Why Do We Stay?

Those of us who have been in China for a while have an odd, and oddly fierce, attachment to the place, even when we don’t have any desire to stay here for the rest of our lives. Even when I’m ready to leap from my bike and take a lead pipe to the next driver who blows through a red light, and even when the Chinese academy’s gleeful disregard for things like prior notice of assignments and room for critical thought makes me empathize with the early Christian mystics who bunked out in the desert for years at a time with no companions but the occasional snake or intrepid rodent, I still can hardly stand to think about leaving. And for those of you who find that insane (I’m among that crowd some days myself), I would like to submit yesterday as exhibit A in my defense.

I woke up. You’re thinking, of course, that this is a frightfully banal way to start any kind of writing, but I’ve been in a running battle with insomnia now for about the last three months, and whenever I get a full night’s sleep I wake up in a great mood. So, then, waking up at all, as in “emerging from a sleep I wasn’t expecting,” is wonderful. The weather was stunning (also rare), and after spending the morning reading a few of the Psalms, working on a poem, and then tweaking a song I’m writing, I grabbed some lunch and met a friend at a tea shop. The West has no place like a Chinese tea shop. Even the well-intentioned places that sell Chinese tea are more like Starbucks franchises without the coffee. Real Chinese tea shops have shelf upon shelf of every kind of tea and tea paraphernalia imaginable: circular bricks of aged pu’er tea, which I can still see being loaded onto the backs of mules heading up into Tibet; ceramic jars filled with fresh red tea; bamboo and carved-wood tea trays; thimble-sized porcelain tea cups; miniature decorative tea pots made from baked red clay; and a pair of refrigerators in which is kept the year’s fresh green and jasmine tea in large tins. My friend Patrick and I sat down with the proprietor at a large table, on which were a number of different tea cups (important; since different kinds of tea must be drunk in different kinds of cups). In China you can request to taste any tea in the store, and we did. We had four different kinds of green tea, then moved to the stronger, woodier Da Hong Pao, and then had three different varieties of red tea. The whole time we were chatting with the owner, who was telling us all about the different strains of each kind of tea, and laying out leaves on the bamboo tray to show us the structural differences, and how that makes the tea more expensive. After about an hour and a half, we each bought some tea and made our way back out into the sunshine. Patrick went to Gongfu (kung fu) practice, and I went to a nearby park.

I sat outside in the shade for a few hours, where I finished reading Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, then worked on my own novel for a while, after which I got up to walk around. I finally settled again on a different side of the park’s central lake, and only managed to read my copy of a Taiwanese professor’s collected lectures on the ancient Yi Jing when a random passer-by stopped next to me and started talking to me. I really don’t like this. It’s always baffled and amused me how many people in China never seem to notice that a person reading is not in the mood for conversation. Still, despite my best efforts to show, with clipped monosyllabic answers, that I wasn’t interested in engaging, my unwelcome visitor kept at it. Eventually I surrendered and we chatted for about half an hour. It turned out that he was from Xinjiang province, China’s westernmost region, and was in Tianjin studying medicine. His parents were farmers who produced raisins, for which Xinjiang is famous throughout China. Interestingly enough, my Chinese was much better than his. For a few minutes I thought it was just his accent that was strange, but then I realized he was peppering his speech with words from his native minority dialect, which sounds like a cross between Arabic, Turkish, and Russian. I asked him if he had studied Chinese in school, and he said no, that he’d only studied Chinese for a few years. He could, however, speak and read Arabic. I was tempted to use the four Arabic phrases I remember from my time in the Middle East when I was a kid, but I opted not to, mostly because the only two longish phrases I can remember are “Do you know where the American embassy is?” and, due to an oft-reinforced, and completely context-less joke in my international high school, “We have cheese in our pockets.” We chatted for a while longer about what it’s like trying to learn Chinese (equally painful for him as for me, as was clear by his deep sigh and knitted brow, as though he’d just had some kind of war flashback, when I asked him), about Tianjin and Chinese culture generally, and taught each other a few phrases from our own native language (I can still remember the Uighur word for book, which figures. As a nerd, I won’t remember how to say hello, but I will remember how to say book.) Then he shook my hand and went on his way.

Why am I still here, quite apart from my specific goal of getting a master’s degree? It’s precisely these encounters, which simply would never happen in America. It isn’t so much even the things I schedule, like going to a tea shop or meeting Chinese friends to talk about poetry, although those are certainly reason enough; it’s that China’s random moments are so much more interesting to me than America’s. In America I might randomly meet someone in a coffee shop or on a bus, and we might have an interesting conversation about our various experiences, but in all probability we would only be separated by a single remove, namely the fact that we didn’t grow up in the same physical location. And for as interesting as it would be to chat with a man from Chicago who spent twenty years living in Nepal, say, that individual would still be American, and we would still be having the conversation in our shared language, in the shared context of both being Americans. Randomness in China means not only a completely alien culture, but also an alien language. The aforementioned Chicago hypothetical might have some great stories about Nepal, but he wouldn’t be Nepalese, and he certainly couldn’t tell me anything from first-hand about being in a Chinese minority in Turpan. In the end, this is why I, at least, have stayed so long in China, and am so interested in improving my Chinese: for the chance to be and experience alienness in a meaningful way, to be both familiar with and estranged from my home culture, and in those points of collision to realize that it is often only through that estrangement that a person can gain a real perspective on him or herself.

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3 Responses to Why Do We Stay?

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report

  2. bailan says:

    this is a post that exactly describes how i feel somedays.i get so tired of people asking me “why did you come to china?” when i feel the more important question is, “why do you stay here?”

    those encounters make it all worth it…even five years later.
    who knows how long it

  3. chuck liu says:

    Good to know that if everyone leaves TJ, you’ll still be there when I visit ;)

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