The lack of sleep may be playing a part in it, or it could be the jet-lag. Either way, I’m back in my hometown and I feel a bit like Frodo after he returned to the Shire: bored, homesick for a home that no longer exists, and ready for something to happen.
The drive through the place that was home not so long ago felt vacant of meaning and alien as we cruised through empty streets at two am. Suburbs in NE Ohio are truly suburbs. Except for the shopping areas, neighborhoods and communities seemed almost too spaced out—a yard for everyone and plenty of room between the roads and the front doors.
For the last two and a half years I’ve been living in a culture that doesn’t really comprehend the idea of a suburban, or urban for that matter, area that has room enough for all its inhabitants. Parking lots are afterthoughts for building designers, and most cities are filled with residential complexes instead of individual homes. Unlike Japan, where the overcrowding has given rise to a very polite society, Chinese public interaction customs have evolved to exclude the words “excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” and even, “thank you,” in all but the most direct of situations.
That guy who stepped on your foot and hawked a loogie on the bus floor right next to you? Yeah, he ain’t wasting his breath apologizin’ for nothin’.
In stark contrast to the crowds I’ve gotten used to, we traveled back to my parents’ home without seeing barely a soul on the road for more than an hour. True, it was late, but even when places are closed down in Dalian, there are always people around. I honestly hadn’t realized that I liked that. It’s amazing what you can get used to.
Time is a tricky son of a gun. It’s not so Frostian as nothing gold sticking around for long, it’s just that there’s so much gold out there that once you see a hint of it you want to see more.
Going home is important. Two Christmases away called for a return home, but there is that part of me that just won’t go away. It’s what got me out of Ohio and what is digging at me now to keep moving. Someone once called me a wanderer, but I don’t think it’s as poetic as that. Nor is it as simple as being restless. I think I just can’t sit my ass down in one place for too long.
Christmas and this time of year, as it tends to do for others, puts me in a reflective mood, and I suppose that’s why I’m rambling now. I feel supremely blessed to be living the life that I want, and to have a family that supports that chosen life. It’s not every parent that would tolerate their oldest living on the other side of the globe for long periods at a time.
I’ve still got a lot of folks to see, so I better stop wasting time on here and get moving.
Culture shock’s got four stages that expats can pinball back and forth through, the experts say. That honeymoon period gives way to frustrations and annoyances faster for some and a bit slower for others. The irritations of the next stage can seem like interesting eccentricities of the culture once you’ve endured them and come to some sort of adjustment. And then, right when you think you’re about to assimilate, one of those quaint quarks sends you over the edge and you’re snuggly back in the frustration stage.
It takes years for most to get to the upper levels of the “adjustment” part, and most never actually assimilate, even if they’ve embraced the new culture.
All that is culture shock for ya, but there is a flip side: reverse culture shock.
I’m going home at the end of the week for the first time in two and a half years. My mother cried when I told her a few months ago about my decision to visit for the holidays, and friends have talked about meeting up whenever my schedule will allow it, but the trip is not all leisure.
When I got my wallet stolen more than a year ago, I didn’t replace my driver’s license, and then I just simply let it expire. Now I have to retake the written and driving test to get it back. I’ve also got a handful of other assorted official To-Dos while back.
All that aside, the thoughts taking up the most cognitive square-footage seem to be about simply being back. In general, I haven’t really wanted to go back home since I got here. This admission invariably invites reproach from Chinese friends, and most of them follow up their scowls with, “Don’t you miss your mother and father?” I try to explain that in our culture when the kids grow up it’s normal for them to branch out and make their way in the world without needing to tether themselves to mom and dad for support. Some respond by shaking their head and others just call me a bad son.
Now that my return is eminent, I’m just wondering what it’s going to be like. The North-East area of China, old Manchuria, has a lot of “Chinese” qualities, but Dalian also has an abundance of western perks. It’s not that I think I’m going to stick out when I walk through Wal-Mart, or that I’ll somehow forget how to order a Little Caesar’s Five dollar pizza—no, it’s actually the opposite. I’m worried that, after the rush of seeing family and friends those first few days, when they have to go back to work and I’m hanging around with no car, bus or Qinggui station to hop on, it’s all going to be…boring.
I’ve written about how common and routine life can get living abroad for extended periods, and I’ve even written about losing a bit of my objectivity concerning a lot of cultural details, but the truth is, even sitting in Starbucks becomes more interesting when you have to order in Chinese and you are having conversations with people in other languages.
Knowing everything that’s going on around me will be a nice benefit, but that lack of mystery can also lend itself to a rather lackluster outing when just walking down Hongmei street here for vegetables can be a fun and challenging experience. At this point, there are probably elements of American culture that I’ve demonized and other parts that I’ve inflated and championed way out of proportion, and truth be told, I don’t necessarily want my fantasies shaken just yet.
Don’t get me wrong; I know it’s time for me to go back. Two Christmases away is enough.
More than a month ago a colleague of mine, the High School Science teacher, sent out an e-mail detailing a bunch of Wikipediaed (it’s a verb, too!) info about Tianjin. The last line quoted plane tickets to the place at around 90 RMB from Dalian, one way—pretty freaking cheap.
I read it, said, “Hmm. That’s interesting,” and honestly didn’t think about it again for an entire week, until one night on the bus ride back to KFQ, another HS teacher asked me if I was heading to Tianjin with some of the guys in a few weeks. We talked it over, and, even though I went to Tibet not long ago, just purchased my tickets back to America, and was already planning a trip to Cambodia for February, I decided to head down to Tianjin with them.
In terms of urban population, Tianjin is the fourth largest in China, after Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou. Tianjin is a dual-core city, with its main urban area (including the old city) located along the Hai River, which connects to the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers via the Grand Canal; and Binhai, a New Area urban core located east of the old city, on the coast of Bohai Sea. As of the end of 2010, around 285 Fortune 500 companies have set up base in Binhai, which is a new growth pole in China and is a hub of advanced industry and financial activity. Since the mid-19th century, Tianjin has been a major seaport and gateway to the nation’s capital. Tianjin also has an active night club and live music scene.
Air fare to Tianjin is as low as 90 RMB one way from Dalian. Contact M. Baldwin for more information about this thriving metropolis.
We all grabbed different flights, and they all got delayed…
It was passed midnight by the time we touched down in Tianjin, and almost one by the time the five of us regrouped and found a club.
By 4:30 most of the group had called it a night, but I stuck around a bit longer.
There were a ton of Russians, Ukrainians, Sri Lankens, Persians, and of course Europeans at the club. I have no clue why there were so many there, but on the second night Ryan and I caught a glimpse of some clashing of cultures.
That second day, morning came around one in the afternoon for some of us, but then the group caught up with each other and wandered for a bit until we found Hank’s Sport Bar and Grill. Hands down, best food I’ve had in a while. It’s an American-owned place, and Hank himself talked with us a while during our late lunch.
The consensus was that we’d go back to our respective hotels and nap away a few hours, and then regroup around nine to catch some live music at another club. Though I felt a bit like roadkill most of the day, I didn’t want to sleep. Instead, I wanted to go see Xiao Ming’s undergraduate university—Tianjin University.
I’d chosen my hotel because of its price and proximity to the school, and when I went off on my own I wandered around the campus a while. It’s a pretty campus, but in the evening, wind blowing like mad, there weren’t a lot of students just hanging around. Still, I managed to find myself—two times—engaged in conversation with curious Chinese kids. One girl and I talked a while about Tianjin and the school, and about Dalian. Another guy wanted to just follow me around for a bit. I’m pretty sure he wanted to follow me as I met up with the other four, but I indirectly told him to take a hike.
We found the Italian Style Street not long after nine, and then Club 13. The place had that local hang out vibe, the interior inspired by industrial warehouses and T.G.I. Fridays. Eventually I asked the owner why she chose the name, and she reminded me that 13, in the West, is considered a bad omen, so she wanted her patrons to think it a bit dangerous as they stepped into the place. She said this all with a smirk and thick sarcasm, so I have no way of knowing if it held any truth.
The band playing—a trio of young guys—turned out to be pretty good. The lead singer, a fast-talking local, seemed to constantly exaggerate the well-known Tianjin accent just to get a rise out of the audience. Another guy, the bongo drummer, wore a Jamaican-style shirt and Sesame Street pants. The guitar player drank a lot of water and told jokes between songs. They sang songs with lyrics more than mildly anti-government. It was great.
After a while it was pushing elevenish and there was a decision to call it an early night. The workers and I had been talking throughout the evening and one even bought me a drink, so before we left I asked if they knew of any other places where we could hang out. They gave me animated instructions and recommendations (and a handful of their customer-friends chimed in) and eventually we got a lead on two more clubs to check out. Before everyone left, though, we realized Ryan was missing.
The place was closing down, so there wasn’t much noise at all. What we did hear, however, was the sound of two hand-drums being played. Following the sound, we found Ryan cradling a drum between his knees and jamming right next to the drummer from the band. They sounded great. It was completely improvised, but they really had a rhythm.
On the way out Ryan and I chatted with the workers and basically secured the opportunity to come back and actually play for the club. He gave him one of his CDs and as we all walked out of the club Ryan’s one-man-band Cronkite Satelite blared out into the Tianjin city streets as the girl played it over their system.
Once the others left, Ryan and I followed the directions to a place called Helen’s, a restaurant by day and bar by night.
After taking an elevator to the third floor, we grabbed a table and ordered some food, taking in the crowd of dancers and diners. Once again, a large Sri Lankan presence could be seen, but this time things didn’t stay harmonious for long. About thirty minutes later, our conversation got interrupted as some of the sober Sri Lankans tried to help drunk ones to their tables. A Chinese guy got in the way, and then got decked, hard–twice. He sort of stood there a minute without doing much, but after his lady friend and his buddy checked on him he seemed to realize he needed to do something to exert his awesome manness. He went crazy.
Chinese and Sri Lankan alike duked it out in the restaurant while the staff and other hungry folks just ignored them—for like 15 minutes. Eventually, the Sri Lankans left, and the Chinese guy who got clocked settled. For a minute. At one point he tried to use a beer bottle as a club, but his group took it away. Somehow he managed to convince his table he had calmed enough to go out for a smoke.
About this time Ryan and I decided the show was over and also thought calling it a night sounded good. As we walked out of the building hollering and screaming reached our ears. Sure enough, the fight had migrated to the street. This time the swings were more furious and the rage a bit more entertaining. We watched a while, but when the cops showed we grabbed the nearest cab.
In China, the cops like to just collect anyone and everyone at a fight scene, even the gawkers. Often a fee exchanges hands before anyone can leave the police station. We avoided that.
The morning came quickly, and another teacher and I were on the same flight back, so we grabbed a cab and hung out till boarding time. Xiao Ming met us in Dalian, and drove us back, concluding our weekend away.
Although not a traditional tourist city, Tianjin proved a good place just to visit and get to know some of my coworkers. I’m sure we’ll go back again at some point, or maybe to another nearby city.