDa PhD students from Sichuan. We ate Sichuan food. Was it Sichuanny? There was some spice in the fish and we had okay Ma Po Dou Fu but I don’t know about authenticity in terms of chicken wings. Green vegetables with mushroom is pretty much the same anywhere so nothing muy crazy there. Jo and Wang Wei are the students’ names I think. Wang Wei is finishing her dissertation and working all the time so a Sunday out was just right.
They talked about Sichuan and Chengdu and we climbed out from great depths into the sun which you might not see every day (though Jo assured me Nanjing was less depressingly overcast than Chengdu). Jo’s (as Holly put it) disproportionately old and single but Holly quite admires how Jo seems not to care. “And she’s so Chinese. In a good way!” Jo just bought a place near the new campus of Chuan Da (I think). It was cheaper than elsewhere because that new campus hasn’t been built yet. 2000RMB/sq.m? Does that make sense? But Jo’s Chineseness comes out in her cultured civilized ways. We were walking on the city wall by Xuan Wu lake and Jo was filled with information.
The walls around Nanjing were built 600 years ago and were the longest city walls in China (which makes sense with all the winding they have to do compared with something like Xian’s). They stood so strong for so long because of the “Break Brick Break Head” doctrine put in place by the rulers at the time. Each brick that was made had the date, factory and brick maker’s name stamped into it. This was to promote accountability. Succinctly put if a brick were to break, they’d know whose head to break. And you can see those stamps on some of the bricks still today, though their descendents aren’t held accountable for any current crumblings. If I had deep roots in Nanjing, as in 600+ years (that is a ridiculous amount of time but I’m sure those people are legion), I’d completely find a brick with my name on it and brag. Or brag about how we got away with making shoddy bricks if it were broken.
We were also boaters on that afternoon, cruising Xuan Wu lake with an electric motor. I was so relieved I wouldn’t have to pedal everyone around. As it was I could just steer under bridges, get us close to wedding photographs, chase birds and attempt deciphering a statue. There were many sticks protecting the statue and surrounding fountains (many of which sprayed water in pleasing braid-like patterns) from overzealous boaters. These sticks were arrayed all through the shallower areas as well. It made sense. Cut us off from where we might end up damaging the rented equipment. There were loads of families and university students out on the water. One electric boat filled with students decided to ram us while we were drifting. I was pretty pissed off but tried not to show it. We watched that bunch of pirates cruise on looking for more hapless hictims. If they’d been able to take to the land they’d find whole tent villages to plunder and sack. People in Nanjing set their tents up in the park to hang out in for the day. Odd.
Jo and her wide round face reminded me of one of my former students. Angel! The page betrays how long it took for me to remember her name. No not betrays, belies. Angel was one of my three-year students who struggled so much but felt she would succeed. So frustrated and so dumb. That’s unneccessarily harsh, but a good student Angel was not. She sat in the front row and looked confused, a cow on an iceberg. While the rest of her classmates wrote remarkably similar (and not very good) answers to their homework questions, Angel would wander off in a state of gibbering blindly around the question she never really understood. I guess I admired her independence within a system that rewards conformity but she didn’t have any talent to carry her on her own.
Being a wandering hobo isn’t such a great idea unless it’s a conscious choice. Writing meaningless garble isn’t something I’d suggest. Although. What exactly am I doing here? Documenting something that doesn’t need or appreciate it. China doesn’t give a shit what I write about it at all.
But this was a section on connections wasn’t it? Jo as Holly’s friend who knows so much. “The peak of the Kun Ju was 300 years ago before Beijing Opera gained in popularity.” So we went to a performance. That badly misrepresents the sequence of events. Holly’d been to the Kun Ju a few times before since it was free and you merely had to reserve a seat online ahead of time. It had been the plan to see this important cultural piece of Nanjing (more accurately: part of Jiangsu province) for a week. On our way to the performance we stopped for “sweet meat bags” a delicious Nanjing specialty. They’re basically big ol’ steamed jiaozi with a sweet broth inside. You eat them dipped in the dark vinegar and spiciness like regular jiaozi, but mixed with the sweetness it is a delightful treat. At the same place we could have had duck’s blood, which is another Nanjing specialty. We didn’t. My chopsticking goes in and out on the clumsiness scale. Since these jiaozi are big you don’t just pop them into your mouth in one bite. Wrestling the bite off the pinched dumpling resulted in a few drops (into soup and sauce so nothing was lost).
The Kun Ju was less enthralling. And here we come back to this theme of my disconnect from China, but first… The performance is in Chao Tian Palace, a fine old complex of buildings. The theatre holds 75-100 people and the stage has rich red velvet (looking) curtains, except when the lights went down giving them a pinkish hue. The performances were excerpts from three operas. The first was a martial epic. The king of somewhere is riding out with his armies when an enemy scout/champion spots them and they fight. The “fighting” was very slow and symbolic for the most part except when the king and scout duelled. They weren’t trying to make it realistic by any means but then the speed picked up and they exchanged blows well. The scout did some good flips and his balance was impeccable. I just find it boring to watch people prance on about on display while saying “I must have courage!” All that posturing to say that? Aiya.
The second and third excerpts weren’t martial at all. Sadly they also had no English translations on the projectors. The first was about an old man and a woman who eventually go to visit his little brother (used in the Chinese sense meaning Any Male Human). She whines a lot and eventually the old man leaves her there. The third one may have been a comedy. There were two fat men talking. One was the emperor. You could tell they were fat by the costumes. The fat guys had big hulahoopish belts hanging around their midsections. That and the fact that all the faces were done with makeup not masks was my favourite bit from these last two.
I know Holly was disappointed in the lack of English, because she really enjoyed the past performances. “The music is so much better than Beijing Opera, and the performances.” This is where my lack of love for this shows up but it all seemed the same to me. Screechy female voices. Some of the music was okay but nothing special. To me at least. I mostly sat there being cold without distraction. I tried not to sleep.
And I realize I’ve failed in one of my China goals. I originally wanted China to be more to me than “that country I went to once.” But really, there’s not a lot of difference between my experience here and Aileen’s or my mom’s. Sure I know a bit more, there’s a bit more depth, but still I remain a tourist. While Holly has a life here. Has friends. Has people to care about. The only people here I care about are people who aren’t from here. It’s much easier to see how Holly is fighting the “once in a lifetime” trap I detest so much. This is her life. I still feel like I don’t have a life yet. I have friends to live through but no connection to anything of my own. I guess that’s why Holly says I should make haste for Japan and learn the language so I can read Murakami for real. The more I’m here the more suitable that future seems. I always say I can write anywhere. Learning to read as well might be nice.