It’s Good to Be Back

I love Tianjin. I really do. I love it despite the air quality, which this week could only be described as post-apocalyptic. With all the weird particulate matter I’ve taken in during my 5-year tenure here, if I do have kids someday they’ll probably all look like study pieces for the sewer mutants in Futurama. I love Tianjin despite the weather, which is either really cold or really hot. The city should just write this on their billboards: “Tianjin: Spring is for the Weak!” I love the food here. I love how cheap it is, and I love that Tianjin hasn’t adopted Beijing’s approach, which appears to be something along the lines of converting the entire city into an American suburb. Look, I like seeing the occasional Subway or Ruby Tuesday’s, if only for nostalgia’s sake, but I really would rather get some cheap fried noodles or Da Bing Ji Dan than whatever hyper-salted bilge they’re peddling at Armageddon prices at a chain store.

I like a lot of things about Tianjin.

I’ve often pondered how I would describe Tianjin to people back in the States. It’s hard; it really is. Then yesterday I took the train from Beijing and as I was walking through the Tianjin station I saw a huge billboard which featured the following line: Aurora the City of Charm. Hmm. In my extensive mental rolodex of possible descriptive phrases and/or words for Tianjin, “charm” is not one of the entries. Charm to me implies disarming subtleness, the kind of quality you’d find in an engaging child or an adult who has the ability to make anybody laugh. You’d invite a charming person to make your dinner party work. You’d be happy to take a road trip with a charming person. If you walked into a donut shop owned by a charming person, you’d buy a dozen donuts even though you were by yourself because secretly you wanted to eat a dozen donuts all by yourself but were too self-conscious.

Tianjin is neither an engaging child nor an adult with the ability to make anybody laugh, and if you were to buy donuts here, you’d probably just get the one because you need strong cardio to combat the deterioration of your lungs into black char. If I had to put a face to Tianjin, it would be the person in your neighborhood who has spare tires, a dollhouse, and an engine manifold sitting in his front yard. You know who I’m talking about: the kind of person whose house you steer well clear of even though you’ve never seen him (or her, let’s be fair) because although you’re an open-minded individual, your life has no room for, say, an albino redneck with a peg-leg (that being your best guess for the kind of person who’d keep automobile debris where other people put lawn gnomes or garden boxes). Then one day you happen past the house while its owner is outside adding a tire to his front-yard stack, and he turns out to look fairly normal, except for his shabby clothes, and is quite nice, if a bit forward (like the Mexican family I visited when I was living in Lubbock who nearly mugged me to make me stay for dinner, even though it was the first time I’d ever met them), and eventually you discover he has a wealth of interesting stories and a house full of fascinating curios. And a freezer full of Eskimo pies. I don’t know why.

That’s a labored metaphor, to be sure, but the point is Tianjin really isn’t charming. How many times have I been asked by someone planning to come here what they should do? How many times have I said, “Well, we have some great restaurants.” (And a stack of spare tires and a freezer full of Eskimo pies.) But then, to get convoluted in the extreme, its lack of charm is part of its charm. It’s the kind of thing you really only appreciate if you live here. People come down from Beijing and sniff disapprovingly at the air of bumpkin-ness Tianjin exudes compared to its ultra-pretentious cousins, but I personally love the fact that I can buy da bing ji dan from a guy wearing long underwear and a Snoopy apron. I like that I can go to Starbucks, then walk fifty meters to the tiny shop around the corner and wonder why anyone on God’s Earth ever willingly orders duck-tripe soup. In Beijing if you walk fifty meters from a Starbucks you generally find another chain store or, well, another chain store.

All that to say it’s good to be back. Now if they could just fix the air so I don’t die of black lung before I finish my degree.

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5 Responses to It’s Good to Be Back

  1. Rich says:

    Welcome back! Well, I guess I’m not there so can’t welcome you back, but welcome back to China anyway. I’m missing Tianjin more and more that I stay in Shanghai… there still is the possibility of going to some local restaurant after leaving Star Bucks (or the “Xin Tiandi” area that I work by which is all set up for Westerners or non-locals), but don’t find that big of a variety in food… and while I picked up a liking for baozi here (steamed buns for those who don’t know, full of various things), there’s no Da Bing Ji Dan!!! *sob sob* So am longing for Tianjin, as always… -Rich

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  3. Joel says:

    Fiiiiinally! I hope we see those old e-mails on here eventually. You’ve got dozens of posts worth of hilarious stuff there.

  4. Katie says:

    hi! i’m glad you’ve got a blog up and running again. glad you had a good trip stateside and, too, am glad you enjoyed returning to your adopted city.

  5. Mitchell says:

    Hey! Glad the blog’s back. I love Eskimo Pies!

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